All posts by Rory O'Neill

Stricter silica rules in Australia will save lives and money

Preventing just five deaths a year in Australia caused by exposure to respirable silica would cover all the costs of far stricter controls on the cancer and lung disease-causing dust.

Curtin University occupational cancer researchers Renee Carey and Lin Fritschi warn that that without this action, Australian workers over a working lifetime will develop more than 10,000 future lung cancers, or a ‘future excess fraction’ of around 1 per cent of all the lung cancers in the Australian adult population.

Preventable exposures would also result in more than 80,000 cases of the often deadly lung scarring disease silicosis.

Stopping workers from entering areas near crushers on mine sites would prevent 750 lung cancers and almost 7,500 silicosis cases, they note. They added banning engineered stone could save up to 700 young workers from developing these diseases.

The future burden of lung cancer and silicosis from occupational silica exposure in Australia: A preliminary analysis. Curtin University report commissioned by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), 2022. The Conversation.

Asbestos cancer deaths in Great Britain stay high

Deaths linked to just one asbestos cancer are remaining around the high mark of over 2,500 cases each year, despite Health and Safety Executive (HSE) predictions that a sharp decline would start years ago.

The new figures show that 2,544 people died from the disease in 2020. This was 6 per cent higher than the 2,404 deaths in 2019.

It is broadly in line with the 2,523 average annual mesothelioma deaths figure over the eight year period from 2012 to 2019. The 2020 figure is the highest since the all-time high of 2,606 mesothelioma deaths was reported in 2016.

In the wake of the report’s publication, the Health and Safet4y Executive announced schools in England, Scotland and Wales are to be subject to an inspection programme, looking at how they are managing the risks of asbestos, starting in the new academic year.

The visits will be carried out by HSE inspectors. The regulator said its inspectors would contact the school beforehand to arrange a suitable date and time for the inspection.

The HSE mesothelioma statistics report acknowledged for the first time there is evidence of higher rates of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma in teachers, noting “proportional mortality ratios are somewhat higher for teachers and administrative occupations than those for nurses, sales occupations and process operatives, and this may suggest the potential for asbestos exposure during work time was somewhat higher in these jobs…”

Mesothelioma statistics for Great Britain, HSE, 6 July 2022. TES magazine.

Work exposures as a firefighter cause cancer – official

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has declared that occupational exposures as a firefighter a preventable cause of human cancer.

As its findings were published online in the journal Lancet Oncology, a working group of the World Health Organisation (WHO) agency announced: “After thoroughly reviewing the available scientific literature, the Working Group classified occupational exposure as a firefighter as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), on the basis of sufficient evidence for cancer in humans.”

Welcoming the decision, Riccardo la Torre of the UK firefighters’ union FBU said: “This classification should be a huge wake-up call for both the government and fire and rescue services. government now need to urgently acknowledge that cancer is an occupational hazard within firefighting.”

He added: “They also need to be pushing ahead with urgent improvements to protect firefighters from fire contaminants by utilising the union’s ground-breaking training. We also recognise that this news will be worrying for firefighters and want to reassure all of our members that the union will fight to protect your safety at work.”

The FBU national officer said: “No one should get ill from going to work, and firefighters deserve to go home at the end of their shift as safely and healthily as they begun it.

“The FBU will continue its work in this area to protect firefighters, but we have already consistently been warning the National Fire Chiefs Council, Fire Service Employers and Ministers of this risk and so far have seen very little action from most of them. It’s now time to sit up, listen and act to protect firefighters from this life threatening occupational hazard.

“DECON interim best practice report researcher Professor Anna Stec is a member of the IARC committee and the FBU can be proud of the role our research played in this decision.”

Firefighting was last classified by IARC in 2010 as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B).

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UN bodies rebut asbestos pusher’s safety claims

The UN bodies responsible for global labour and health rights have rebutted statements by the global asbestos industry lobby that they “support” the continued use of chrysotile, the last remaining commercially traded asbestos fibre.

