British mesothelioma stats show need for asbestos action

A single type of asbestos cancer has killed over 2,500 people in Great Britain for three consecutive years, latest official statistics show.

National union federation the TUC, commenting on the release by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) of mortality figures for mesothelioma, said although most people have probably never heard of the cancer, the new figures for 2014 show that “for the third year running, the number of deaths from mesothelioma has been over 2,500 and this level is likely to continue for at least the rest of the decade.”

The TUC calculates that since mesothelioma deaths figures were first published in 1968, “the number of people who are recorded as having died from mesothelioma in the past 46 years is 54,631. Given the high levels of under-diagnosis in previous decades, the true figure is much higher.”

TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson noted: “We could have prevented most of these deaths if the government had listened to the unions and safety campaigners instead of the employers and asbestos industry when asbestos was being widely used in the 1960s and 70s.

“The importation and use of asbestos was banned in the UK in 1999 so of course we are now told that mesothelioma is soon going to become a disease of the past. Well it is not. There are still millions of tonnes of it in place in at least half a million commercial properties, and every day thousands of workers are put at risk of breathing in the fatal fibre.”

He said while the government’s recent moves to compensate mesothelioma victims and to provide seed corn funding for a research centre into the condition was welcome, “if it wants to really do something about this terrible disease, it has to take the more long-term view and work toward the complete eradication of asbestos. Only then will we be able to consign mesothelioma to the history books.”

New calls by UK teaching unions for asbestos removal from schools

Calls for the UK government to remove asbestos from all schools and colleges have been stepped up following the death of a teacher.

Sue Stephens, who was a primary school teacher in Buckinghamshire for almost 30 years, died on 26 June of the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma. The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) said the government must prioritise the removal of asbestos from all schools and colleges.

Kevin Courtney, acting general secretary of the teaching union NUT, said: “Yet another teacher’s life has been tragically cut short by this dreadful, and entirely preventable, disease. Nothing can be done to put right past asbestos exposure, but we must do more to protect future generations of schoolchildren and staff. The government must now set out a long-term strategy for the phased removal of asbestos from all schools.”

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the union ATL, said: “It’s scandalous that every year teachers and support staff are dying from asbestos related illnesses because they have been exposed to asbestos in school. The government must listen and start a phased removal of all asbestos in schools so that no more children or teachers are exposed to asbestos and risk dying from this entirely preventable disease.”

WHO warning on the public health impact of chemicals

Chemical exposures are causing a public health catastrophe claiming over a million lives worldwide each year, a World Health Organisation (WHO) report has concluded.

The public health impact of chemicals: knowns and unknowns’, produced by the UN body’s International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS), estimates that 1.3 million lives and 43 million disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) were lost in 2012 due to exposures to selected chemicals.

However, it says data are only available for a small number of chemical exposures and people are exposed to many more chemicals every day. The report notes that chemical production is increasing “and, with it, the potential for chemical exposure.”

It adds: “Chemicals such as heavy metals, pesticides, solvents, paints, detergents, kerosene, carbon monoxide and drugs lead to unintentional poisonings at home and in the workplace. Unintentional poisonings are estimated to cause 193,000 deaths annually with the major part being from preventable chemical exposures.”

WHO says to quantify population health impacts from exposure to chemicals, a systematic literature review compiled estimates and summaries of chemical exposure and links between the respective chemicals and disease or injury.

“The preferred source was global estimates of population impacts for selected chemicals based on comparative risk assessment (CRA), followed by estimates based on more limited epidemiological data or, finally, expert opinion,” the report notes.

Occupational and environmental cancers are included in the WHO calculations, although the estimates used may be considered by critics to be conservative and based on an incomplete list of known causes, leaning heavily on work initiated by the UK Health and Safety Executive and co-authored by Lesley Rushton of Imperial College London.

The WHO report notes: “The list of chemicals classified as human carcinogens with sufficient or limited evidence is long. Occupational carcinogens are estimated to cause between 2 per cent and 8 per cent of all cancers. For the general population it is estimated that 14 per cent of lung cancers are attributable to ambient air pollution, 17 per cent to household air pollution, 2 per cent to second-hand smoke and 7 per cent to occupational carcinogens.”

It adds: “Reducing exposure to hazardous chemicals is essential to  achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)” developed by the United Nations.

Canadian unions win work cancer evidence breakthrough

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled 7-1 that workers made ill by hazardous substances at work don’t need to prove their case with scientific certainty in order to collect workers’ compensation.

Health union members Kristina Hammer, Patricia Schmidt and Anne MacFarlane are three of seven lab technicians out of a total of 63 who developed breast cancer after working at a Mission Memorial Hospital over a 20 year period. Their cancers occurred at a rate eight times higher than expected.

The women blamed their work environment which, especially early in their careers, meant working with solvents and reagents containing known carcinogens. Until 1994 the air intake vent of their lab was near the hospital incinerator that burned medical waste containing plastics and chemicals.

