Page Last modified 28 Jun 2022
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Many chemicals in the environment and the workplaces are known or suspected carcinogens. Some can cause cancer in various target organs. While we have estimates for some substances, we are not certain about the overall contribution of chemical carcinogens to the burden of cancer in Europeans. Many chemicals on the market and in the environment have not undergone exhaustive carcinogenicity testing, and significant knowledge gaps remain on the potential carcinogenic effects of low levels of exposure to combinations of chemicals throughout our lifetime.

Chemicals and cancer

Many of the chemicals used in European workplaces and/or released to the environment have carcinogenic properties and contribute to the cancer burden (EU-OSHA, 2014; Espina et al., 2015). For example, from the priority list of 16 groups of commonly used hazardous substances in the European Human Biomonitoring Initiative (HBM4EU) (HBM4EU, 2022), in which the EEA participated), six groups of substances (anilines, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mycotoxins and PAHs) include known or presumed carcinogens as set out in the EU Classification, Labelling and Packaging (CLP) Regulation and by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Many more groups of substances on the list include deemed presumed or suspected carcinogens by European authorities. These include acrylamide and some aprotic solvents, benzophenones, flame retardants, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and pesticides. Benzene, formaldehyde and silica dust, which are used widely, are not on this list but are associated with leukaemia and lung cancer, respectively (Couespel and Price, 2020). Several chemicals are known or suspected to induce cancer in multiple organs (see Figure 2).

The HBM4EU priority list is just a small sample of the wide variety of toxic substances with carcinogenic properties found in the environment and the workplace. We are not certain about the overall contribution of chemical carcinogens to the burden of cancer in Europeans. Many chemicals on the market and in the environment have not undergone exhaustive carcinogenicity testing, and significant knowledge gaps remain on the potential carcinogenic effects of low levels of exposure to combinations of chemicals throughout our lifetime (Goodson et al., 2015).

Figure 2. Target organs of selected known or suspected chemical carcinogens 

Note: BPA, bisphenol A.
Source: Compiled from the HBM4EU priority substances scoping documents (HBM4EU, 2022).

Trends in exposure to chemical carcinogens in Europe

In 2020, over 34 million tonnes of carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic chemicals were produced and consumed in the EU; this amount has not decreased significantly in the last decade (Eurostat, 2021). Exposure to carcinogenic chemicals comes from multiple sources and pathways, including outdoor and indoor air pollution, smoking, either directly or second hand, consumer products, drinking water and food, and in relation to several occupations. According to the European Working Conditions Survey 2015 (Eurofound, 2015), 17% of EU workers that year were exposed to chemical products or substances for at least a quarter of the time at work (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Self-reported share of time exposed to chemicals at work

Source: Eurofound (2021).

In fact, a significant proportion of exposure to carcinogens, including chemicals, in Europe happens in occupational settings (see Box 1). The most common workplace carcinogens are generated when carrying out specific tasks or applying specific technologies (cutting stone, grinding or cutting wood, welding, processing metal products, combustion, etc.) rather than substances that are marketed or used as such. For these process-generated workplace carcinogens, exposure is mainly reduced through prevention measures such as local exhaust ventilation.

Box 1. Occupational cancers

Exposure to a wide variety of substances causing or contributing to cancer happens in the workplace or in relation to certain occupations. Apart from carcinogenic chemicals, UV radiation and asbestos, occupational exposure to metals, dusts, ionising radiation, stress and other factors related to work organisation and working conditions have also been linked to cancer. About 120,000 cancer cases and at least 80,000 related fatalities (over 92,000 according to some estimates (GBD 2016 Occupational Carcinogens Collaborators, 2020)) occur each year as a result of exposure to carcinogens at work in the EU (EU-OSHA, 2022).

