US industries queue up to defend their toxins

A new US chemical safety law has triggered an immediate response from chemical producers – a helter-skelter rush to ensure their favourites are the back of the queue for official scrutiny.

The Frank R Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act for the 21st Century, passed into law in June this year, gave the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority needed to evaluate and regulate the tens of thousands of commercial chemicals it oversees in the US.

The law was hailed as a more transparent ‘new risk-based safety standard’, replacing the Toxic Substances Control Act’s (TSCA) cost-benefit analysis that required EPA to include commercial considerations when deciding on chemical restrictions.

“But many industry group comments suggest we’ve not heard the last of the old argument,” writes chemical safety journalist Elizabeth Grossman. She says on the ‘keep off’ list are top causes of occupational cancer, including asbestos, benzidine dyes and vinyl chloride monomer.

While industry groups are actively defending the toxic substances they produce or use, other stakeholders are calling on EPA to make these high risk substances a priority. Senator Barbara Boxer, the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee’s ranking Democrat, has written to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy asking that asbestos be among the first 10 chemicals the Lautenberg Act considers.

“The EPA’s proposed choices are due by mid-December,” writes Grossman. “They will reveal whether the Lautenberg Act will move to restrict hazardous chemicals of great concern to workers and work sites.”

Firefighters’ guide to occupational cancer prevention

The UK  firefighters’ union FBU says occupational cancer is a ‘serious threat’ for firefighters. In response, the union has produced an initial guidance document which highlights the basic principles to follow to prevent unnecessary contamination with smoke, fumes, chemicals and other hazardous substances before, during and after incidents.

The union says FBU officials will be asked to raise these issues with management and at health and safety committee meetings. It adds that some fire and rescue authorities have already taken steps to address the problem, but says ‘our aim is that it will soon be on the agenda in every brigade.’

FBU says Contaminants – protection against cancer, which includes a 10-point action plan, is only initial advice. “The FBU is looking at medium and longer term options,” it notes. “As a member you can start to make a difference today by adopting the principles suggested in this document.”

US union campaign to tackle cancer risks from firefighting

US firefighters are more at risk for cancer than the general population, according to union research forming part of a high profile campaign for fairer compensation laws and prevention measures.

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF)  report says the risk is “significantly higher for firefighters than the general population” because when fighting fires they are apt to come into contact with synthetic materials such as plastics, foam and coatings that contain carcinogens. The report cites a 2013 study by the US government’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) that found firefighters have a 14 per cent increased risk of dying from cancer when compared with the general population.

“Our communities and their legislators need to understand how PTSD and cancer are impacting their firefighters over the course of a long and dedicated career protecting the public,” IAFF president Harold Schaitberger said in a statement. “New advanced protocols are needed to help prevent PTSD and cancer from taking hold, and more elected officials need to step up and support laws that help firefighters afflicted with these hidden hazards.”

The IAFF has run a highly successful campaign for state-based presumptive legislation for firefighters who contract cancer, meaning in most instances firefighters developing a related cancer qualify for compensation automatically. In April, Idaho became the 34th state to introduce these presumptive protections. The union has also developed occupational cancer prevention resources.

The study also found firefighters were at a much greater risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

 

The cancer secret of Canada’s chemical valley

Chemical Valley Video by Sara Ashtiani & Alex Leszkowiat.

Chinese benzene cancer victims speak out

Workers employed by Chinese electronics giant Johnson Electric have spoken out after developing blood cancers they say are caused by chemical exposures at work.

Three employees or former employees of Huaseng Motor (Guangdong) Limited in Shenzhen, a subsidiary of Johnson Electric, believe they contracted leukaemia due to prolonged exposure to hazardous chemicals, including the potent human carcinogen benzene. They say the company provided neither safety equipment nor training for workers, with a number of them contracting leukaemia as a result.

Xie Fengping, a mother of two daughters, had worked for Johnson Electric since late 2008. Her main duties were to handle inks and thinners to print labels on products. In September of 2013, she was diagnosed with acute leukaemia. Zeng Shumei worked for the company from August 2009 and was diagnosed with the cancer in 2013 after being exposed to substances including paints, thinners and industrial alcohol. Zou Xiuhua, who had worked for Johnson Electric since early 2013, was diagnosed with acute leukaemia in June 2014.

The firm has denied any of the cancers are work-related and has refused to pay either medical costs or compensation. It also obstructed efforts to get the workers assessed by the occupational health clinic.

The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) affected workers went public in a July press conference in Hong Kong, before going on to the Johnson Electric annual general meeting, where company CEO Dr Patrick Wang declined to hear their complaints. The Johnson Electric website notes: “The Company also welcomes comments and questions from individual shareholders at its Annual General Meeting,” a welcome not apparently extended to employees.

The workers want the company to recognise their cancers are work-related, provide compensation and medical expenses, and to improve health and safety at the company. They also want an end to the use of benzene and other potentially deadly chemicals.

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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.

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).