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According to a review published in the Annals of Oncology, occupational exposure to a class of chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons may result in a modestly increased risk of lung or bladder cancer.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a group of chemicals that are formed during the incomplete burning of materials such as coal, oil, gas, wood, or tobacco. [1] Eating grilled or charred meats can also result in exposure to PAHs.

Though there are now limits placed on occupational exposure to PAHs, high levels of exposure have been reported in the past in workers exposed to coke production, coal tar, and other substances.

To summarize the available evidence regarding a link between occupational exposure to PAHs and risk of lung or bladder cancer, researchers reviewed previously published studies.[2] The industries or occupations that were evaluated included aluminum production, coal gasification, coke production, iron and steel foundries, coal tar and related products, carbon black and carbon electrodes production.

  • A modestly increased risk of lung cancer was observed in most of the industries evaluated, although there was no link with aluminum or carbon electrode manufactures. Exposure to coal gasification appeared to carry the largest risk, and was linked with a more than two-fold increased risk of lung cancer. Work in industries such as coke production, iron or steel foundries, or roofing carried a 40% to 60% increased risk of lung cancer.
  • Results for bladder cancer were less consistent. An increased risk of bladder cancer was observed only among workers involved with aluminum production, coal gasification, or iron and steel foundries.
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These results suggest that exposure to PAHs in the workplace may increase the risk of developing lung or bladder cancer. It’s possible, however, that failure to adequately account for smoking or exposure to other chemicals could at least partially explain these findings.


[1] Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry ToxFAQs. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). September 1996. Available at: . Accessed September 18, 2006.

[2] Bosetti C, Boffetta P, La Vecchia C. Occupational Exposure to Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, and Respiratory and Urinary Tract Cancers: A Quantitative Review to 2005. Annals of Oncology. Early online publication August 25, 2006.

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