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.”

 

More evidence links welding fumes to cancer

More priority needs to be given to protecting the world’s estimated 111 million welders and other workers from exposure to toxic welding fumes, according to Harvard University’s David Christiani.

The professor of environmental genetics at the university’s TH Chan School of Public Health was among 17 scientists from 10 countries who met last month at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France, to review scientific literature and evaluate the carcinogenicity of several welding chemicals to humans.

“The Working Group found new evidence to support the conclusion that welding fumes are a likely cause of lung cancer in humans, possible cause of kidney cancer, and definite cause of melanoma of the eye,” Christiani said. In addition to fumes, welding can expose workers to radiation and asbestos, which are known to cause cancer.

The UK Health and Safety Executive’s 2012 top 10 occupational cancer ‘priorities for prevention’ include welding-related lung cancer.

Two other chemicals evaluated at the IARC meeting — molybdenum trioxide (sometimes used in welding) and indium tin oxide (used to make computer screens) — were determined to be possibly cancer-causing in humans.

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Industry seeking to ‘sabotage’ global asbestos controls

Unions should take action to stop the asbestos industry once again ‘sabotaging’ efforts to better control its toxic exports, the global union for the construction sector has said.

BWI was speaking out ahead of a crucial conference to update the UN’s Rotterdam Convention list of especially hazardous substances subject to ‘prior informed consent’ (PIC) health warnings when they are exported. Past conferences, which take place every two years, have seen the blocking of every attempt to get chrysotile asbestos – the only form currently in production – added to the PIC list, after extensive lobbying by the industry.

A requirement for consensus – which is being challenged at this conference – means the asbestos lobby only has to enlist the support of one government to block the proposed listing. The latest Conference of Parties, to take place in Geneva from 24 April to 5 May, will see government representatives from 160 countries gather to discuss which hazardous substances should be listed. It will be the sixth time the conference will hear a UN recommendation that chrysotile asbestos be added to the PIC list.

“Chrysotile meets all the criteria for inclusion,” said Ambet Yuson, BWI’s general secretary, “so it is outrageous that this is being blatantly and persistently blocked by asbestos exporting countries. We need all governments to push the exporting nations to behave responsibly, and to recognise that this Convention is fundamentally flawed.”

He added the requirement for unanimity should be removed “in order to put an end to this farcical situation, which completely undermines the credibility of this important international convention.”

Global union IndustriALL and international trade union confederation ITUC have also urged their affiliated unions to press for a change to the voting system, backing a proposal by a group of African nations. The recommends a switch to the 75 per cent approval system that exists already for the two other UN treaties dealing with hazardous substances and exports, the Basel and Stockholm conventions.

Regulators collude with or capitulate to the agrochemical lobby

Regulators in the the US and Europe have been accused in turn of colluding with or capitulating to the global agrochemical lobby as it seeks to keep a cancer-linked herbicide on the market.

Global food and farming union IUF slammed a 15 March 2017 ruling by the European Chemicals Safety Agency (ECHA) that the toxic herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, is not carcinogenic.

The conclusion of ECHA’s risk assessment committee – which goes against the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) March 2015 expert assessment that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans” – is based largely on unpublished industry reports.

But IUF says ‘substantial evidence’ from independent researchers was disregarded by ECHA in a ‘weight of evidence’ approach which prioritises ‘risk’ over hazard elimination.

The ECHA report was issued two days after internal Monsanto documents released by a United States court documented the company’s consistent efforts to produce glyphosate-friendly studies and squash independent reviews by government regulatory bodies.

The court released the documents, which reveal the extent of collusion between Monsanto and the Environmental Protection Agency, in response to a lawsuit brought by agricultural workers linking glyphosate exposure to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer.

The European Commission must issue a final decision on glyphosate reauthorisation by the end of 2017.

According to IUF: “In Europe, the fight over glyphosate, and the wider struggle to rescue the food system from its addiction to toxic pesticides and destructive production methods, has come full circle to where it was one year ago.”

The global union added: “Public authorities have once more demonstrated the extent of their capture by the industry they are charged with regulating, while new evidence for banning glyphosate continues to accumulate. Sustained public pressure is needed now more than ever to take our food system off the pesticide treadmill.”

IARC said its evaluation of glyphosate is not affected by the ECHA review, and the ‘probable human carcinogen’ designation will remain.

A 23 March 2017 paper in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health is highly critical of the science used to justify glyphosate’s approval and called for a ‘urgent’ review. “It is incongruous that safety assessments of the most widely used herbicide on the planet rely largely on fewer than 300 unpublished, non-peer reviewed studies while excluding the vast modern literature on glyphosate effects,” it noted.

“After a review of all evaluations, we conclude that the current safety standards are outdated and may fail to protect public health and the environment.”

UN experts slam myth that pesticides are necessary

Two United Nations experts have called for a comprehensive new global treaty to regulate and phase out the use of dangerous pesticides in farming, and move towards sustainable agricultural practices.

Their 7 March 2017 report, which is highly critical of the claims made by the pesticide industry, notes chronic exposure to pesticides has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, hormone disruption, developmental disorders and sterility.

The experts for the UN’s Human Rights Council note: “The assertion promoted by the agrochemical industry that pesticides are necessary to achieve food security is not only inaccurate, but dangerously misleading.” It adds: “The industry frequently uses the term ‘intentional misuse’ to shift the blame on to the user for the avoidable impacts of hazardous pesticides. Yet clearly, the responsibility for protecting users and others throughout the pesticide life cycle and throughout the retail chain lies with the pesticide manufacturer.”

Farmers and agricultural workers, communities living near plantations, indigenous communities and pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposure and require special protections, the report notes.

It was authored by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, and the Special Rapporteur on Toxics, Baskut Tuncak. They told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that widely divergent standards of production, use and protection from hazardous pesticides in different countries are creating double standards, which are having a serious impact on human rights.

The Special Rapporteurs pointed to research showing that pesticides were responsible for an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year. The overwhelming number of fatalities, some 99 per cent, occurred in developing countries where health, safety and environmental regulations were weaker. Urging a new approach to farming, they say: “It is time to overturn the myth that pesticides are necessary to feed the world and create a global process to transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production.”

 

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).