Europe’s unions say occupational cancer protection ‘in sight’

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are being urged by trade unions to back an agreement between the European Council and European Parliament to give workers more and better protection against occupational cancer.

The call from trades unions came after the new measures won the support of the parliament’s employment committee. “This is an important victory for trade unions which have campaigned for many years to stop the pandemic of occupational cancers,” said Esther Lynch, confederal secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

The agreement on the first revision of the Directive on Carcinogens and Mutagens, approves the introduction of binding occupational exposure limits (OELs) for an additional 11 cancer-causing substances including chromium (VI) compounds and crystalline silica, and goes far beyond what the European Commission originally proposed.

For instance, member states will now have to organise lifelong health surveillance for workers exposed to carcinogens. The agreement also requires the commission to explore extending the deal to reproductive toxicants by 2019.

“Improved health surveillance will help save many lives” said Lynch “and protection from exposure to reproductive toxicants, if implemented, should prevent miscarriages, congenital malformations and serious health problems among the future children of exposed workers.”

The ETUC aims to get binding OELs adopted for 50 priority carcinogens by the end of 2020, and is urging employers to engage in negotiations for further action to tackle work-related cancers. It said occupational cancers are the leading cause of work-related deaths, with more than 100,000 deaths every year in the EU.

 

Trade union webinar challenges occupational cancer risks

British trades union confederation TUC is taking its campaign against occupational cancer into cyberspace. A live TUC Education webinar on 14 September will hear TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson explore which industries are most affected by occupational cancer, what the law says and what unions can do to reduce or eliminate the risks.

“The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) puts the annual occupational cancer toll at over 8,000 deaths a year – but we know it is considerably higher,” said Robertson. “Asbestos has been banned for almost 20 years but deaths – over 5,000 each year – are still increasing, despite being tightly regulated. But other risks, like breast cancers linked to shiftwork and lung and bladder cancer linked to diesel exhaust fumes, are still commonplace and frequently neglected problems.

“The TUC is aiming to give safety reps the tools to identify and challenge effectively cancer risks at work. Let’s not allow another working generation to be put at potentially deadly risk from preventable exposures.”

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Light at night linked to breast cancer

Women who live in areas with higher levels of outdoor light at night may be at higher risk for breast cancer than those living in areas with lower levels, according to a Harvard University study.

The large long-term study also found a stronger association among women who worked night shifts. “In our modern industrialised society, artificial lighting is nearly ubiquitous. Our results suggest that this widespread exposure to outdoor lights during night-time hours could represent a novel risk factor for breast cancer,” said lead author Peter James, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, looked at data from nearly 110,000 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study II from 1989 to 2013. The researchers linked data from satellite images of Earth taken at night-time to residential addresses for each study participant, and also considered the influence of night shift work. The study also factored in detailed information on a variety of health and socioeconomic factors among participants.

Women exposed to the highest levels of outdoor light at night – those in the top fifth – had an estimated 14 per cent increased risk of breast cancer during the study period, as compared with women in the bottom fifth of exposure, the researchers found. As levels of outdoor light at night increased, so did breast cancer rates.

The link was stronger among women who worked night shifts, suggesting that exposure to light at night and night shift work contribute jointly to breast cancer risk.

Other research by Harvard scientists based on the same Nurses’ Health Study II had earlier found an association between shiftwork and breast cancer.

Canadian study confirms asbestos exposure comes at a very high price

Asbestos isn’t just the biggest industrial killer of all time, it is also a massive drain on the economy, new research has confirmed.

Canadian researchers estimated the lifetime cost of newly diagnosed lung cancer and mesothelioma cases associated with occupational and para-occupational [typically exposed family members] asbestos exposure for the calendar year 2011, including healthcare, productivity and output, and quality of life costs. In the year there were 427 cases of newly diagnosed mesothelioma cases and 1,904 lung cancer cases attributable to asbestos exposure.

The researchers estimated the economic burden at $C831 million (£515m) in direct and indirect costs for the total 2,331 newly identified cases of mesothelioma and lung cancer and $C1.5 billion (£0.93bn) in quality of life costs. The calculation is based on a value of $C100,000 (£62,000) per quality-adjusted life year. This amounts to $C356,429 (£221,000) and $C652,369 (£404,000) per case, respectively.

The authors conclude the cost is “substantial”, but add: “This burden estimate is large; yet, it is only the tip of the total economic burden, since it includes only 2,331 newly diagnosed occupational and para-occupational cases from one calendar year.” They add that the estimate does not include other occupational diseases that are associated with asbestos exposure, such as pleural plaque and several other cancers, and non-occupational exposure, “so our estimate of the societal economic burden of new cases in Canada is likely a conservative one.”

