Carcinogenic substances in the workplace - Occupational carcinogens in the workplace

Carcinogenic substances in the workplace

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Carcinogenic substances in the workplace

Studies estimate more than 700,000 deaths worldwide due to occupational cancer per year 1,2.

The culprits are carcinogens: A variety of substances that may cause cancer after exposure. The good news is that cancer from occupational carcinogens is avoidable. In recent decades safety regulations and workplace limit values for carcinogenic substances have become ever stricter for occupations involving carcinogens. This is a growing challenge for companies worldwide, but precise measuring techniques, intelligent measuring strategies and suitable protection solutions can help them overcome it – even cost-effectively.

Occupational carcinogens - cancer worldwide

Occupational cancer is more common than previously thought

Epidemiological studies indicate that occupational carcinogens exposures cause between 5.3 and 8.4 percent of all cancers worldwide 3. In the EU, over 120,000 people are diagnosed with cancer, caused by past exposure to carcinogens in the workplace, per year 4.

carcinogens in the workplace

Learn more about carcinogenic substances at work

How are substances classified as carcinogenic? How do different chemical carcinogenic agents act in the human body? And how effective is lowering limit values for carcinogens in the workplace? This e-book helps as a starting point, by introducing you into the world of cancer-causing chemicals, showing some of the most frequently used carcinogens in the workplace in the chemical industry and providing an overview to different measuring approaches and suitable protective equipment.

Workplace exposure scenarios

Opening flaps and valves and connecting hoses

Opening flaps and valves and connecting hoses is the most dangerous step in loading and decanting operations as hazardous carcinogenic substances can be released.

Display in hazardous areas

When workers need to check device displays in hazardous areas, they may be exposed to toxic or carcinogenic substances above the occupational exposure limits.

Clearance measurement of carcinogenic toxic gases

Sudden increases of carcinogenic toxic gases in confined spaces can put workers at risk.

Storage room with a fixed gas detection system

Unintentional leakage of carcinogens is never excluded in storage rooms.

Working with hazardous carcinogenic substance in research lab

Working with hazardous carcinogenic substance in research labs can lead to short-term excess exposure.

The risk of exposure to carcinogens

Carcinogens may enter the body through inhalation or exposure to skin and can spread to different organs by way of the bloodstream. Once carcinogenic substances enter the body they can damage or alter the DNA of cells, the way cells work or they can replicate — all of which may lead to cancer. Whilst everybody encounters possible carcinogens in their daily life (like UV radiation or car exhaust), occupational exposure to chemical carcinogenic agents poses a higher risk of cancer development.  

carcinogenic substances - the clock is ticking

The clock is ticking

Every second of reduced exposure to occupational carcinogens could mean an investment in a life. However, many work-induced illnesses through exposure to carcinogens appear after long delays and are therefore only able to be diagnosed later.

Typical carcinogenic substances in the chemical and petrochemical industry

Benzene, ethylene oxide, 1,3-butadiene, acrylonitrile: Despite all technical progress, the use of some types of carcinogens is indispensable in the production of some products. Inform yourself on the efficient measurement strategies and protection from carcinogens.


Facts on 1,3-Butadiene

1,3-Butadiene is a colourless gas with a mild aromatic or gasoline-like odour. In the chemicals industry, 1,3-butadiene is primarily used to manufacture mineral oil products, synthetic rubber and other rubber goods. As it is heavier than air, 1,3-butadiene accumulates at floor level. If inhaled in large doses it has a narcotic effect. Explosive compounds form in the presence of air.


Facts on Acrylonitrile

Acrylonitrile is a colorless liquid with a pungent odor. It is utilized in the manufacturing of dissolver, emulsifier and adhesive, but it is mainly used in the production of plastics. Acrylonitrile is a carcinogenic substance with acutely toxic effects since it can form deadly cyanide. In contact with substances like bromine, chlorine or strong bases, there is also risk of explosion.


