Cancer Causes & Control

, Volume 8, Issue 3, pp 386–405 | Cite as

Oils and cancer

  • Paige E. Tolbert


Epidemiologic evidence on the relationship between mineral oil exposure and cancer is reviewed. The review is restricted to occupations involving substantial dermal and inhalational exposure and for which an epidemiologic literature exists: metal machining, print press operating, and cotton and jute spinning. Mineral oils are complex mixtures of aliphatic hydrocarbons, naphthenics, and aromatics, the relative distribution of which depends on the source of the oil and the method of refinement. End-use products contain a variety of additives, and contamination by other agents generally occurs during use. Suspect agents include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) (particularly benz[a]pyrene), nitrosamines, chlorinated paraffins, long-chain aliphatics, sulfur, N-phenyl-2-naphthylamine, and formaldehyde. The heterogeneity of this exposure makes epidemiologic study difficult and meta-analysis inappropriate. Nonetheless, several associations emerge from the literature with varying degrees of support. There is clear evidence that early formulations of mineral oils used in cotton and jute spinning and in metal machining were carcinogenic to the skin. Associations of mineral oil exposure with laryngeal and rectal cancer have received some support in the literature, particularly with respect to straight oils. Evidence is suggestive that grinding operations (which can entail either mineral oil-based or ethanolamine-based fluids) are associated with excess risk of cancer of the esophagus, stomach, and pancreas. A number of bladder cancer case-control studies have noted an association with work as a machinist. There is limited evidence of an association with cancer of the colon, prostate, and sinonasal region. Several studies of printers have yielded positive findings for lung cancer, whereas studies in metal machinists have been generally negative. The PAH and nitrosamine content of current formulations is lower than in the past and the implications of these changes in composition to the carcinogenicity of the formulations are not yet known.

Cutting oils cutting fluids metalworking mineral oil nitrosamines polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons 


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© Chapman and Hall 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paige E. Tolbert
    • 1
  1. 1.Departments of Environmental & Occupational Health and EpidemiologyRollins School of Public Health of Emory UniversityAtlantaUSA

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