The Supreme Court found HSA members Katrina Hammer and Anne MacFarlane and HEU member Patricia Schmidt were entitled to workers’ compensation payouts. Their employer, Fraser Health Authority, fought their claims for more than a decade.

HSA president Val Avery said: “Beginning almost 15 years ago, these union members embarked on a campaign for compensation because they were sick. Today, they are responsible for setting an important precedent for all workers.”

The union’s lead counsel, Tonie Beharrell, said: “If there is evidence that occupational factors are an element in workers’ health, a tribunal is able to consider all of the evidence before it, including circumstantial evidence, and, in this case, approve workers’ compensation coverage.”

“This is a significant victory for women and men on health care’s front lines who in the course of caring for others, become ill because of workplace hazards,” says HEU Secretary-Business Manager Jennifer Whiteside.

The unions say at issue was the role and authority of administrative tribunals that have specialised expertise in their particular area, and whether the courts ought to be able to dismiss that expertise and reweigh the evidence that was before the Tribunal.

The joint union submission noted “the scientists and physicians were weighing the evidence against the standard required to reach ‘scientific conclusions’ based on ‘scientific evidence.’ That is a significantly higher test than that required in the administration of the workers’ compensation scheme for the adjudication of workplace disease claims, and in fact requiring the Appellants to meet that test would fundamentally undermine the purpose of that scheme.”

In its judgment, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled: “While the record on which that decision was based did not include confirmatory expert evidence, the Tribunal nonetheless relied upon other evidence which, viewed reasonably, was capable of supporting its finding of a causal link between the workers’ breast cancers and workplace conditions.”

Asbestos-related cancers cost Canada billions

A first-ever estimate of the toll of asbestos-related cancers on Canadian society pegs the cost of new cases at $1.7-billion (£1bn) per year in Canada, and notes this is probably an under-estimate.

The economic burden of lung cancer and mesothelioma from work-related asbestos exposure in Canada amounts to an average of Can$818,000 (£471,000) per case, according to a team led by health economist and senior scientist Dr Emile Tompa at the Toronto-based Institute for Work & Health. The calculations, reported in the Globe and Mail, include costs related to health care and lost productivity and the impact on quality of life.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau said in May the federal government is “moving forward on a ban” on asbestos. It was the first time since taking office in October 2015 he had publicly talked about a potential ban, although he gave no timeline and it was not an official announcement. “We are moving to ban asbestos,” he told a conference of building trades unions on 10 May. “Its impact on workers far outweighs any benefits that it might provide.”

The economic burden numbers are based on newly diagnosed cases in 2011 that were attributable to occupational exposure. The calculation is based on the number of new cases of mesothelioma, a cancer associated almost exclusively with asbestos exposure, for that year, along with estimates on the numbers of new lung cancer cases caused by workplace asbestos. These totalled 2,099 in 2011.

The study noted that new cases are likely to grow in the near future due to long latency periods of these diseases and continued exposure.

For decades, Canada was the home of global asbestos lobby and until at least 2011 was still receiving support from both the federal and Quebec governments. In recent years, the failure of Canada’s asbestos mines led to the closure of the Chrysotile Institute in 2012 and saw the lobbying base move to Russia.

UK tax office under fire over work diseases compensation backlog

UK government tax officials are breaching the human rights of bereaved spouses and the terminally ill by making them wait more than a year for essential employment records in work-related disease compensation claims, lawyers have warn.

Solicitors acting for sick workers say an average time of 383 days to retrieve historic work histories by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is denying claimants the right to pursue firms over sometimes terminal occupational diseases.

HMRC blames a lack of machines to access records held only on archaic microfilm and the volume of claims. It adds officials are “scouring the internet” for spare parts to fix the decrepit readers and have given priority to mesothelioma sufferers, who are promised their details in just ten days. However, this asbestos cancer makes up much less than a third of work-related cancer deaths each year, with other non-prioritised occupational diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) also killing substantially more.

Law firm Irwin Mitchell says it has dozens of clients with other conditions such as lung cancer, or who have lost spouses to work-related conditions, who are waiting up to 18 months. It said that in such cases the delays were a breach of the right under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights to have civil claims heard “in a reasonable time.” Some with little time to live risked being denied justice altogether, lawyers argued, accusing officials of failing to act on their calls for action to improve the service.

Roger Maddocks, a partner at the law firm, said: “It is particularly concerning that the backlog for work history requests is running at 383 days, preventing people determining their rights within a reasonable time.”

He added: “We have yet to receive any indication that HMRC is taking any adequate steps to address these serious issues, which are having a significant impact on those who have developed terrible illnesses as a result of their employment, who are desperate for answers from their former employers about why steps were not taken to protect them, and their colleagues, from harmful substances.”

