All posts by Rory O'Neill

Report calls for urgent action on firefighter cancers

Firefighters risk their lives to save ours. But work-related cancers caused by routine toxic exposures, both at incidents and in training, could be a far bigger risk to their health, warns a report in Hazards magazine.

Sid McNally joined Essex County Fire and Rescue Service in southern England in January 1995. In 2012, when he was 48, his wife noticed a lump on his neck and insisted he go to his GP, who referred him to the hospital. The hospital took a biopsy of his neck and decided to remove the lump.

After surgery, Sid was diagnosed with cancer of the base of the tongue. The consultant asked how many cigarettes he smoked per day. He had never smoked.

Sid recovered. But not all are so lucky, and the cancer risk faced by firefighters is worryingly high. This is the conclusion of a University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) independent report, commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and described as a ‘UK first’.

UCLan’s report includes a summary of over 10,000 responses to a national survey of currently-serving firefighters run jointly with FBU. It indicates working firefighters are diagnosed with cancer at four times the expected rate, with 4.1 per cent of firefighter respondents affected. Threequarters had served for at least 10 years before receiving their diagnosis; more than half were under the age of 50 and a fifth were under 40.

Commenting on its findings, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said: “Firefighters risk their lives every day to keep their communities safe. But it’s clear that the risk to their health doesn’t stop when the fire has been extinguished. Sadly we often see serving and former firefighters suffer from cancer and other illnesses.”

Full story: Smoking gun: Report calls for urgent action on firefighter cancers, Hazards magazine, December 2020.

 

Japan’s government must compensate site asbestos victims, says country’s top court

Japan’s Supreme Court has ordered the government to pay more than 22 million dollars (£16.2m) in compensation to former construction workers who developed lung diseases caused by asbestos.

The ruling is the first holding the government responsible in lawsuits filed by former construction workers and bereaved families. The plaintiffs say former workers developed lung cancer and other illnesses after inhaling asbestos at construction sites. They have demanded that the state and manufacturers of the materials pay damages.

The award to a group of about 350 workers was first made by a court two years go. The Supreme Court rejected the government’s appeal in December. The ruling also acknowledged the government’s responsibility for health problems developed by self-employed construction workers, but dismissed a call for the compensation to be increased.

An appeal by the former construction workers regarding a Tokyo High Court ruling that asbestos product manufacturers were not liable will be heard on 25 February 2021.

Asahi Shimbun. NHK World.

Victims call on asbestos frontman to resign

A lawyer heading up the asbestos industry’s global lobbying efforts has been urged to resign by asbestos disease victims.

In a 27 November 2020 letter sent to Emiliano Alonso, the president of the International Chrysotile Association (ICA), asbestos victims’ organisations in Belgium, France, Italy and the UK call on Alonso to respect the overwhelming scientific evidence that all forms of asbestos should be banned. It urges the ICA head to stop promoting the use of asbestos in developing countries and to resign immediately from his leadership role.

The ICA is funded by asbestos mining companies in Russia, Kazakhstan and Zimbabwe and asbestos dealers in India and Mexico. It lobbies to block and defeat bans on asbestos in developing countries, as well as efforts at the United Nations to secure safety protections regarding asbestos.

Emiliano Alonso is a Spanish lawyer whose consulting company, Alonso y Asociados, lobbies on behalf of clients at the United Nations, the European Union and elsewhere. Before taking up the position of president, he had been paid by the ICA for many years to promote the interests of the asbestos industry.

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Professional drivers put at greater risk of cancer

Professional drivers are facing a routine and serious health risk from diesel exhaust fume exposures at work. In what they described as “the largest real-world in-vehicle personal exposure study to date”, researchers from the MRC Centre for Environment and Health, Environmental Research Group and Imperial College London, found that professional drivers are regularly exposed to hazardous levels of diesel emissions as part of their work.

Other studies have linked diesel fume exposure at work to lung and blood cancer and heart, lung and other diseases). The new study funded by safety professionals’ organisation IOSH found that professional drivers are disproportionately affected by exposure to diesel exhaust fumes, including taxi drivers – the worst hit group – couriers, bus drivers and drivers working for the emergency services.

Dr Ian Mudway of Imperial College London, who led the DEMiSt research team, said: “We believe there are around a million people working in jobs like these in the UK alone, so this is a widespread and under-appreciated issue – indeed, it was very noticeable to us just how surprised drivers taking part in the study were at the levels of their exposure to diesel.”

In total, 11,500 hours of professional drivers’ exposure data were analysed in the baseline monitoring campaign. The results showed that, on average, professional drivers were exposed to 4.1 micrograms of black carbon per cubic metre of air (µg/m3) while driving, which was around four times higher than their exposure at home (1.1 µg/m3).

The levels recorded at home would be similar to levels experienced by office workers at their desks, the researchers said. The study found massive exposure spikes often occurred in congested traffic within Central London, in areas where vehicles congregate, such as in car parks or depots, as well as in tunnels and ‘street canyons’ (between high buildings).

