Cancer and work: Understanding occupational cancers and taking action to eliminate them
The number of new cases of cancer diagnosed each year in the European Union is somewhere in the region of 2.6 million (excluding non-melanomatous skin cancers), while annual cancer-related mortality stands at around 1.3 million. The most fatal forms of cancer are lung cancers for men and breast cancer for women, and cancer has overtaken cardiovascular disease to become the leading cause of death in many European countries. This worrying development highlights the shortcomings of current prevention policies and suggests that the war on cancer will face fierce political opposition as a result of the fundamental questions it raises about our mode of production.
The link between cancer and working conditions has been acknowledged and extensively documented in the scientific literature for more than two centuries, and several hundred carcinogens have been found to be present in workplaces. Levels of exposure to these carcinogens are a major source of social inequalities in health, however, since an individual’s risk of being diagnosed with a work-related cancer varies considerably depending on the position he or she occupies in the social hierarchy; it is much higher for cleaners or construction workers than for managerial staff, for example.