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European Commission proposals on endocrine disruptors criticised

Groups advocating for greater control over endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) – a range of common substances linked to cancer, reproductive and other adverse health effects – have said European Commission (EC) proposals “will do nothing to protect human health.”

The proposed criteria on EDCs were announced on 16 June 2016 by EC Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, after three years of intense debate and industry lobbying which stalled progress. The Commission was criticised by the European Court of Justice last year for the delay.

The UK-based Alliance for Cancer Prevention said “the disappointment and frustration at the failure of the proposed criteria to offer any protection against EDCs is palpable as they demand an impossibly high burden of proof to link EDCs to adverse human health effects, which means that few EDCs will be banned as a result. Shockingly the core underpinning principle of all EU chemicals legislation, the precautionary principle, has been totally omitted.”

The alliance says over 1,300 studies have linked EDC exposure to cancer, infertility, reproductive disorders, cancer, birth defects, obesity, diabetes, neurological and behavioural defects, and learning difficulties.

The EDC Free Europe Coalition also condemned the EC’s failure to propose protective measures and called on member states to “insist on major changes because these proposals will do nothing to protect human health and environment from further harm but instead allows the pesticide and chemical industries to continue using harmful substances to which we are all daily exposed.”

These concerns were echoed by Dr Anna Lennquist, a toxicologist with the Gothenburg-based ChemSec non-profit chemical safety advocacy group. She said that under the proposals, “EDCs cannot in practice be identified until they have been proven to cause adverse effects in humans. Obviously, such criteria will fail to protect human health.”

Calling on the European Parliament and member states to reject the draft, ChemSec said problems that need to be addressed include a change of wording from “negligible exposure” to “negligible risk”, an edit that raises the burden of proof enormously. It concludes: “Criteria for identifying EDCs need to be in line with the identification of other chemicals so that the precautionary principle can be functional and the criteria can be used to prevent harm.”

Low demand means no interest in reopening Zimbabwe’s asbestos mines

The Zimbabwe government’s hope that asbestos mining could be revived in the country have not been realised because there is little interest in the deadly product.

Ministers have supported efforts to secure capital to reopen the troubled Shabanie and Mashaba Mines (SMM), but these efforts have failed to bear fruit. President Robert Mugabe’s administration has negotiated with several potential foreign investors, mainly from Russia and China, but it now appears all hopes to resuscitate Shabanie Mine in Zvishavane and Gaths Mine in Mashaba have evaporated.

The Financial Gazette reports the two asbestos mines, which closed in 2008, require US$1 billion in fresh capital to resume operations. Mines and Mining Development deputy minister, Fred Moyo, earlier this year conceded that efforts to lure investors were being hampered by low global demand for asbestos.

“We are not getting investors [for SMM] and it seems to be a big problem largely because the market for asbestos is not looking good,” Moyo said.

New Zealand unions welcome ‘long overdue’ asbestos ban move

Unions have welcomed what they say is a long overdue move by the New Zealand government to ban imports of almost all asbestos-containing products. “Thousands of kiwis have been killed from being exposed to asbestos.

We’ve known for a long time how dangerous this material is. It is certainly a relief that the government has finally acted,” said Sam Huggard, secretary of the national union federation CTU. “Almost 200 people die every year as result of exposure to asbestos. It can take as long as 20 years from when people are exposed to asbestos fibres to when they actually get sick, so there hasn’t been the same immediacy to address this hazard as there has been to other dangerous workplace bio-hazards.”

However, he criticised a government decision to allow some exemptions to the asbestos ban, which is due to take effect on 1 October 2016. “We are disappointed that the government has not gone as far as they could have and banned, without any exception, all importation. Kiwis will be safer with less asbestos. We are pleased that the changes we have been calling for, have now been, mostly, actioned.”

Malignant lymphoma recognised by Korean government

In what has been described as an ‘unprecedented’ ruling, authorities in South Korea have recognised malignant lymphoma (non-Hodgkin lymphoma) as an occupational disease.

The Korea Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service (KCOMWEL) decision on 1 June 2016 approved workers’ compensation to Park Hyo-soon, a former Samsung Electronics Co Ltd employee who died of the blood disorder four years ago.

Her family were supported throughout the lengthy adjudication process by victims’ campaign and advocacy organisation SHARPS. The group says it has identified around 200 Samsung workers who developed the blood condition.

In 2002, Park Hyo-soon got a job as chip-line operator at Samsung, a few months before graduating high school. She was diagnosed with terminal lymphoma in 2010, about four years after she quit her job at Samsung. She died in 2012, aged just 28.

In a statement, SHARPS said: “Korea Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service (KCOMWEL) on 1 June decided to grant workers’ compensation to the late Park Hyo-soon, aged 28 years, citing that non-Hodgkin lymphoma, or malignant lymphoma, constitutes an occupational disease as she could have developed it as a result of exposure to benzene or other materials.”

It added: “KCOMWEL’s decision is significant because for the first time it declared malignant lymphoma an occupational disease.”

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).