This isn’t the most fun topic I ever wrote about, but it is one of the most important ones. Everyone knows someone in their lives who is suffering or has suffered from this horrible condition. The question often arises among professional welders: Can welding cause cancer? We all know that welding fumes are dangerous, just like the damaging UV radiation coming from the cutting machines. But do welders actually get skin or lung cancer more easily than ‘regular’ people?
Disclaimer: Please consult a medical professional immediately when you think you are having any type of serious health issues. I am NOT a trained medical professional and I have no background in medicine. In this article, I only speak from my experience as a welder and from thoroughly researching the health-related safety hazards related to this topic.
What Are The Side Effects Of Welding?
The side effects of welding stem from two sources: the radiation coming from UV light (and other damaging light spectrums) when performing the welding process, as well as the toxic fumes coming off of the machine when working.
Health damage may occur due to prolonged inhaling of welding fumes. This is especially true if the welder works in a contained space, in combination with poor air ventilation.Hazardous materials in these fumes may cause the following health-related complications:
- Long-term respiratory damage
- Nervous system damage
- Metal fume fever
- Stomach ulcers
- Kidney damage
When it comes to the UV-radiation, most of the health hazards and complications are related to the skin and eyes. Major side effects of prolonged exposure to welding UV-radiation can include the following health-related problems:
- Skin burn (often referred to as “weld burns”)
- Skin irritation or itches
- Severe skin redness
When it comes to eye problems from welding, the symptoms can sometimes be quite acute. About a quarter of all welding-related injuries are related to the eyes. Therefore, protecting your eyes with a professional welding helmet or safety goggles is an essential part of working in a safe environment. Let’s look at the most common complication to the eyes as a result of the welding process:
- Corneal flash burns (welder’s eye)
- Yellow spots on white part of the eyes (long-term symptom)
- Chemical burns or ocular irritation (from toxic fumes)
- Eye fatigue or redness
- Cataracts (clouding on the lens of the eye)
Can Welding Cause Cancer?
Yes, there is strong evidence that suggests overall cancer rates to be higher than average among welders. Welding fumes contain potential carcinogens, including metallic oxides, silicates and fluorides. These are bad, you don’t want to inhale them at all if possible. Long-term exposure to welding can cause long-term skin or lung damage, as well as a severely increased risk towards different types of cancer. The common types of welding-related cancers include:
- Lung cancer
- Larynx cancer
- Skin cancer
- Urinary tract cancer
- Ocular cancer / melanoma (eye cancer)
Rest assured, these are not diseases you would get from occasionally working in the workshop with some welding tools. These complications are mainly the result of a long-term (multiple dozens of years) of exposure to high levels of toxic fumes and/or UV-radiation from welding devices. Although there exists a correlation between cancer and welding, other factors in your life might also contribute to developing cancerous cells in your body.
Do Welders Get Cancer More Easily?
On average, welders are at a higher risk of tumors to appear somewhere in the body. But the risk depends on so many factors, you cannot simply state that ‘a lifelong welder will certainly get a tumor at some point in his life’. That is simply nonsense, because every person is different, everyone experiences different things in life, is exposed to different amounts of carcinogens, but also has different genetic factors. Your genetic DNA-makeup is not like mine, and maybe I can cope with toxic fumes for a lot longer time before my body is affected at all.
As explained before, you are at a significantly higher risk if you are a welder for many years. But it cannot be overstated that the individual situation differs a lot. And you can actively reduce your risks if you take the correct precautions. You can read more about the precautions you can take at the bottom of this page. As for the factors involved, your cancer risk from welding mainly depends on:
- The type of welding process used
- The type of welding machines being used
- The type of materials being welded
- Workspace air contaminants (e.g. vapors from solvent cleaners or degreasers)
- The type of consumables being used
- Which shielding flux or gas is being used
- Typical power settings being used
- How confined the space is in which you weld
- How well-ventilated the space is in which you weld
- How long you are welding each session
- How long you have welded in your lifetime
Cancer Rates For Welders
So we know that tumors occur more often in welders, but how much more likely is it exactly? It’s actually pretty difficult to find good data on this topic, mainly because it depends on the type of cancers you want to look at, as well as the limiting factors most research has.
