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.
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).
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.
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.
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 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:
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 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 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 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:
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:
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 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.
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:
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.
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