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Which Workplace Chemicals Raise the Risk for Myeloma?

Posted on December 22, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Mark Levin, M.D.
Article written by
Maureen McNulty

Several different risk factors can increase your chance of developing multiple myeloma. One known risk factor is occupational exposure, which is exposure to chemicals that may be present in your workplace. People who have certain jobs or work with specific toxic chemicals may be more likely to develop multiple myeloma.

Being exposed to these chemicals does not automatically mean you will develop myeloma or any other type of cancer. Most people who work with toxic chemicals will never be diagnosed with cancer. However, if you do have occupational exposure, you may have a higher than average risk.

Chemicals and Cancer

Cancer develops when genes undergo changes that make a cell behave abnormally. Cancer cells grow too quickly, resist death, and have a hard time healing damage.

In the case of multiple myeloma, plasma cells (a type of white blood cell located in your spongy bone marrow tissue) develop gene mutations. The cancerous myeloma cells form tumors in your bones and make it harder for your body to produce normal blood cells.

Cancer risk factors — like exposure to chemicals — increase the chances that a cell’s genes will mutate. While some chemicals are harmless, others are carcinogens (substances that can damage a normal cell and cause it to turn cancerous).

Types of Chemicals That Could Increase Risk

Cancer research studies have identified a link between myeloma and several different types of chemicals. People who have been exposed to high levels of these substances may have a higher risk of multiple myeloma.

Pesticides

People who work on farms are nearly 1.8 times more likely to develop myeloma. Researchers believe that this may be due to pesticides — chemicals used to kill plant or animal pests.

Pesticides include:

  • Herbicides — Chemicals that kill weeds and other types of unwanted plants
  • Fungicides — Chemicals that get rid of mildew and mold
  • Insecticide — Chemicals that kill bugs
  • Rodenticide or rat poison — Chemicals that get rid of rats and mice

Studies show that pesticide exposure over a prolonged period of time may lead to an elevated risk of myeloma. People who have more limited contact with pesticides may have a lower risk.

Agent Orange

Agent Orange is a type of herbicide. In the Vietnam War, the U.S. military sprayed large amounts of Agent Orange to get rid of crops and trees.

Many veterans who served in this war came into contact with Agent Orange by breathing it in, touching it, or consuming foods and beverages that were contaminated with it. Agent Orange has been linked to several types of cancer, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), Hodgkin lymphoma, and soft tissue sarcoma, as well as myeloma.

Agent Orange exposure can lead to plasma cell disorders, including monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS). MGUS is a precancerous condition in which your plasma cells develop abnormalities and produce high levels of the (abnormal) M protein.

In one study, researchers found these links between Agent Orange and MGUS:

  • About 7 percent of Vietnam veterans who worked directly with Agent Orange developed MGUS
  • About 3 percent of Vietnam veterans who didn’t work with Agent Orange developed MGUS

MGUS can eventually turn into multiple myeloma. About 1 percent of people with MGUS are diagnosed with myeloma each year. However, those with MGUS who have been exposed to Agent Orange are more than 11 times more likely to develop myeloma.

If you are a veteran who served in Vietnam (or in other locations where the herbicide was used, including Korea or Thailand), you can receive certain benefits. The Agent Orange Registry provides no-cost exams and testing for people who were exposed. Additionally, the U.S. government provides disability payments for veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange who develop certain cancer types, including myeloma.

Glyphosate

Glyphosate is the most common herbicide used in the U.S. It is found in common weed control products such as Roundup. Farms often use Roundup to kill weeds that grow around crops, and around genetically modified crops in particular.

Some studies in humans and in mice have found that glyphosate exposure can lead to a higher chance of developing multiple myeloma. However, other research disagrees. In those studies, people who were exposed to glyphosate developed myeloma at similar rates compared to people in the general population. Experts don’t currently agree on whether glyphosate is a myeloma risk factor.

Benzene

Benzene is a very common chemical used for manufacturing. It is often involved in producing products like plastics, detergents, dyes, and drugs. This chemical is a clear or light yellow liquid that smells sweet.

Benzene is also created during certain natural events like forest fires. And it is found in cigarette smoke, crude oil, and vehicle exhaust, too.

Benzene is considered to be a risk factor for several different types of blood cancers, including acute myeloid leukemia (AML), acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), and NHL.

Researchers have also linked benzene exposure to multiple myeloma. People who work with benzene are more than twice as likely to develop this cancer than people in the general population.

Chlorinated Solvents

Chlorinated solvents are a group of chemicals that all contain chlorine. They may be used to make plastics, perfumes, and lacquers and are often used to clean metals.

