Background: Several toxicologic and epidemiologic studies have produced evidence that occupational exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) is a risk factor for ischemic heart disease (IHD). However, a clear exposure-response relation has not been demonstrated.
Methods: We studied a relation between exposure to PAH and mortality from IHD (418 cases) in a cohort of 12,367 male asphalt workers from Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, The Netherlands and Norway. The earliest follow up (country-specific) started in 1953 and the latest ended in 2000, averaging 17 years. Exposures to benzo(a)pyrene were assessed quantitatively using measurement-driven exposure models. Exposure to coal tar was assessed in a semiquantitative manner on the basis of information supplied by company representatives. We carried out sensitivity analyses to assess potential confounding by tobacco smoking.
Results: Both cumulative and average exposure indices for benzo(a)pyrene were positively associated with mortality from IHD. The highest relative risk for fatal IHD was observed for average benzo(a)pyrene exposures of 273 ng/m or higher, for which the relative risk was 1.64 (95% confidence interval=1.13-2.38). Similar results were obtained for coal tar exposure. Sensitivity analysis indicated that even in a realistic scenario of confounding by smoking, we would observe approximately 20% to 40% excess risk in IHD in the highest PAH-exposure categories.
Conclusions: Our results lend support to the hypothesis that occupational PAH exposure causes fatal IHD and demonstrate a consistent exposure-response relation for this association.