The damning responses from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) came after the International Chrysotile Association (ICA) claimed both WHO and ILO policies are pro-asbestos. “As far as this policy remains… it should contribute to support the pro-chrysotile parties,” an ICA briefing notes.

In a statement to Hazards, WHO responded: “The World Health Organisation reiterates its policy, which remains unchanged, that the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to the stop the use of all types of asbestos.”

In an ILO statement responding to the ICA campaign, the UN labour rights body reiterated its long held position that “calls for the elimination of the future use of asbestos and the identification and proper management of asbestos currently in place as the most effective means to protect workers from asbestos exposure and to prevent future asbestos-related diseases and deaths.”

The ICA briefing was distribution at the June 2022 Rotterdam Convention meeting, where an official proposal to put right to know ‘prior informed consent’ requirements on chrysotile was again vetoed by just six  pro-asbestos governments.

The ICA’s Rotterdam Convention briefing document argues without foundation that its pro-asbestos position is consistent with WHO and ILO policies. It notes: “As far as this policy remains… it should contribute to support the pro-chrysotile parties”.

ICA is opposed to a Right to Know (prior informed consent) requirement on chrysotile asbestos exports, despite this being the repeat recommendation of the Rotterdam Convention’s Chemical Review Committee (CRC).

In response, the ICA questions the impartiality and “credibility” of the CRC, implying it may have been unduly influenced by third parties. In display text, it notes: “The CRC should never allow itself to be influenced by third parties its deliberations.”

The ICA briefing document includes criminally dangerous claims of “no observable health effects… with low level exposure.”

This point is both patently untrue and deliberately deceitful, and is rebutted explicitly by WHO, which notes: “No threshold for adverse effects has been identified, and therefore it is not possible to establish safe levels of exposure.”

WHO also points out that in developing countries, which are now the target of ICA’s asbestos export promotional activities, awareness of the risks and potential for preventive action may be limited, and related cancers may be missed or misattributed.

Worldwide, many of the exposures responsible for asbestos related deaths today occur from unwitting and largely uncontrolled exposures during DIY, construction and maintenance activities, as opposed to during primary production.

Countries with asbestos bans in place for two decades are still seeing record or near record levels of asbestos related cancers, caused almost entirely by asbestos in situ.

WHO position on chrysotile asbestos. ICA website and ICA Summary for Decision-Makers.

Europe’s firefighters discuss work cancer response

The UK Fire Brigades Union’s pioneering DECON project has been showcased at a meeting of the European Public Service Union (EPSU) Firefighters’ Network.

Riccardo la Torre, FBU national officer, said: “DECON is here to stay in the UK fire and rescue service. It’s got the entire sector speaking about the risk posed, and now firefighters from across Europe are keen to learn from each other.”

He added: “This meeting was also a huge opportunity for us to listen and discuss these issues, and we look forward to getting back to the UK and working with fire and rescue services to make progress on DECON and saving firefighters from early, needless deaths.

“Neither the bosses or the government have done this domestically, it’s been down to FBU members and the Firefighters 100 Lottery to carry out this life-saving work.”

Two discussion sessions took place, both focused on “Cancer as a professional disease for firefighters, impact of fire effluents and decontamination”.

The FBU is also calling for preventive health screening for firefighters and presumptive legislation recognising cancer as an occupational disease, to help protect firefighters and their families further from this occupational hazard.

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FBU expands work on fire contaminant risks

UK firefighters’ union FBU is to expand its work on the health impact of fire contaminants – toxic substances produced by fires – on firefighters. The move comes after ongoing FBU-commissioned research by the University of Central Lancashire highlighted elevated cancer risks in UK firefighters.

At its May 2022 annual conference, FBU agreed to fight for its DECON best practice training and prevention programme to be expanded throughout the fire service, including via national guidance, contaminants monitoring, cancer screening and fire station design principles.

The union also voted to expand the research to take into account reports that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), found in firefighting foams and some protective equipment, are hazardous to health.

FBU national officer Riccardo la Torre told the union’s conference: “It’s overwhelming to see how much conference, our members, our health and safety reps and our reps in branches have taken on this campaign.”