Facts on Benzene

Benzene is a colorless liquid with a characteristic odor. When exposed to air it quickly evaporates. The chemical and pharmaceutical industries use it primarily as solvent and as a starting material or intermediate in the production of plastics, lubricants, rubbers, drugs and others. Benzene is a natural component of crude oil and gasoline. Benzene is a hazardous carcinogen that is subject to very strict workplace thresholds.


Facts on Epichlorohydrin

Epichlorohydrin is a clear colorless liquid with an irritating, chloroform-like odor. It is used to manufacture epoxy resins, elastomers, and synthetic glycerin. It is also used in the manufacture of other chemicals, insecticides, coatings, adhesives, and as a solvent in the rubber industry. Epichlorohydrin is a flammable liquid that is highly volatile. When heated above its flash point, its vapors may cause explosive reactions when combined with air.

Ethylene oxide

Facts on Ethylene oxide

Ethylene oxide is a gaseous, colourless substance that smells like ether at toxic levels. It is used in the manufacture of antifreeze, textiles, solvents, adhesives and pharmaceuticals. A primary use of ethylene oxide is as a chemical intermediate in the manufacture of ethylene glycol. More than 40,000 workers in the European Union have potentially been exposed to ethylene oxide. Ethylene oxide is extremely flammable, chemically unstable and may react explosively in the presence of an ignition source, even without oxygen.


Facts on Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is gaseous, colourless and has a pungent odour. It is often found in water-based solutions. Formaldehyde is used in the manufacture of a wide variety of products like chemicals, glues, fibreboard adhesives and sealants, coating products, polymers and laboratory chemicals. Formaldehyde is toxic in contact with skin and can cause severe skin burns and eye damage. It is toxic if inhaled, may cause cancer and is suspected of causing genetic defects.


Facts on Mercury

Mercury, also known as quicksilver, is a silver shining, odourless liquid. It is a naturally occurring element, found in water, air, and soil. Mercury is contained in many products such as batteries, thermometers, electric switches, dental amalgam, pharmaceuticals and lamps. The WHO considers mercury as one of the top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals of major public health concern. Due to its toxicity, mercury must be handled with extreme care at the workplace.

Vinyl chloride

Facts on Vinyl chloride

Vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) is a gaseous, colourless substance with a sweetish odour. It is mainly produced to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products like pipes, wires, and packaging materials. Vinyl chloride (VC) does not occur naturally and must be industrially manufactured for its commercial uses. VCM is an extremely flammable gas, that forms explosive mixtures with air. It is heavier than air and chemically unstable at increased temperatures. Exposure to vinyl chloride poses the risk of acute or chronic health hazards.

Common carcinogens and VOCs

Common carcinogens in the workplace

View profiles of cancer-causing chemicals, including benzene, formaldehyde and ethylene oxide. Find out about most import facts and hazards of 8 important carcinogens.

Download facts on carcinogens

Lower exposure limits for carcinogenic substances – a growing challenge

If exposure limits for specific common carcinogens are lowered, this often has far-reaching consequences for industry. Chemical carcinogenic agents pose special challenges as companies have to prove that they maintain low limit values and, in the long term, document this compliance. Limit value reductions always have an economic effect on employers as previous measurement methods and devices are not always suitable due to their limited measurement range. Innovative technologies and a risk-acceptance concept help manage these risks.

Each reduction of workplace exposure limits elicits new decisions and actions in companies, for example:

  • revising danger assessments, work instructions, and permission certificates
  • changing over to less hazardous substances
  • reorganisation of workplaces
  • checking occupational health prevention programs
  • reallocation of shift lengths and plans
  • adjustment of workplace control mechanisms and routines
  • investment in new measuring devices and strategies
Risk acceptance concept

Risk minimization for carcinogenic substances

For some carcinogens, there are normally no definable maximum limits that would completely exclude any health impairment if they are not exceeded. However, because activities involving carcinogens in the workplace frequently cannot be avoided, special protective measures apply across the EU. The safety concept for these workplaces is derived from the German “risk acceptance concept”, which is a traffic light model. This differentiates between a high (red), medium (yellow), and low risk (green).

