Leukaemias constitute 3% of all cancers worldwide (Linet 1985). They are a group of malignancies of blood precursor cells, classified according to cell type of origin, degree of cellular differentiation, and clinical and epidemiological behaviour. The four common types are acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL), chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), acute myelocytic leukaemia (AML) and chronic myelocytic leukaemia (CML). ALL develops rapidly, is the most common form of leukaemia in childhood and originates in the white blood corpuscles in the lymph nodes. CLL arises in bone marrow lymphocytes, develops very slowly and is more common in aged persons. AML is the common form of acute leukaemia in adults. Rare types of acute leukaemia include monocytic, basophilic, eosinophilic, plasma-, erythro- and hairy-cell leukaemias. These rarer forms of acute leukaemia are sometimes lumped together under the heading acute non-lymphocytic leukaemia (ANLL), due in part to the belief that they arise from a common stem cell. Most cases of CML are characterized by a specific chromosomal abnormality, the Philadelphia chromosome. The eventual outcome of CML often is leukaemic transformation to AML. Transformation to AML also can occur in polycythaemia vera and essential thrombocythaemia, neoplastic disorders with elevated red cell or platelet levels, as well as myelofibrosis and myeloid dysplasia. This has led to characterizing these disorders as related myeloproliferative diseases.
The clinical picture varies according to the type of leukaemia. Most patients suffer from fatigue and malaise. Haematological count anomalies and atypical cells are suggestive of leukaemia and indicate a bone marrow examination. Anaemia, thrombocytopenia, neutropenia, elevated leucocyte count and elevated number of blast cells are typical signs of acute leukaemia.
Incidence: The annual overall age-adjusted incidence of leukaemias varies between 2 and 12 per 100,000 in men and between 1 and 11 per 100,000 in women in different populations. High figures are encountered in North American, western European and Israeli populations, while low ones are reported for Asian and African populations. The incidence varies according to age and to type of leukaemia. There is a marked increase in the incidence of leukaemia with age, and there is also a childhood peak which occurs around two to four years of age. Different leukaemia subgroups display different age patterns. CLL is about twice as frequent in men as in women. Incidence and mortality figures of adult leukaemias have tended to stay relatively stable over the past few decades.
Risk factors: Familial factors in the development of leukaemia have been suggested, but the evidence for this is inconclusive. Certain immunological conditions, some of which are hereditary, appear to predispose to leukaemia. Down’s syndrome is predictive of acute leukaemia. Two oncogenic retroviruses (human T-cell leukaemia virus-I, human T-lymphotropic virus-II) have been identified as being related to the development of leukaemias. These viruses are thought to be early-stage carcinogens and as such are insufficient causes of leukaemia (Keating, Estey and Kantarjian 1993).
Ionizing radiation and benzene exposure are established environmental and occupational causes of leukaemias. The incidence of CLL, however, has not been associated with exposure to radiation. Radiation and benzene-induced leukaemias are recognized as occupational diseases in a number of countries.
Much less consistently, leukaemia excesses have been reported for the following groups of workers: drivers; electricians; telephone linepersons and electronic engineers; farmers; flour millers; gardeners; mechanics, welders and metal workers; textile workers; paper-mill workers; and workers in the petroleum industry and distribution of petroleum products. Some particular agents in the occupational environment have been consistently associated with increased risk of leukaemia. These agents include butadiene, electromagnetic fields, engine exhaust, ethylene oxide, insecticides and herbicides, machining fluids, organic solvents, petroleum products (including gasoline), styrene and unidentified viruses. Paternal and maternal exposures to these agents prior to conception have been suggested to increase the leukaemia risk in the offspring, but the evidence at this time is insufficient to establish such exposure as causative.
Treatment and prevention: Up to 75% of male cases of leukaemia may be preventable (International Agency for Research on Cancer 1990). Avoidance of exposure to radiation and benzene will reduce the risk of leukaemias, but the potential reduction worldwide has not been estimated. Treatments of leukaemias include chemotherapy (single agents or combinations), bone marrow transplant and interferons. Bone marrow transplant in both ALL and AML is associated with a disease-free survival between 25 and 60%. The prognosis is poor for patients who do not achieve remission or who relapse. Of those who relapse, about 30% achieve a second remission. The major cause of failure to achieve remission is death from infection and haemorrhage. The survival of untreated acute leukaemia is 10% within 1 year of diagnosis. The median survival of patients with CLL before the initiation of treatment is 6 years. The length of survival depends on the stage of the disease when the diagnosis is initially made.