He added: “We can be the DECON generation. Remember the dead, and fight for the living – that’s exactly what this fight is.”

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Select Committee calls for asbestos removal from public buildings

A call by the UK union federation TUC for all asbestos to be removed from public and commercial buildings has been backed by MPs. The report of a Work and Pensions Select Committee inquiry into asbestos management cites TUC calls for an explicit asbestos removal plan.

Asbestos remains the biggest cause of work-related deaths in the UK according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), with 5,000 deaths recorded in 2019. And Britain has the highest rates of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma in the world.

According to figures from the HSE asbestos is still found in around 300,000 non-domestic buildings despite a ban on the use of the substance in new buildings in 1999.

The 21 April 2022 report from MPs cites concerns that the likely dramatic increase in retrofitting of buildings in response to net zero ambitions means that more asbestos-containing material will be disturbed in the coming decades.

The TUC says current asbestos management is not fit for purpose and has long called for new legislation requiring removal of all asbestos from public buildings.

The report from MPs calls for a 40-year deadline to remove all asbestos from public and commercial buildings. The TUC welcomes the news but says a 40-year deadline is not ambitious enough.

The report also calls for more funding for the HSE to support this increased programme of work.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Everyone should be safe at work. But asbestos exposure at work continues to cause thousands of deaths every year. Asbestos is still with us in workplaces and public buildings across the country.

“As a result, more than 22 years after the use of asbestos was banned, hundreds of thousands of workers are still put at risk of exposure every day.

“The only way to protect today’s workers and future generations is through the safe removal of asbestos from all workplaces and public buildings.”

But O’Grady added “a 40-year deadline isn’t ambitious enough: hundreds of thousands of workers risk dangerous exposure in that time. Ministers must commit to removing all asbestos to keep future generations safe.”

The Select Committee also called on the UK government to develop a central, digital asbestos register, containing information on asbestos in schools and hospitals as well as other public buildings.

Public service union UNISON submitted written evidence to the committee as a member of the joint unions asbestos committee, which has called for the removal of asbestos in schools to be prioritised.

UNISON national officer for health and safety Kim Sunley said: “Many of our members are living with the legacy of previous asbestos exposures and the devastation a diagnosis of mesothelioma can bring.

“The government must act now with a strategy to protect workers and future generations from this preventable cancer.”

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Saved documents expose Cape asbestos guilt

Documents saved from destruction thanks to a court battle waged by an asbestos campaign group have revealed UK multinational Cape was aware decades ago of the high risk of fatal cancer from the use of its top selling Asbestolux insulation board, but still pressured the government successfully in the 1960s and 70s to abandon a planned ‘no dust’ policy.

The Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK says the documents it fought to preserve will be vital to future asbestos compensation cases. They were obtained after the Forum commenced court proceedings in the UK courts against Cape following the 2017 case of Concept 70 Limited v Cape Intermediate Holdings Limited (Cape).

The documents, which were due to be destroyed before the Forum’s intervention, provide ‘extraordinary evidence’ that Cape was aware of the health risks from work with its asbestos insulation board Asbestolux in the 1950s, but in the 1960s and 70s still pressed the UK government to abandon plans for tight controls to protect its sales.

The Forum instructed Harminder Bains, a partner at law firm Leigh Day, to issue an urgent application to preserve the documents. The UK Supreme Court has now agreed the documents should be preserved.

Commenting on the ruling, Joanne Gordon, chair of the Forum, said: “The Forum is now demanding Cape make a donation of £10 million towards mesothelioma research. We believe victims and their families deserve this by way of an apology from Cape for their deliberate deception and shamelessly causing deaths, adding insult by vehemently defending cases.”

Harminder Bains of Leigh Day added the documents “show that Cape knew of the high risk of fatal disease, yet deliberately withheld information and lobbied the government to protect their profits. As a result of their greed many men and women including my father have lost their lives.”

She added: “This cover up would not have come to the light had it not been for the Forum’s persistence.”