UN treaty ‘discredited’ as asbestos lobby claims victory

A United Nations (UN) treaty on the control of toxic exports has been ‘utterly discredited’, unions have said. The charge came after a bid to add chrysotile asbestos – the only form of the cancer-causing fibre still traded – to the Rotterdam Convention’s list of the most hazardous substances was blocked for a sixth time.

On 3 May 2017, at a UN-organised conference in Geneva, out of the 156 countries party to the convention, just seven with commercial interests in continued asbestos use – Belarus, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Syria and Zimbabwe – vetoed chrysotile’s addition to the treaty’s ‘prior informed consent’ list, a measure that would require exports to be accompanied by a health warning. It requires a unanimous decision of government representatives for a substance to be listed. Addition of chrysotile to the list cannot now be considered until the next conference, in two years’ time.

It was an outcome that caused anger and exasperation in the contingent of global unions, campaigners and asbestos disease sufferers in attendance in Geneva to put the case for long overdue action that would both save lives and that met all the UN’s criteria for listing.

Brian Kohler, safety director of the global union IndustriALL, said: “The Rotterdam Convention is broken. Enough is enough. For the Convention to be effective, it must stop allowing the financial interests of a few powerful oligarchs to threaten the lives of millions. It’s a shameful example of a dysfunctional system and a discredit to the entire United Nations system. How many hundreds of thousands of people must die from asbestos-related diseases before the parties to the Rotterdam Convention change this?”

The global construction union BWI described the UN negotiations as a ‘biennial farce’. General secretary Ambet Yuson said “it is outrageous that this is being blatantly and persistently blocked by asbestos exporting countries.”

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) said a ‘front organisation’ for the global asbestos industry, the International Chrysotile Association (ICA), has “managed to get the recommendation for listing blocked for over a decade. The ICA is notorious for spreading false and misleading information to keep the chrysotile trade afloat.”

ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow  said: “Another generation will be blighted by asbestos disease as a result of past exposures. But the chrysotile industry is determined to inflict this deadly epidemic on our grandchildren too. This criminal cabal of cancer pushers must be put out of business and brought to justice. We will do all we can to make sure this happens.”

An attempt to change the voting rules so a 75 per cent majority could agree listing also failed. The highly toxic pesticide paraquat was another victim of the unanimity requirement, again missing out on listing. The Convention’s expert group had said both substances met all the requirements for listing.

Leukaemia recognised at Samsung LCD factory

Korean authorities have for the first time recognised officially a case of work-related leukaemia resulting from exposures in a Samsung LCD factory.

The Korea Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service (COMWEL) ruled that Kim, a 33-year-old worker who was diagnosed with leukaemia after working for five years and seven months in a Samsung Display – formerly Samsung Electronics – LCD factory had contracted the illness in the course of his employment.

Although there have been earlier awards to workers in the company’s semiconductor factories, this is the first time that leukaemia contracted from working in an LCD factory has been recognised as an occupational disease. After conducting an epidemiological study of the factory, COMWEL determined that the illness was work-related, despite the low level of exposure to harmful substances.

“Considering the fact that Kim did not wear adequate protective gear and worked long hours, it is likely that he was exposed to carcinogens and harmful substances in greater concentrations than were found in the epidemiological study,” COMWEL wrote in the judgment.

“Working at Samsung Electronics was Kim’s first job, and taking into account the latency period for leukaemia and the fact that he received the diagnosis at the young age of 25, we acknowledge that there is a significant causal relationship between Kim’s leukaemia and his occupation.”

‘Risk paradox’ means cancer prevention loses

The cancer research community is giving too much attention to ‘tumour biology’ at the expense of efforts to prevent the tumours in the first place, a commentary in the journal Lancet Oncology has warned.

Commenting on the heavily promoted emphasis on ‘precision oncology’, the editorial points to the growing support for research on immunological and genetic susceptibility to cancers.  “But can this insatiable desire to enhance our fundamental understanding of tumour biology overshadow the health gains that could be secured by improved environmental protection?”, it questions.

“Cancer is a product of both nature and nurture, in which environmental risk is an equally crucial — and often neglected — factor because it is a multisectorial issue.”

The editorial highlighting the ‘cancer risk paradox’ continues: “A large-scale economic inefficiency clearly exists, with financial resources being divided into both the science of cancer prevention and also into efforts to help those who have developed cancer as a direct result of human mismanagement of the planet. To see a world in which fewer people die of cancer, both areas must be addressed.”

Warning against moves to remove environmental protections, promote polluting industries or to fail to regulate pollution effectively, the paper concludes: “To eradicate cancer, governments need to both identify and act not only on increased risk susceptibility, but also ensure that people are not exposed to carcinogenic materials through gross environmental mismanagement.”