Leukaemias may occur following medical treatment with radiation and certain chemotherapeutic agents of another malignancy, such as Hodgkin’s disease, lymphomas, myelomas, and ovarian and breast carcinomas. Most of these secondary cases of leukaemia are acute non-lymphocytic leukaemias or myelodysplastic syndrome, which is a preleukaemic condition. Chromosomal abnormalities appear to be more readily observed in both treatment-related leukaemias and in leukaemias associated with radiation and benzene exposure. These acute leukaemias also share a tendency to resist therapy. Activation of the ras oncogene has been reported to occur more frequently in patients with AML who worked in professions deemed to be at high risk of exposure to leukaemogens (Taylor et al. 1992).
Malignant Lymphomas and Multiple Myeloma
Malignant lymphomas constitute a heterogeneous group of neoplasms primarily affecting lymphoid tissues and organs. Malignant lymphomas are divided into two major cellular types: Hodgkin’s disease (HD) (International Classification of Disease, ICD-9 201) and non-Hodgkin lymphomas (NHL) (ICD-9 200, 202). Multiple myeloma (MM) (ICD-9 203) represents a malignancy of plasma cells within the bone marrow and accounts usually for less than 1% of all malignancies (International Agency for Research on Cancer 1993). In 1985, malignant lymphomas and multiple myelomas ranked seventh among all cancers worldwide. They represented 4.2% of all estimated new cancer cases and amounted to 316,000 new cases (Parkin, Pisani and Ferlay 1993).
Mortality and incidence of malignant lymphomas do not reveal a consistent pattern across socio-economic categories worldwide. Children’s HD has a tendency to be more common in less developed nations, while relatively high rates have been observed in young adults in countries in more developed regions. In some countries, NHL seems to be in excess among people in higher socio-economic groups, while in other countries no such clear gradient has been observed.
Occupational exposures may increase the risk of malignant lymphomas, but the epidemiological evidence is still inconclusive. Asbestos, benzene, ionizing radiation, chlorinated hydrocarbon solvents, wood dust and chemicals in leather and rubber-tire manufacturing are examples of agents that have been associated with the risk of unspecified malignant lymphomas. NHL is more common among farmers. Further suspect occupational agents for HD, NHL and MM are mentioned below.
Hodgkin’s disease is a malignant lymphoma characterized by the presence of multinucleated giant (Reed-Sternberg) cells. Lymph nodes in the mediastinum and neck are involved in about 90% of the cases, but the disease may occur in other sites as well. Histological subtypes of HD differ in their clinical and epidemiological behaviour. The Rye classification system includes four subtypes of HD: lymphocytic predominance, nodular sclerosis, mixed cellularity and lymphocytic depletion. The diagnosis of HD is made by biopsy and treatment is radiation therapy alone or in combination with chemotherapy.
The prognosis of HD patients depends on the stage of the disease at diagnosis. About 85 to 100% of patients without massive mediastinal involvement survive for about 8 years from the start of the treatment without further relapse. When there is massive mediastinal involvement, about 50% of the cases suffer a relapse. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy may involve various side effects, such as secondary acute myelocytic leukaemia discussed earlier.
The incidence of HD has not undergone major changes over time but for a few exceptions, such as the populations of the Nordic countries, in which the rates have declined (International Agency for Research on Cancer 1993).
Available data show that in the 1980s the populations of Costa Rica, Denmark and Finland had median annual incidence rates of HD of 2.5 per 100,000 in men and 1.5 per 100,000 in women (standardized to world population); these figures yielded a sex ratio of 1.7. The highest rates in males were recorded for populations in Italy, the United States, Switzerland and Ireland, while the highest female rates were in the United States and Cuba. Low incidence rates have been reported for Japan and China (International Agency for Research on Cancer 1992).
Viral infection has been suspected as involved in the aetiology of HD. Infectious mononucleosis, which is induced by the Epstein-Barr virus, a herpes virus, has been shown to be associated with increased risk of HD. Hodgkin’s disease may also cluster in families, and other time-space constellations of cases have been observed, but the evidence that there are common aetiological factors behind such clusters is weak.
The extent to which occupational factors can lead to increased risk for HD has not been established. There are three predominant suspect agents—organic solvents, phenoxy herbicides and wood dust—but the epidemiological evidence is limited and controversial.
About 98% of the NHLs are lymphocytic lymphomas. At least four different classifications of lymphocytic lymphomas have been commonly used (Longo et al. 1993). In addition, an endemic malignancy, Burkitt’s lymphoma, is endemic in certain areas of tropical Africa and New Guinea.
Thirty to fifty per cent of NHLs are curable with chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy. Bone marrow transplants may be necessary.
