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Rectal cancer and exposure to metalworking fluids in the automobile manufacturing industry
  1. Elizabeth J Malloy1,
  2. Katie L Miller2,3,
  3. Ellen A Eisen2
  1. 1Department of Biostatistics, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  2. 2Department of Environmental Health, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  3. 3Department of Genetics and Complex Diseases, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr E A Eisen
 Department of Environmental Health, Harvard School of Public Health, 655 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115, USA; eeisen{at}


Background: Rectal cancer has been previously associated with exposure to metalworking fluids in a cohort mortality study of autoworkers.

Objective: To better specify the exposure–response relationship with straight metalworking fluids (mineral oils) by applying non-parametric regression methods that avoid linearity constraints and arbitrary exposure cut points and by lagging exposure to account for cancer latency, in a nested case–control analysis.

Methods: In addition to the classical Poisson regression with categorical exposure, survival models with penalised splines were used to estimate the exposure–response relationship between cumulative exposure to straight metalworking fluid and mortality from rectal cancer. Exposures to water-based metalworking fluids were treated as potential confounders, and all exposures were lagged by 5, 10, 15 and 20 years to account for cancer latency. The influence of the highest exposures was dealt with by a log transformation and outlier removal. The sensitivity of the penalised splines to alternative criteria for model selection and to the placement of knots was also examined.

Results: The hazard ratio for mortality from rectal cancer increased essentially linearly with cumulative exposure to straight metalworking fluid (with narrow confidence bands) up to a maximum of 2.2 at the 99th centile of exposure and then decreased (with wide confidence bands). Lagging exposure up to 15 years increased the initial steepness of the curve and raised the maximum hazard ratio to 3.2.

Conclusions: Non-parametric smoothing of lagged exposures has shown stronger evidence for a causal association between straight metalworking fluid and rectal cancer than was previously described using standard analytical methods. This analysis suggests an exposure–response trend that is close to linear and statistically significant over most of the exposure range and that increases further with lagged exposures. Smoothing should be regularly applied to environmental studies with quantitative exposure estimates to refine characterisation of the dose–response relationship.

  • AIC, Akaike’s Information Criteria
  • PMR, proportionate mortality ratio

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  • Published Online First 9 November 2006

  • Funding: This study was supported by Grant CA74386 from the National Cancer Institute.

  • Competing interests: None.

  • The original study was approved by the internal review board of Harvard School of Public Health and the extended follow-up was approved by internal review boards of University of Massachusetts and General Motors Corporation.