Carcinogens in the Construction Industry

Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences . 2006 Sep;1076:421-8. [Link]

Bengt Järvholma

a Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine, Umeå University, SE-901 85 Umeå, Sweden

Address for correspondence: Bengt Järvholm, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine, Umeå University, NUS, SE-901 85 Umeå, Sweden. Voice: +46-90-785-2241; fax: +46-90-785-2456.  e-mail:


The construction industry is a complex work environment. The work sites are temporary and rapidly changing. Asbestos has been widely used in construction industry, but the risks were primarily detected in specialized trades, such as insulation workers and plumbers. Today, the majority of cases related to asbestos exposure will occur in other occupational groups in the construction industry. In a large cohort of Swedish construction workers, insulators and plumbers constituted 37% of all cases of pleural mesothelioma between 1975 and 1984 while they constituted 21% of the cases between 1998 and 2002. It is estimated that 25–40% of all male cases of pleural mesothelioma in Sweden are caused by asbestos exposure in the construction trades. There are many other known carcinogens occurring in the construction industry, including PAHs, diesel exhausts, silica, asphalt fumes, solvents, etc., but it is difficult to estimate exposures and thus the size of the risk. The risk of cancer is less easy to detect with traditional epidemiological methods in the construction industry than in other industrial sectors. It is not sufficient to rely upon broad epidemiological data to estimate the risk of cancer due chemicals in the construction industry. Thus, a strategy to decrease exposure, e.g., to dust, seems a feasible way to reduce the risk.