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What is an acceptable risk of cancer due to occupational exposure to a carcinogen?

Dankovic DA; Whittaker C
Toxicologist 2015 Mar; 144(1):408
It is widely accepted that there is no completely "safe" dose of a genotoxic carcinogen, and that there is some excess risk of developing cancer from any non-zero exposure. The excess risk from low exposures may be vanishingly small, but it is generally presumed to be greater than zero. Since it is not feasible to totally eliminate all exposures to suspect carcinogens in the workplace, some target or acceptable risk level is needed for purposes of establishing occupational exposure limits for carcinogens. Target risk levels for carcinogen exposures in the general population are usually set quite low, in the range of 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 1,000,000 lifetime excess risk. In the occupational setting, the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court "benzene" decision implied that a 1 in 1000 lifetime excess risk is a significant risk, while a 1 in 1 billion risk is not. The Court noted that it is the responsibility of the relevant government agency to determine what it considers to be a "significant" risk. A review of international policies for developing occupational exposure limits for carcinogens reveals a range of acceptable lifetime excess risks of up to 4 in 1000 (Netherlands) to 1 in 100,000 (Sweden). By comparison, the lifetime fatality rates in occupations generally thought of as low risk, such as the wholesale and retail trade sector and the services sector, has been reported to be in the range of 1-2 per 1000 workers. Taken together, these data suggest that lifetime excess cancer risks in the range of 1 in 100,000 to perhaps 1 in 1000 may be acceptable in the occupational setting.
Toxicology; Risk-analysis; Risk-factors; Exposure-assessment; Occupational-exposure; Carcinogens; Employee-exposure; Cancer; Genotoxicity; Exposure-levels; Exposure-limits; Lifespan; Decision-making
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The Toxicologist. Society of Toxicology 54th Annual Meeting and ToxExpo, March 22-26, 2015, San Diego, California
Page last reviewed: May 11, 2023
Content source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Education and Information Division