Radiation Exposure in the Workplace

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed: February 10, 2020

People in certain professions may be at increased risk for cancer due to radiation exposure in their workplace. These professions include medical radiology technicians, aircrews, radium dial luminisers, underground hard-rock miners, Chernobyl and Fukushima clean-up workers, nuclear weapons test participants, and nuclear industry workers. While you cannot change past radiation exposure, you may be able to protect yourself going forward. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration has established guidelines about occupational exposures and steps in place to protect workers. In addition, let your healthcare provider know about past exposure so that appropriate screening tests can be done to either decrease the risk of developing cancer or detect cancer at an early stage.

  • Radiologists and medical radiologic technicians, who were working prior to 1950, are at a higher risk of developing cancer as a result of occupational exposure to radiation. The most common cancers seen in this group are leukemia, breast cancer and skin cancers (typically squamous cell skin cancers). Studies focusing on medical radiation workers since the 1960s do not show an increased risk of cancer. This is possibly due to increased safety practices, including better shielding, protection, and monitoring.
  • In the first half of the 20th century, radium chemists and dial luminisers may have unknowingly been exposed to large amounts of radium and radium-based paint. These workers are at higher risk of developing bone cancer (sarcoma) and possibly cancer of the breast and/or sinuses.
  • Underground hard-rock miners are exposed to and inhale large quantities of radon, increasing their risk for developing lung cancer. In addition, these workers are exposed to diesel exhaust, which can also raise the risk of lung cancer.
  • Due to the reduced shielding by the atmosphere, aircrews (flight attendants and pilots) are exposed to higher levels of cosmic radiation and appear to be at increased risk for developing skin cancers. This risk appears to be twice that of their non-aircrew peers. One study found that 1 hour in the cockpit exposed the person to the same amount of ultraviolet A (UVA) waves as 20 minutes in a tanning booth.
  • Chernobyl and Fukushima clean-up workers, nuclear weapons test participants, and nuclear industry workers appear to be at an increased risk for leukemia and thyroid cancer.

References

Boice Jr, J. D. (2017). From Chernobyl to Fukushima and beyond—a focus on thyroid cancer. In Thyroid Cancer and Nuclear Accidents: Long-Term Aftereffects of Chernobyl and Fukushima (pp. 21-32). Academic Press.

Field, R. W., & Withers, B. L. (2012). Occupational and environmental causes of lung cancer. Clinics in chest medicine, 33(4), 681-703.

Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study :https://www.fahealth.org/harvard-study-3/

McNeely, E., Mordukhovich, I., Staffa, S., Tideman, S., Gale, S., & Coull, B. (2018). Cancer prevalence among flight attendants compared to the general population. Environmental Health17(1), 49.

Occupational and Safety Health Administration: Workers Information.

Sanlorenzo, M., Wehner, M. R., Linos, E., Kornak, J., Kainz, W., Posch, C., ... & McGrath, J. T. (2015). The risk of melanoma in airline pilots and cabin crew: a meta-analysis. JAMA dermatology, 151(1), 51-58.

Sanlorenzo, M., Vujic, I., Posch, C., Cleaver, J. E., Quaglino, P., & Ortiz-Urda, S. (2015). The risk of melanoma in pilots and cabin crew: UV measurements in flying airplanes. JAMA dermatology, 151(4), 450-452.

World Health Organization: Ionizing Radiation.

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