5 Causes of Lung Cancer in the Workplace (Smoking Excluded)

I use the term “cause” as an analog of “increase risk” as a tip of the hat to the difference between language found in medical and scientific literature and language that we non-science background types typically. Science rarely deals in absolutes. And because we are all made differently, science cannot say with 100% certainty that most industrial pollutants “will cause” a cancer in a certain people, only that there is a certain likelihood that a disease or injury will occur. Otherwise stated, science can help determine “risk” associated with pollutant for developing a disease. And with that said, here are your 5 lung cancer baddies:

1. Asbestos

As covered in previous blog posts, it has been known/knowable since the 1930s that asbestos can cause lung cancer. The asbestos industry did not necessarily get the information out to the public on this point—in fact they actively suppressed this knowledge. Be that as it may, asbestos is thought to be the leading cause of occupationally-related lung cancer in the U.S.

So now we know that asbestos is an occupational cause of lung cancer; which workplaces to we mean? To name a few, workers who worked with the following products:

  • Drywall and joint compound
  • Plaster
  • Gas mask filters pre 1960s
  • Mud and texture coats
  • Vinyl floor tiles, sheeting, adhesives
  • Roofing tars, felts, siding, and shingles[33]
  • “Transite” panels, siding, countertops, and pipes
  • Popcorn ceilings, also known as acoustic ceilings
  • Fireproofing
  • Caulk
  • Industrial and Marine Gaskets, including those made by Garlock Sealing Technologies
  • Packing, a system for sealing a rotating shaft
  • Brake pads and shoes
  • Stage curtains
  • Fire blankets
  • Interior fire doors
  • Fireproof clothing for firefighters
  • Thermal pipe insulation
  • Filters for removing fine particulates from chemicals, liquids and wine
  • HVAC flexible duct connectors
  • Drilling fluid additives​

Another question which typically arises is: how much exposure to asbestos do I need to be at greatly increased risk for lung cancer? There is no clear answer for reasons a and b below:

a. Cigarette smoking together with asbestos exposure can have an additive or even multiplicative effect on the risk of developing lung cancer; and

b. Every individual has a different level of susceptibility to developing a particular type of cancer.

However, one bit if information is important in knowing where risk occurs: asbestos-induced lung cancer is a dose-responsive disease. This means that a greater exposure carries greater risk. For these reasons—stay away from asbestos.

2. Arsenic

Arsenic was first listed in the “First Annual Reports on Carcinogens” in 1980, although knowledge of its hazards dates back well before then. In addition to lung cancer, arsenic is known to cause cancer of the skin, digestive tract, liver, urinary bladder, kidney, and the lymphatic and hematopoietic systems.

In what types of occupations do we see exposure to arsenic?

  • Mining operations
  • Copper smelting
  • Agricultural-related pesticide
  • Wood preservation processes
  • Glass manufacture
  • Drinking water in areas where arsenic-based pesticide use occurs.
  • Solar cell manufacture
  • Nonferrous alloys (lead, brass, etc.)
  • Degraded poultry litter (through arsenic’s use as an anti-microbial agent in poultry feed)
  • Electronic equipment manufacture and semiconductor applications

3. Diesel Exhaust

In 2012, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reclassified diesel exhaust from a probable to a known human carcinogen. The U.S. Center for Disease Control has not yet changed its designation of diesel exhaust from the “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” designation, but discussions are ongoing as to that.


In what occupations do we see exposure to diesel exhaust fumes?

  • Mining operations
  • Garage-station attendants
  • Diesel truck operators

4. Silica

Silica has been a known occupational hazard for over a century. Sometimes referred to as “sand”, crystalline silica has been listed as “a reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” since 1991 and reclassified as a “known human carcinogen” since 2000 in the U.S. Report on Carcinogens. Importantly, silica also causes a condition known as “silicosis”, which is a debilitating chronic lung disease for which there is no known cure.

In what occupations do we see exposure to silica?

  • Quarry and granite work
  • Ceramic and pottery work
  • Sculpting and carving
  • Sandblasting
  • Industrial and Marine cleaning applications
  • Construction
  • Crushed-stone related industries
  • Nonmetallic milling industries
  • Refractory brick and diatomaceous earth industries

5. Chromium

Chromium Hexavalent (“Chrome 6” as many refer to it) has been listed as a “known human carcinogen” since the First Annual Report on Carcinogens in 1980, and IARC concluded there was sufficient evidence of human carcinogenicity in 1979.

Of all agents known to cause lung cancer listed above, Chromium is likely the one with the largest modern-day exposure. The steel industry is THE major user of chromium in the U.S. The NIH estimates that consumption of chromium was 78% in stainless and heat-resistant steel, 13.8% for other steel uses, 3.7% in superalloys, and 4.5% in “other” alloys end uses.


The U.S. is one of the, if not THE, world leaders in chromium production. In what occupations do we see exposure to chromium?

  • Steelmaking
  • Leather tanning
  • Wood preservatives (phased out in 2000)
  • Refractory production
  • Pigment production
  • Textile dying production
  • Drilling muds
  • Pyrotechnics
  • Water Treatment
  • Chemical manufacturing