Vow to help ailing Canadian factory workers after union-backed study

Ontario labour minister Kevin Flynn says he wants an “expedited” settlement process for ailing workers struggling without compensation.

Ontario will do the “right thing” for factory workers left fighting work-related cancer and other diseases but who have been routinely denied compensation, the province’s labour minister has said.

The commitment from Kevin Flynn came in the wake of a 173-page report by General Electric (GE) retirees and the union Unifor documenting working conditions in a GE plant in Peterborough from 1945 to 2000.

The report said workers were exposed to more than 3,000 toxic chemicals, including at least 40 known or suspected human carcinogens. “These GE workers have suffered horrific and often terminal diseases at a disproportionate rate, yet approximately half of the compensation claims filed have been rejected, abandoned or withdrawn due to what was deemed to be insufficient proof,” said Joel Carr, Unifor national representative.

Workers were exposed to large quantities of hazardous substances including asbestos, arsenic, vinyl chloride, beryllium, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, PCB, uranium and lead, without proper protection. There are currently 31 Unifor members with claims to the province’s compensation board (WSIB) for GE job-related illness, including several forms of cancer.

The report, authored by experienced occupational health researchers Bob and Dale DeMatteo, was commissioned by the Advisory Committee on Retrospective Exposures, consisting of retired GE workers and supported by Unifor.

Responding to the report, Ontario labour minister Kevin Flynn said he wants an “expedited” settlement process in place “as quickly as possible” for those struggling without workers’ compensation.

Flynn signalled the government is considering a way to process the claims similar to how compensation for work-related illness is handled for firefighters, for whom a list of cancers are presumed to be work-related. “We’ve talked about a presumptive approach to this,” the minister said.

Indonesian campaigners win recognition of asbestos diseases

The Indonesian authorities have for the first time recognised officially the existence of asbestos disease cases in the country. Until this year, Indonesia had never formally recognised a case of asbestosis, with sufferers routinely misdiagnosed with tuberculosis.

The knock-on effect was that there had not been a single successful claim for workers’ compensation for work-related asbestos disease.

Indonesia is a major consumer and manufacturer of asbestos products, and is a key target for asbestos industry lobbyists, whose well-resourced campaign has targeted officials with the message than chrysotile asbestos can be used safely.

Wira Ginting, who heads up the Local Initiative for Occupational Health and Safety Network (LION) that supports asbestos workers and victims in the country, said: “There is huge, massive consumption of asbestos. But on the ground, there is no case of asbestos-related disease. For some people, it provides proof in support of the asbestos lobby’s position.”

In 2015, LION organised the independent medical examination of 20 workers in asbestos factories. The next step was to submit workers’ compensation claims on behalf of affected workers to the state social security agency, BPJS Employment. In what campaigners describe as a huge breakthrough, the agency has now for the first time recognised these cases as work-related asbestos disease, ruling they are eligible for compensation.

Source: Inside Story.

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UK union takes action against diesel exhaust fumes ‘time bomb’

A major new initiative to protect workers from the ‘ticking time bomb’ caused by exposure to diesel exhaust fumes has been launched by the UK Unite.

The union’s new diesel emissions register allows Unite members to record when they have been exposed to excessive diesel exhaust fumes. The union says the information will be used “to report accidents, force employers to clean up their workplaces and could be the basis of future legal claims.”

Diesel exhaust fumes exposure has been linked to cancer, respiratory disease and other chronic and acute health effects. The union initiative comes in the wake of a court case this year where the UK government was told it must publish its overdue revised plan to tackle illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere by a 9 May deadline.

Diesel engines are a major source of the gas. Unite’s register has already been trialled across the transport sectors where the union says the issue is a priority. It says the trial “has already produced disturbing results”.

The trial found affected workers reported short-term health concerns including wheezing (55 per cent), other respiratory problems (55 per cent), eye irritation (45 per cent), lightheadness (36 per cent), chest tightness (36 per cent), headache (36 per cent), nausea (27 per cent) and heartburn (18 per cent).

Long term problems recorded by Unite members included effects on lung capacity, breathlessness, asthma, being more prone to colds and flu and sinusitis.

Unite assistant general secretary for transport Diana Holland said: “Unite is acting to protect our members from the ticking time bomb of being needlessly exposed to poisonous diesel fumes.”

She added “where it is clear that employers are ignoring their legal duties, information from the register will be used to force employers who are making our members sick and ill to clean up their acts. If it can be proved that the health of workers has been damaged due to exposure to diesel fumes, Unite will consider taking legal action on behalf of our members.”

 

A continually-updated, annotated bibliography of occupational cancer research produced by Hazards magazine, the Alliance for Cancer Prevention and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).