Findings from a Windsor, Ontario-based research project, published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, are raising questions about a possible association between exposures in the construction industry and the risk of developing head and neck cancer.

From 2000 to 2002 all male patients at the Windsor Regional Cancer Centre with new incident head-and-neck or esophageal cancers were invited to participate in a population-based case-control study. A comprehensive lifetime history questionnaire was administered by interview. The study population included 87 head-and-neck cancer or esophageal cancer cases and 172 community controls. The goal of the study was to determine whether specific occupations might be linked to an increased head and neck cancer risk.

Research data indicated that men who had been diagnosed with head and neck cancer were twice as likely to have worked in construction as participants in the control group. This finding was statistically significant. The participants' employment, age, smoking and alcohol use history, education, and income were all included in determining the potential risk since these are known or suspected risk factors for head and neck cancer.

Study co-principal investigators, Dr. James Brophy and Dr. Margaret Keith, said they believe there are potential carcinogenic exposures faced by construction workers and that they need to be better controlled. "Some building trades workers have had significant exposures to asbestos, silica and other toxic dusts during the course of their work," said Brophy, executive director of the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers in Sarnia.

The study found that workers in other occupations, such as agriculture and machining, had increased risks but the findings were not statistically significant likely due to small sample size. "Further research is necessary," said Keith, "in order to pinpoint the agents to which workers have been exposed and to determine whether there are specific building trades that face an increased risk for head and neck cancer."