IOSH news release and full report.
See the Hazards magazine feature Fuming, factsheet Diesel out and poster Die diesel die.

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Major EU coalition aims to stop cancer at work

A Stop Cancer at Work Campaign has been launched by coalition of professional organisations, trades unions and patient groups. The groups say their objective is to ensure that the current fourth revision of the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive (CMD) includes groups of carcinogenic and mutagenic hazardous drugs, which cause cancer, and that have not been included by the European Commission in proposals published on 22 September 2020.

They say cancer is the leading cause of work-related deaths in the EU, with over 120,000 work-related cancer cases recorded each year. A statement from the coalition notes: “In its proposal, the European Commission introduced binding occupational exposure limit values for three carcinogens, which we welcome, but the Commission also left out reprotoxins as well as carcinogenic and mutagenic hazardous drugs.

“There is a wide range of reproductive health problems caused by workplace exposure to reprotoxins including: reduced fertility or infertility, erectile dysfunction, menstrual cycle and ovulatory disorders, miscarriage, stillbirth, babies born too soon or too small, birth defects, child developmental disorders.”

The campaign will run for most of 2020 and 2021 and is urging those supporting its objectives to sign an online petition calling for the EU institutions “to take action and accept the necessary legislative changes to the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive.”

* Cancer at Work campaign  website and petition.

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Call for UK action on deadly silica risks

MPs in the UK House of Commons are being urged to take immediate action to prevent avoidable deaths and illness caused by exposure to respirable crystalline silica.

The British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), the scientific society on workplace health exposures, has written to MPs calling for action on a dust hazard which could put over 2 million workers at risk in the construction industry alone. It warns that hundreds are dying each year from the lung-scarring disease silicosis and that those infected by Covid-19 could be especially vulnerable.

Silica is also linked to 4,000 deaths a year from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Unions have also raised concerns about hundreds of preventable silica-related work cancer deaths each year and a link to serious autoimmune and other diseases.

BOHS warns: “With a shortage and ramped up costs for respiratory protection equipment (RPE) and pressures to cut costs and an over-stretched HSE [Health and Safety Executive], the Society fears the problem is about to get much worse.”

Kevin Bampton, the chief executive of BOHS, said: “Brexit is likely to dominate the parliamentary agenda, but this is literally life and death. Parliamentarians have recognised the urgency of this issue; we are now asking them to follow through on this. Action now can prevent Covid-19 deaths, but also long-term illness and disability.”

The union Unite has been at the forefront of the campaign for better controls on silica, which is a risk to its members in construction, foundries, ceramics, quarries and other sectors.

In 2019, Unite launched a silica exposure register for its members and backed a campaign to cut the current UK legal limit of 0.1 mg/m³ for respirable crystalline silica to no more than 0.05 mg/m³. It said this move would dramatically reduce the incidence of silicosis, lung cancer, autoimmune diseases and other silica-related conditions.

ACTION: Send an e-postcard to HSE demanding it introduce a more protective UK silica standard no higher than 0.05mg/m³ and with a phased move to 0.025mg/m³. www.hazards.org/HSEstopkillingus.

EU work cancer action welcome, but not enough

Trade unions have welcomed action by the European Commission they say will protect over 1.1 million people from work-related cancer by putting binding exposure limits on three dangerous substances

The Commission has proposed Binding Occupational Exposure Limit Values (BOELs) on acrylonitrile, nickel compounds and benzene as part of an update to its Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive (CMD). It means new or updated limits have now been placed on 27 carcinogens since 2014.

However, the Europe-wide trade union body ETUC expressed concern that “no action has been taken to limit exposure levels to 20 more cancer-causing substances, while existing exposure limits for common workplace carcinogens like crystalline silica, diesel emissions and asbestos do not offer sufficient protection and urgently need to be updated.”

ETUC said its objective is to have at least 50 priority carcinogens with BOELs under the CMD by 2024. ETUC deputy general secretary Per Hilmersson said: “No one should be placed at risk of cancer when they go to work. New EU limits on three cancer-causing substances is a step in the right direction, but too little at a time when 100,000 people die of work-related cancer every year.”

He added: “It is clearly unacceptable that workers still have no protections from 20 high risk substances, so the Commission must continue updating the legislation to ensure there are exposure limits on all of the most dangerous cancer-causing substances.”

Commission Proposal for the fourth revision of the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive.

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Anger in Canada as ‘non-profit’ pushes asbestos globally

A lobby group promoting asbestos sales in developing nations and listed in Quebec as a public interest ‘non-profit’ should be deregistered by the provincial government, health campaigners have said.

In a letter to Quebec Premier François Legault, Kathleen Ruff of RightOnCanada and Dr Jean Zigby, past president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, call for the International Chrysotile Association (ICA) to be stripped of its non-profit status under the Quebec Companies Act.