Incidence: High annual incidences of NHL (over 12 per 100,000, standardized to world standard population) have been reported during the 1980s for the White population in the United States, particularly San Francisco and New York City, as well as in some Swiss cantons, in Canada, in Trieste (Italy) and Porto Alegre (Brazil, in men). The incidence of NHL is usually higher in men than in women, with the typical excess in men being 50 to 100% greater than in women. In Cuba, and in the White population of Bermuda, however, the incidence is slightly higher in women (International Agency for Research on Cancer 1992).
NHL incidence and mortality rates have been rising in a number of countries worldwide (International Agency for Research on Cancer 1993). By 1988, the average annual incidence in US White men increased by 152%. Some of the increase is due to changes in diagnostic practices of physicians and part due to an increase in immunosuppressive conditions which are induced by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV, associated with AIDS), other viruses and immunosuppressive chemotherapy. These factors do not explain the entire increase, and a considerable proportion of residual increase may be explained by dietary habits, environmental exposures such as hair dyes, and possibly familial tendencies, as well as some rare factors (Hartge and Devesa 1992).
Occupational determinants have been suspected to play a role in the development of NHL. It is currently estimated that 10% of NHLs are thought to be related to occupational exposures in the United States (Hartge and Devesa 1992), but this percentage varies by time period and location. The occupational causes are not well established. Excess risk of NHL has been associated with electric power plant jobs, farming, grain handling, metal working, petroleum refining and woodworking, and has been found among chemists. Occupational exposures that have been associated with an increased NHL risk include ethylene oxide, chlorophenols, fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, hair dyes, organic solvents and ionizing radiation. A number of positive findings for phenoxyacetic acid herbicide exposure have been reported (Morrison et al. 1992). Some of the herbicides involved were contaminated with 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin (TCDD). The epidemiological evidence for occupational aetiologies of NHL is still limited, however.
Multiple myeloma (MM) involves predominantly bone (especially the skull), bone marrow and kidney. It represents malignant proliferation of B-lymphocyte-derived cells that synthesize and secrete immunoglobulins. The diagnosis is made using radiology, a test for the MM-specific Bence-Jones proteinuria, determination of abnormal plasma cells in the bone marrow, and immunoelectrophoresis. MM is treated with bone marrow transplantation, radiation therapy, conventional chemotherapy or polychemotherapy, and immunological therapy. Treated MM patients survive 28 to 43 months on the average (Ludwig and Kuhrer 1994).
The incidence of MM increases sharply with increasing age. High age-standardized annual incidence rates (5 to 10 per 100,000 in men and 4 to 6 per 100,000 in women) have been encountered in the United States Black populations, in Martinique and among the Maoris in New Zealand. Many Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Filipino populations have low rates (less than 10 per 100,000 person-years in men and less than 0.3 per 100,000 person-years in women) (International Agency for Research on Cancer 1992). The rate of multiple myeloma has been on the increase in Europe, Asia, Oceania and in both the Black and White United States populations since the 1960s, but the increase has tended to level off in a number of European populations (International Agency for Research on Cancer 1993).
Throughout the world there is an almost consistent excess among males in the incidence of MM. This excess is typically of the order of 30 to 80%.
Familial and other case clusterings of MM have been reported, but the evidence is inconclusive as to the causes of such clusterings. The excess incidence among the United States Black population as contrasted with the White population points towards the possibility of differential host susceptibility among population groups, which may be genetic. Chronic immunological disorders have on occasion been associated with the risk of MM. The data on social class distribution of MM are limited and unreliable for conclusions on any gradients.
Occupational factors: Epidemiological evidence of an elevated risk of MM in gasoline-exposed workers and refinery workers suggests a benzene aetiology (Infante 1993). An excess of multiple myeloma has repeatedly been observed in farmers and farm workers. Pesticides represent a suspect group of agents. The evidence for carcinogenicity is, however, insufficient for phenoxyacetic acid herbicides (Morrison et al. 1992). Dioxins are sometimes impurities in some phenoxyacetic acid herbicides. There is a reported significant excess of MM in women residing in a zone contaminated with 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin after an accident in a plant near Seveso, Italy (Bertazzi et al. 1993). The Seveso results were based on two cases which occurred during ten years of follow-up, and further observation is needed to confirm the association. Another possible explanation for the increased risk in farmers and farm workers is exposure to some viruses (Priester and Mason 1974).
Further suspect occupations and occupational agents that have been associated with increased risk of MM include painters, truck drivers, asbestos, engine exhaust, hair-colouring products, radiation, styrene, vinyl chloride and wood dust. The evidence for these occupations and agents remains inconclusive.