Asbestos exposure has been formally recognized by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a possible cause of pharyngeal cancer, cancer of the throat, since 2009. Occupational exposure and inhalation of asbestos fibers are considered to be the most common causes of asbestos-related disease. However, oral ingestion of asbestos fibers in occupational and domestic settings may also contribute to the development of pharyngeal cancer.

What Is Pharyngeal Cancer 

Pharyngeal cancer is cancer of the throat. It can be broken down into nasopharyngeal cancer and oropharyngeal cancer based on the cancer’s location in the throat. Nasopharyngeal cancer refers to cancer of the upper throat. Oropharyngeal cancer refers to cancer of the middle throat. Sometimes laryngeal cancer, cancer of the lower throat, including the voicebox, is included within pharyngeal cancer. 

Pharyngeal Cancer and Asbestos Exposure

Everyone is exposed to low levels of asbestos in the air, soil, and water. Inhalation and oral ingestion of asbestos fibers from these elements could potentially contribute to the development of pharyngeal cancer. However, it is prolonged, daily exposure to asbestos that most often leads to disease. Usually, it takes 10 to 40 years after exposure for symptoms of an asbestos-related disease to develop.

Asbestos exposure is weakly linked with the development of pharyngeal cancer. This association is strongest with occupational exposure. A dose-response effect is appreciated, where individuals with the greatest cumulative exposure have the greatest risk of developing pharyngeal cancer.1

Risk Factors for Asbestos-Related Diseases

Occupational exposure to asbestos is the greatest risk factor for developing asbestos-related pharyngeal cancer. Professions with the highest risk of exposure to asbestos include 

  • Construction
  • Demolition
  • Manufacturing
  • Mining and milling 
  • Automobile repair 
  • Firefighting

Additional risk factors for asbestos-related pharyngeal cancer include smoking, alcohol consumption, and highly sedentary professions and lifestyles.2 

Symptoms of Pharyngeal Cancer

The hallmark symptoms of pharyngeal cancer include 

  • Oral ulcer
  • Oral pain
  • Weight loss

Additional symptoms of pharyngeal cancer may include

  • Oral mass
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Sore throat
  • Neck swelling
  • Neck mass
  • Ear pain

If you have experienced occupational exposure to asbestos and are currently experiencing symptoms concerning for pharyngeal cancer, it is important that you make an appointment to see your healthcare provider. He or she can assess your overall health and your risk for pharyngeal cancer and other asbestos-related diseases. 

Pharyngeal Cancer and Asbestos