In 1990, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified exposure to welding fumes as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” because the fumes contain several known carcinogens (cancer-causing agents). Also, numerous epidemiological studies had indicated that welders had an increased risk of lung cancer.
After that, new studies further solidified the notion that welders and others exposed to welding fumes were experiencing an increased risk of lung cancer.
In 2017, IARC reclassified welding fumes as “carcinogenic to humans.” A recent meta-analysis of the studies published in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine has placed the additional lung cancer risk at 43%.
The meta-analysis involved examining data from 45 existing studies which involved around 17 million participants.
Previously, it had been unclear whether welding fumes were primarily responsible for the increased lung cancer risk since welders are often exposed to asbestos on the job and many also smoke. The researchers also considered studies where the participants had been exposed not only to welding fumes but also to asbestos and cigarette smoke. Even when these other factors were present, the meta-analysis found that exposure to welding fumes increased the lung cancer risk by 17%.
The researchers estimate that, worldwide, an estimated 110 million workers are exposed to welding fumes on the job. This includes welders, people who perform welding sub-tasks, and bystanders who work in an indoor area where welding is performed.
What is in welding fumes and how can the risk be reduced?
The essential process of any type of welding is to heat the metal to its melting point or above. Doing this can cause some of the metal to vaporize and then condense into tiny, solid particles that are airborne. These particles, along with soot, dust and chemical fumes, can damage the lungs and lead to lung cancer.
The exact makeup of the particulates, dust, soot and chemicals in the air around a welder depend in part on what metals are being welded. It also depends on which welding process is being used and the occupational setting.
To limit the damage, companies need to find ways to contain the welding fumes and limit workers’ exposure to them.
“The best way to do this is through the use of local ‘exhaust’ ventilation which carries the fume away from the worker’s breathing zone,” an occupational and environmental health researcher, who wasn’t involved in the study, told Reuters. “Second best is the use of protective masks.”
Is your workplace doing enough to prevent exposure to welding fumes? If you develop lung cancer after welding or working near welders, you may have a valid workers’ compensation claim. Talk to an experienced workers’ comp attorney for an evaluation of your situation.