Roadmap on carcinogens

EU initiative against work-related chemical carcinogens and cancer

Protecting workers against contact with occupational carcinogens is crucially important. The solution: substitution where feasible, the best possible prevention, and the most comprehensive personal protection available. The EU initiative “Roadmap on carcinogens” intends to familiarise industry with the issue, as well as gather and share effective solutions.

Measurement strategies for known carcinogens

Employees must be protected as effectively as possible against chemical carcinogens and cancer risk factors. This can be done cost-efficiently by using an intelligent measuring strategy and precise measuring technologies. The challenge lies in devising a measurement technique that can be performed in the field. It requires features such as “usable in EX areas”, “usable by gas analysts” and “simple functional check by the user”.

Benzene measurement strategies

Precise measurement of benzene is crucial to worker safety – find out the best strategies for monitoring potential exposure of this common carcinogen.

Measuring butadiene, ethylene oxide carcinogen and acrylonitrile

Find out the best methods for detecting, measuring and monitoring VOCs to ensure occupational safety for workers.

Monitor potential exposure to occupational carcinogens with Dräger X-pid® 9000/9500

Exposure to carcinogenic substances is a long-term hazard. Companies are obliged to document in detail the work performed, the number of their employees exposed plus any contractors, and the measurement results. Data records of all personal exposure levels to workplace carcinogens throughout an employee’s professional life need to be administrated. New, innovative web-based technologies make data management easier than ever before.


Däger X-act® 7000 - The takeaway lab

Detecting carcinogenic subtances in lowest concentrations and measuring them precisely is a major challenge. A Dräger Product Manager explains in an interview how an innovative measuring solution opens up new possibilities for customers’ measurement strategies.

Download interview

Find the right products for measuring chemical carcinogens

The 1 to 7 gas detector Dräger X-am® 8000 detects toxic and flammable gases as well as vapours and oxygen all at once – either in pump or diffusion mode. For benzene-specific measurements, the X-am 8000 can be used with a pre-tube. The selective PID gas measurement device Dräger X-pid® 9000/9500 is ideal for users who frequently test for hazardous carcinogenic substances like benzene, butadiene and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) even in the smallest concentrations.


Dräger X-pid® 9000/9500


Dräger X-act® 7000


Dräger X-am® 8000

Well protected against carcinogenic substances

If it is obvious that exposure to carcinogens in the workplace is unavoidable despite all precautionary measures, then personal protective equipment (PPE) must be used. Chemical-resistant protective clothing prevents vapours and particles from being absorbed through the skin. Respiratory protection equipment and filters protect the lungs from toxins.

chemical protection suits

Select the right protective suit

10 things you need to know about chemical protection suits. Select the right protective suit against exposure to carcinogens.

Download e-book

Find the right products for protecting against carcinogenic substances

Powered air purifying respirators

Powered air purifying respirators

Respiratory Masks

Respiratory Masks

Protective suits

Protective suits

Gas measurement with Dräger X-am® 8000

More about benzene

Benzene is one of the most common carcinogens in the process industry. Learn more how to handle it safely.

Get in touch with Dräger

Draeger Envelop

Draeger Arabia & Co. Ltd

P.O. Box 31787
Al-Khobar 31952 Kingdom of Saudi Arabia 

+966 11 5102636

Not all products, features, or services are for sale in all countries. Please contact your local Dräger representative for more information.


1 Hämäläinen P, Takala J, Saarela KL. Global estimates of fatal work-related diseases. Am J Ind Med. 2007;50(1):28‐41.
Global Estimates of Occupational Accidents and Work-Related Illnesses 2017

2 Number of deaths by cause. (n.d.). Retrieved 6 May, 2020,

3 Furuya S, Chimed-Ochir O, Takahashi K, David A, Takala J. Global Asbestos Disaster. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018;15(5):1000. Published 2018 May 16. doi:10.3390/ijerph15051000 

4 National Institute for Public Health and the Environment. (n.d.). Work-related cancer in the European Union. Retrieved from