 

New study highlights risks from workplace diesel exhaust exposures

A new evaluation of the protective health effect of tight workplace exposure standards for diesel engine exhaust has exposed the potentially high cost of the UK’s continuing failure to introduce any standard and its refusal to regulate diesel exhaust as a workplace cancer risk.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified diesel exhaust as a top rated ‘Group 1’ human carcinogen in 2012, but the UK still does not treat it as a workplace cancer cause for regulatory purposes.

The Utrecht University study published on 11 February 2022 indicated adherence to a new European Union standard could reduce the toll by a fifth, preventing hundreds of deaths a year in Great Britain, with a tighter still standard offering further dramatic reductions.

In 2018 the TUC warned the UK was failing to take the action necessary to protect workers and criticised its failure to regulate diesel exhaust fumes as a cause of occupational cancer.

Unite warned in 2017 that diesel exhaust exposures were a ‘ticking time bomb’, as it launched a diesel emissions exposure register. A GMB alert said as a result of high diesel exhaust fume pollution levels “street cleaners, refuse workers, parking enforcement staff, utility workers, police community support workers and others are particularly exposed to such pollutants.”

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimated in 2012 that there are 605 deaths a year in Great Britain from diesel engine exhaust related lung cancer.

However, a 2019 report from Hazards magazine noted that the real UK diesel-related occupational lung cancer toll could be over 1,700 deaths per year, more than 1,000 more deaths each year than the official HSE estimate.

The Utrecht study would indicate enforcing the EU standard would save over 300 lives a year in Great Britain from lung cancer alone.

HSE has opted not to introduce a workplace exposure limit for DEE. The Hazards report warned HSE’s failure to impose a workplace limit was the result of pressure from industry-financed groups.

Control of diesel engine exhaust emissions in the workplace, HSE, 2012. IARC Monographs – volume 105, Diesel and gasoline engine exhausts and some nitroarenes,  IARC, 2012.
Roel Vermeulen, Debra T Silverman, Eric Garshick, Jelle Vlaanderen, Lützen Portengen, and Kyle Steenland. Exposure-Response Estimates for Diesel Engine Exhaust and Lung Cancer Mortality Based on Data from Three Occupational Cohorts, Environmental Health Perspectives, volume 122(2), pages 172-7, February 2014 (first published online 22 November 2013).
The burden of occupational cancer in Great Britain: Lung cancer, HSE, 2012.
Fuming feature, Diesel out prevention factsheet and Die diesel die pin-up-at-work poster. Hazards 144, October-December 2018.
Diesel exhaust in the workplace: A TUC guide for trade union activists, October 2018. Unite diesel emissions register.

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Stricter European Union diesel exhaust rules would save many lives

A substantial number of lives would be saved each year by implementing a stringent workplace diesel engine exhaust exposure limit, a study has concluded.

Risk assessment experts from Utrecht University calculated the expected impact of the incoming European Union regulatory limit for occupational diesel engine exhaust (DEE) exposure on the excess burden of lung cancer in Europe.

In their paper in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, they note: “We evaluated the effects of intervention on DEE exposures according to a health based limit (1 µg/m3 of elemental carbon (EC)) and both Dutch (10 µg/m3) and European (50  µg/m3) proposed regulatory limit values. Results were expressed as individual excess lifetime risks (ELR).”

They conclude implementing the proposed health based DEE limit would reduce the ELR by approximately 93 per cent, while the proposed regulatory limits of 10 and 50  µg/m3 would reduce the ELR by 51 per cent and 21 per cent, respectively.

The authors conclude: “Although the proposed regulatory limits are expected to reduce the number of DEE related LC deaths, the residual ELRs are still significantly higher than the targets used for deriving health-based risk limits. The number of additional cases of lung cancer in Europe due to DEE exposure, therefore, remains significant.”

Exposure to diesel exhaust fumes is also associated with other cancers, respiratory disease, heart problems and other chronic and acute health effects, so the total ELR stemming from the new exposure standard would be substantial higher.