Researchers have found that myeloma is more likely in people who come into contact with chlorinated solvents such as:

  • 1,1,1-trichloroethane (TCA)
  • Trichloroethylene (TCE)
  • Methylene chloride (DCM)
  • Perchloroethylene (PCE)

Jobs That Increase Myeloma Risk

People who work in industries that use the above chemicals develop myeloma at higher rates compared with people who work in jobs that don’t involve these substances. Several studies have found that certain jobs may lead to a higher myeloma risk:

  • Farmers, gardeners, and nursery workers
  • Forestry workers
  • Chemical plant workers
  • People who work with crude oil
  • Gas station employees
  • Workers in the rubber industry
  • People who work at places that make plastics, shoes, dyes, detergents, lubricants, drugs, or pesticides
  • Steel and metal workers
  • Stone cutters and carvers
  • Woodworkers or furniture makers
  • Printers and people who work at companies that make paper
  • Cleaners
  • Laboratory technicians
  • Firefighters
  • Bakers and pastry cooks
  • Dental technicians

Preventing Multiple Myeloma

If you work with chemicals, make sure to take precautions in order to reduce your exposure. Follow proper occupational safety procedures and use personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent chemicals from coming into contact with your skin, and to minimize the amount of chemical vapors you breathe in.

Cancer Screening

Cancer screening tests aim to identify early signs of cancer in people who may not yet have developed symptoms. However, doctors usually don’t screen for multiple myeloma, partially because it is rare, even for people who have myeloma risk factors.

Knowing the Symptoms of Multiple Myeloma

Keeping an eye out for myeloma symptoms may help you detect this cancer early. Inform your doctor about any chemical exposure or other myeloma risk factors that you may have. And tell them if you are experiencing any possible health changes or symptoms that are related to myeloma.

Myeloma symptoms may include:

  • Bone pain, or pain in the spine or chest
  • Frequent broken bones
  • Weakness in the limbs
  • Breathing problems
  • Tiredness
  • Fever
  • Frequent infections
  • Bleeding problems
  • Developing bruises easily

Talk With Others Who Understand

On MyMyelomaTeam, the social network for people with multiple myeloma and their loved ones, 14,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with myeloma.

Are you worried about health risks related to workplace chemicals? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

References
  1. Multiple Myeloma: Risk Factors — American Society of Clinical Oncology
  2. The Genetics of Cancer — National Cancer Institute
  3. Multiple Myeloma: Symptoms and Causes — Mayo Clinic
  4. Carcinogen — National Human Genome Research Institute
  5. Multiple Myeloma and Lifetime Occupation: Results From the EPILYMPH Study — Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology
  6. Agent Orange Exposure and Monoclonal Gammopathy of Undetermined Significance: A Ranch Hand Veteran Cohort Study — JAMA Oncology
  7. Agent Orange and Cancer Risk — American Cancer Society
  8. What Are MGUS, Smoldering Multiple Myeloma, and Active Myeloma? — International Myeloma Foundation
  9. Effect of Exposure to Agent Orange on the Risk of Monoclonal Gammopathy and Subsequent Transformation to Multiple Myeloma: A Single-Center Experience From the Veterans Affairs Hospital, Detroit — Clinical Lymphoma, Myeloma, Leukemia
  10. Toxic Exposures Unleashed — International Myeloma Foundation
  11. Glyphosate Induces Benign Monoclonal Gammopathy and Promotes Multiple Myeloma Progression in Mice — Journal of Hematology and Oncology
  12. Exposure to Glyphosate and Risk of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and Multiple Myeloma: An Updated Meta-Analysis — La Medicina del Lavoro
  13. Benzene and Cancer Risk — American Cancer Society
  14. A Brief Review of Relationship Between Occupational Benzene Exposure and Hematopoietic Cancer — Annals of Occupational and Environmental Medicine
  15. Chlorinated Solvents in Groundwater — Government of South Australia
  16. The Relationship Between Multiple Myeloma and Occupational Exposure to Six Chlorinated Solvents — Occupational and Environmental Medicine
  17. Occupation, Exposure to Chemicals, Sensitizing Agents, and Risk of Multiple Myeloma in Sweden — Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention
  18. American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Early Detection of Cancer — American Cancer Society
  19. Multiple Myeloma Screening — Moffitt Cancer Center
  20. Plasma Cell Neoplasms (Including Multiple Myeloma) Treatment (PDQ)-Patient Version — National Cancer Institute
All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Mark Levin, M.D. is a hematology and oncology specialist with over 37 years of experience in internal medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Maureen McNulty studied molecular genetics and English at Ohio State University. Learn more about her here.

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