Over 50% of all work-related deaths in the EU are due to cancer, as are around 4% of all cancer cases. This share is much higher for specific types of cancer, such as lung cancer or mesothelioma, most cases of which are related to exposure to asbestos at work. A significant proportion (over 40%) of people that get cancer due to exposure to carcinogenic substances at work are diagnosed with lung cancer, a type of cancer with low survival rates (Jongeneel et al., 2016). Moreover, the higher risk of cancer associated with occupational carcinogens may not be limited to the workplace but may potentially also affect exposed workers’ families or communities near carcinogen-using industries. In addition, most confirmed occupational carcinogens can also be found in the general environment and in some cases in residential settings (e.g. asbestos).

For a fuller overview, please see EU-OSHA (2022) and Kuhl and Lisser (2022).


What the EU is doing about chemical carcinogens

The EU has a wide variety of policies, mechanisms and bodies intended to address the risks associated with chemicals in products and chemical mixtures, including carcinogens. The Regulation on the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals (REACH Regulation) aims to improve the protection of human health and the environment from the risks posed by chemicals. Under the REACH Regulation, companies manufacturing and marketing hazardous (including carcinogenic) substances in the EU must demonstrate to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) how the substance can be safely used and provide risk management measures for users. A generic ban applies to all substances classified as carcinogens, which cannot be sold as substances or mixtures (above relevant concentrations) to the general public.

The EU chemicals strategy for sustainability aims to protect citizens and the environment from toxic chemicals. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) routinely carries out risk assessments on a wide range of substances, including carcinogens, in the food chain. And the farm to fork strategy intends to address the challenges of sustainability in food systems, including reducing the risks to human health and the environment from exposure to chemical pesticides and substances used in food manufacturing, including potential or likely carcinogens.

With regard to workers’ health and safety, EU Directive 2004/37/EC protects workers from the risks related to exposure to carcinogens or mutagens at work. This directive is continuously updated by setting new or updating existing occupational exposure limits (OELs) and other provisions. Many known and suspected carcinogens have safety data sheets and labels describing the hazards associated with their use[1]. In addition, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) is carrying out a workers’ exposure survey on cancer risk factors in Europe to better identify occupational exposure to a number of cancer risk factors, including asbestos, benzene, chromium, diesel exhaust, nickel, silica dust, UVR and wood dust. With the European Code against Cancer, the Commission aims to raise awareness among individual workers to protect themselves against cancer-causing substances by following health and safety instructions.


[1]Only carcinogens that are marketed can be covered by safety data sheets — but not carcinogens generated during work processes.


Couespel, N. and Price, R., 2020,Strengthening Europe in the fight against cancer, European Parliament, Policy Department of Life Policies (

Espina, C., et al., 2015, ‘European Code against Cancer 4th edition: Environment, occupation and cancer’,Cancer Epidemiology39 Suppl 1, pp. S84-92 (DOI: 10.1016/j.canep.2015.03.017).

EU-OSHA, 2014,Exposure to carcinogens and work-related cancer: a review of assessment method. European Risk Observatory executive summary, European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Bilbao, Spain.

EU-OSHA, 2022, ‘Work-related cancer’, European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (

Eurofound, 2015,Sixth European Working Conditions Survey: 2015, European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (

Eurostat, 2021, ‘Production and consumption of chemicals by hazard class’ (

GBD 2016 Occupational Carcinogens Collaborators, 2020, ‘Global and regional burden of cancer in 2016 arising from occupational exposure to selected carcinogens: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016’, Occupational and Environmental Medicine 77(3), pp. 151-159 (DOI: 10.1136/oemed-2019-106012).

Goodson, W. H., et al., 2015, ‘Assessing the carcinogenic potential of low-dose exposures to chemical mixtures in the environment: the challenge ahead’,Carcinogenesis36(Suppl 1), pp. S254-S296 (DOI: 10.1093/carcin/bgv039).

HBM4EU, 2022, ‘Home page’, European Human Biomonitoring Dashboard (

Kuhl, K. and Lisser, L., 2022, ‘Work-related cancer’, OSHwiki (

Cover photo © freepik


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