A common observation is this: It will usually take many years for cancer to pop up, if it does at all. For professional welders, the numbers are serious. From the moment a person is exposed to welding, it would take about 20 years for a serious risk percentage increase to happen (compared to the ‘regular population’).
One research found that professional welders will have a 32% higher risk of lung cancer, while after 20 years of welding work, this population would have a 74% risk increase compared to ‘regular people’. Ironically enough, another research found that heavy smoking poses a comparable risk to getting lung cancer. So if you’re a welder, you might as well have been a heavy smoker.
For other types of cancers it is a lot more difficult to find any meaningful data. There simply isn’t any easily accessible data. But you can imagine that results would be similar to the above: a proven higher risk profile, that will only really have effect after many years. That is, if you weld for 40 hours a week as your job. And if you do that for about 20 years, and you can see that a hobby welder won’t be more at risk of getting cancer than someone living next to a busy road.
The Dangers Of Welding Fumes
I want to emphasize that the fumes during welding contribute the most to the carcinogenic effects of welding, but also to a whole range of other side-effects that I listed at the top of this article. It comes to no surprise that inhaling these fumes should be avoided at all cost, because they can be harmful in a lot of ways. Using protective gear can help a lot in this regard: here is a list of products that I recommend you take a look at.
Welding fume is created, when a metallic object is heated above its boiling point. The metal cools off and then condenses into fume. These are dangerous, fine particles that can easily be breathed in. The biggest danger is not the visible smoke, but the elements of the fumes that are invisible to the naked eye.
It must be noted, that the amount of toxic fume produced depends on the machine and style used: some welding styles are less prone to produce fumes than others. As can be seen in the image below, it is preferred that you choose TIG welding, laser cutting, or similar. It can also help to choose to become an underwater welder, since inhaling fumes is suppressed by water. The most harmful weld style by far is arc gouging, which should be avoided if possible:
During the welding process, there are different types of light and (invisible) radiation emitted. The intense energy from the welding process may be damaging to your eyes and your skin, which makes protective gear essential. In particular, I highly recommend you to at least wear a helmet, gloves, fire- and heatproof clothes, and some decent welder boots before you start working.
The most notable type of radiation is ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which is a known carcinogen. It is particularly damaging to the eyes and your skin, just as the sun would be on a hot summer day. During your work, you are exposed to direct UV radiation produced by the arc and the UV radiation that is reflected off of the surfaces around you. Again, it depends on the circumstances what the radiation risks are. It mostly depends on:
- The type of welding used
- The intensity of the radiation
- How long you are exposed to the radiation
- The physical distance from the welding activity
- The amount of protective gear used
Reducing Cancer Risk For Welders (10 Actionable Tips)
Okay, I think I scared you enough now to make you rethink if you want to be a welder. But don’t be silly, there’s a whole lot you can do to avoid problems later in life. Some very simple safety measures can be taken to make sure you will (likely) avoid getting any health problems from welding altogether. Here are 10 actionable tips you can implement today to become a more healthy welder:
- Always make sure your work environment is inside a large space
- Implement forced ventilation, even outside and in open spaces
- Remove coatings and paint before starting your work on the materials
- Choose a welding process that produces less toxic fumes, such as TIG welding
- Lower the power setting on your machine to reduce fumes
- Always use protective gear, welding helmet or glasses, wear a facemask if you choose goggles
- Create separate spaces for welding and other workshop tasks, separate the spaces (almost) airtight
- Wear respiratory aides, to avoid inhaling toxic materials
- Rotate welding tasks among different people, so you decrease your exposure time
- If you’re in need of a lot of welding, consider automating the process with a machine
If you wish to detect cancer early and reduce your risk, it is important that you speak with your doctor or health professional before starting a welding job. If you think the damage is already done and you may have been exposed to a cancer-causing agent, please make sure to consult a doctor immediately. Either way, the most effective method of reducing your risk is to invest money into your own health. This will pay off more than any health insurance, since preventing damage is always better than treating it. I highly recommend you to check out my recommended protective equipment, which has been very effective for me in my own workshop.