The Quebec government states that non-profit organisations incorporated in the province must undertake moral or altruistic activities. Ruff and Zigby say legal precedents have established the courts have the authority to remove ICA’s non-profit status because of its ‘immoral, deadly activities’.

The August 2020 findings of a Quebec government commissioned independent commission into chrysotile asbestos “rejected the misinformation disseminated by the ICA and called on the Quebec government to take action to protect the people of Quebec from asbestos,” Ruff and Zigby say.

Calling for ICA to be denied non-profit status, they note: “For the past 23 years the ICA, operating out of Quebec, has played a leading role in obstructing bans on asbestos in developing countries and in sabotaging protections against asbestos harm under the UN Rotterdam Convention.

“At the moment Quebec is employing a double standard and is treating the lives of people overseas as having less value than the people of Quebec. This is bringing dishonour on Quebec and is against the public interest.”

RightOnCanada blog and 21 September letter to the Quebec Premier.

Industry tries to stall hazardous chemicals database

A coalition of 40 manufacturing industry organisations has urged the European Commission to put the brakes on a new EU chemicals database requiring suppliers selling products containing hazardous substances to provide extra information about their chemical constituents.

The trade bodies, which represent business across wide sections of the economy from aerospace to battery manufacturers, wrote to commission president Ursula von der Leyen on 21 September 2020 urging her to postpone by at least one year the European Chemicals Agency’s (ECHA) new Substances of Concern in Products (SCIP) database. The lobbyists also want ECHA to carry out a “usefulness study” to test the “feasibility, proportionality and impact” of the database on business, which they argue is unworkable and of little value.

Suppliers of products containing substances of very high concern (SVHC) are being asked to list extra information on the safe use of “complex objects” – such as electronic equipment or furniture – and “articles as such” containing SVHCs above 0.1 per cent weight for weight. However, the trade bodies want the SCIP database revised according to the outcome of the requested ECHA feasibility study.

“A proper impact study should help shape the way forward to deliver on the EU ambition for a circular European economy,” states the letter, which was signed by organisations including BusinessEurope, auto industry body ACEA and batteries group Eurobat. The letter is supported by international trade bodies including the US National Association of Manufacturers.

Industries letter to EC president Ursula von der Leyen.

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Regulator and CRUK refuse to see the light on night work cancer risks

A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) position statement on night work cancer risks has been dismissed as ‘nonsense’ by leading occupational cancer experts.

Since a 2016 study backed by the UK health and safety regulator HSE and Cancer Research UK (CRUK) concluded the classification of night work as a cause of breast cancer was ‘no longer justified’, both organisations have stuck by this conclusion.

However, an international expert working group convened in 2019 by the UN’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) confirmed not only the previous ‘probable’ breast cancer rating for night work, it added prostate, colon and rectal cancers to the work-related associations.

Questioned by Hazards magazine on IARC’s new findings, published in a June 2020 IARC monograph, an HSE spokesperson said: “HSE’s position on this matter remains unchanged.” HSE added: “The IARC review highlighted the challenges in measuring the potential effects of night shift work whilst taking into account other cancer risk factors when performing research studies, and that large-scale studies may not necessarily be able to provide the appropriate evidence to clarify if there is a causal link between night shift work and cancer.”

However, Eva Schernhammer, a Harvard Medical School expert who was on the IARC working group, described the HSE responses as “pretty stunning” and “difficult for me to reconcile.”

She added that HSE’s comments on the research challenges were “such nonsense! It was the study that they funded, that should not have been conducted at the first place given the limited information it allowed to draw – underpowered, too short follow-up, women long out of night work given their age. But clearly there are other large-scale studies which very much were able to 1) take into account other cancer risk factors; and 2) were very much able to provide the appropriate evidence.”

CRUK also stood by the earlier research findings.  CRUK’s Amy Hirst told Hazards the IARC review involving top cancer scientists from round the world was “interesting,” but added “there haven’t been any major changes to what we know since IARC’s last review.”

Danish Cancer Society researcher Johnni Hansen, who was also on the IARC expert group, described Hirst’s comments as “arrogant and conservative, scientifically not correct, and in contradiction of international expert evaluations,” including both IARC reviews.

In addition to the IARC monograph, he pointed to a 2018 report from the US government’s Office of the Report on Carcinogens (ROC/NTP) which concluded different night work circumstances were either ‘known’ or could be ‘reasonably anticipated’ to cause cancer in humans.

Schernhammer said the CRUK comments were in “direct contravention” of the facts.

Night work has risen to record levels in the UK. Around 3.25 million people – more than 1 in 9 workers – work in Britain’s night-time economy.  ‘In the dark’, the new Hazards magazine report on the controversy, concluded: “As HSE sits on the sidelines, the known at-risk group of night workers it is ignoring has just increased by at least 2 million and could equate to several hundred extra work-related cancers each year.”

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