Study: Late night work brings cancer risk

I just can’t win. If smoking doesn’t kill me, then my occasional forays into fast food will. Or my coffee consumption. Or fumes from the road.

Or even my working hours.

This last part sounds like a joke, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) will list late-night work as a probable carcinogen, putting it in the same league as Diesel exhaust fumes, anabolic steroids, and ultraviolet rays.

This came to my attention via a USA Today article, which cites higher rates of breast and prostate cancer among night workers — which account for close to 20 percent of the work force in developed nations.

According to the article, epidemiologist Richard Stevens, a professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center, noticed in the 1970s how breast cancer rates increased suddenly and dramatically as societies industrialized and running three shifts became a sign of progress Stevens suggested aritficial lights and backwards circardian rhythms tweaked hormone levels — particularly melatonin — to the point where cancer was more of a risk. He published his findings in 1987, and he’d taken some heat in since then. The cancer research agency, though, puts new credence to Stevens’ hypothesis.

On Thursday, Stevens told the Hartford Courant that research is still a little iffy, that there’s not just enough data to warn night shift workers to quit their jobs. “I would be a jerk to quantify that right now,” he said.

To me, the whole thing sounds like one of those you-never-know scenarios. It’s a pretty good bet that working late night isn’t the healthiest thing in the world. I can consider myself knowledgeable on this because, in the 32 years I’ve worked full time, most of it has been during the witching hour. This includes most of my time in newspaper work — I had free rein to work whatever hours I wanted and I gravitated toward those goofy hours. I’m just “naturally” a night person, meaning I’m not spending my workshift just trying to stay awake. I can see night workers being more at risk of heart problems, of stress-related issues, or just plain “issues” issues, but cancer? Hell, I still think you can test any substance known to man — including water — and some lab rat somewhere will get cancer.

Admittedly, it’s not easy to function on those hours, and and the late-shift worker’s options are definitely limited. Rather than running out to a favorite restaurant during lunch hour, one ends up going to some 24-hour joint with questionable chow. I guess you could say night workers eat a lot of grease. And coffee. And eggs. And hash browns. At a casino where I once worked, the employee dining room’s fare was limited to breakfast food during the wee hours. I’d eaten so many eggs I developed this urge to go outside and peck corn.

In a lot of public businesses and factories, even those that run three shifts, late night is when much of the operation is shut down for cleaning and maintenance. So a night worker may be exposed to more chemicals than his co-workers who pull daytime hours. But strangely enough, that may not be a real factor in the numbers being used here, as most of the workers studied were nurses and airline crew members. And Stevens allowed that many of these worked on rotating shifts, which is enough to fry even the hardiest people.

Stevens’ best advice for the night worker is to darken the bedroom as much as possible before going to sleep, as that appears to be a factor in producing melatonin.

“The balance between light and dark is very important for your body,” Stevens says. “Just get a dark night’s sleep.”

I have my own quick-and-dirty “hack” for this; at least it (hopefully) fools my body into thinking it’s dark. I hate those sleep masks, but I’ll sometimes fold a bandanna over my eyes. Of course it’ll fall off when I roll over, but by then I’m already asleep and don’t really care anyway.

My own advice, as a longtime night worker? Find a schedule, and stick with it. Putting a worker on a revolving schedule — nights one week, days the next — should be classified as cruel and unusual punishment. And, I find it easier to function if I keep those same hours on my day off. Simple logic here — why adjust twice?

“The problem is re-setting your body’s clock,” said Aaron Blair, of the United States’ National Cancer Institute, who chaired IARC’s recent meeting on shift work. “If you worked at night and stayed on it, that would be less disruptive than constantly changing shifts.”

Author: Eric Pulsifer

Eric Pulsifer is a veteran wordsmith with experience as a journalist, editor, musician, and freelance writer.

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