How Common is Lung Cancer in Nonsmokers?

About 20% of people that die from lung cancer in the United States every year (between 16,000 and 24,000, according to the American Cancer Society) are non-smokers. Lung cancer is less common in non-smokers, but not uncommon. While the dangers of work-related exposure to toxic materials such as asbestos have been reduced in the last few years, the danger is still there. People who work around asbestos have to take extreme precautions in order to lower their risk.

Lung cancer is typically thought of as a disease that affects smokers, yet in reality, as many as 20 percent of all lung cancer cases involve non smokers. Various factors, such as the level of radon found in one’s home, the amount of air pollution you are exposed to on a daily basis, and exposure to carcinogens such as asbestos on the job site significantly increase the chances of developing lung cancer.

Although governmental regulations have reduced asbestos exposure in occupational settings, some workers remain at high risk, including home remodelers, electricians, automotive repair technicians, firefighters and other emergency service providers. Awareness of the risks and precautionary measures to reduce exposure are critical steps to protect yourself from developing an asbestos related illness later in life.

Nonsmokers Experience Different Forms of Lung Cancer

Unlike smokers who are most likely to develop squamous cell lung cancers with symptoms that allow relatively early detection, nonsmokers are more likely to be diagnosed with adenocarcinomas which leave victims relatively symptom free for many years but are much more difficult to treat due to late diagnoses. People who have been exposed to asbestos may be diagnosed with mesothelioma, a type of cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs or abdomen and is also typically not detected until it has reached an advanced stage of progression that is extremely difficult to treat.

Common Causes of Lung Cancer in Nonsmokers

Nonsmokers who have been exposed to any or all of the following may develop lung cancer later in life:

  • Radon gas. Some areas of the country have high levels of naturally occurring radon gas that may become trapped and concentrated within homes. The gas is invisible and odorless and can only be detected by specifically testing for this contaminant.
  • Air pollution, including secondhand smoke. Air pollution takes on many forms, from indoor secondhand smoke to outdoor smog from vehicles and industrial facilities. While it may be challenging to reduce your exposure to outdoor air pollution, avoiding secondhand smoke reduces the risk of lung cancer.
  • Occupational carcinogens, including asbestos. Many workers have been and continue to be exposed to a variety of carcinogens in occupational settings. From asbestos fibers to diesel exhaust, individuals who are subjected to chronic exposure to these substances are far more likely to develop lung cancer, even if they have never smoked.

Occupations With Greatest Risk of Asbestos Exposure

Despite governmental regulations which have reduced the amount of asbestos utilized in consumer products, workers in a number of occupational fields still face the risk of exposure on a nearly daily basis. The following individuals are most vulnerable:

  • Residential and commercial remodelers. Construction workers who specialize in the remodeling of homes and/or commercial buildings are frequently required to remove old insulation, flooring, windows, pipes and more. This process disturbs asbestos fibers present in materials which were manufactured before the 1980’s when asbestos was banned from many consumer products.
  • Electricians. Asbestos containing products are most commonly found around and within walls, ceilings, circuit breakers, generators, heating units and more in homes and office buildings. Because electrical wires run in these same locations, electricians are at a high risk of asbestos exposure.
  • Automotive repair technicians. Many manufacturers of automotive parts such as brakes and clutches continue to utilize asbestos in their products. As a result, automotive repair technicians are often exposed to these fibers and are at particular risk while working in enclosed locations with minimal fresh air circulation.
  • Firefighters and emergency service providers. Individuals involved in the clean up phase after a demolition or disaster are likely to be exposed to high concentrations of asbestos fibers. Sadly, many of the firefighters who assisted after the 9/11 disaster were exposed to extremely high levels of asbestos which have already caused them to develop mesothelioma or another asbestos related illness.  

Reduce Your Risk and Watch For Symptoms

Nonsmokers can reduce their chances of developing lung cancer by testing their homes for radon, reducing exposure to various forms of air pollution and utilizing safety gear and proper handling techniques if exposed to carcinogens on the job site. If, however, you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma or suspect you have an asbestos related illness, prompt medical treatment and competent legal counsel are critical factors that can improve the quality of your life.

Sources

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/238263.php

http://www.cancer.org/cancer/news/features/why-lung-cancer-strikes-nonsmokers

https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007194.htm