All posts by Rory O'Neill

International cancer study casts doubt on chemical exposure standards

Chemical exposure standards “should be revisited” because low level exposures to a mix of substances which individually might be harmless can together present a cancer risk, a major study has concluded.

The Halifax Project, a high-profile taskforce formed in 2013 by the international organisation Getting to Know Cancer, involved 174 scientists in 28 countries and investigated 85 chemicals that were not considered to be carcinogenic to humans.

The paper published in the journal Carcinogenesis notes: “Our current understanding of the biology of cancer suggests that the cumulative effects of (non-carcinogenic) chemicals acting on different pathways that are relevant to cancer, and on a variety of cancer-relevant systems, organs, tissues and cells could conspire to produce carcinogenic synergies that will be overlooked using current risk assessment methods. Cumulative risk assessment methods that are based on ‘common mechanisms of toxicity’ or common ‘modes of action’ may therefore be underestimating cancer-related risks.”

It concludes “current regulations in many countries (that consider only the cumulative effects of exposures to individual carcinogens that act via a common sequence of key events and processes on a common target/tissue to produce cancer) should be revisited.”

Lead researcher William Goodson III, from San Francisco’s California Pacific Medical Center, said his results show one-at-a-time testing is out of date and must be modernised. “Every day we are exposed to an environmental ‘chemical soup’, so we need testing that evaluates the effects of our ongoing exposure to these chemical mixtures,” he said.

New UK breast cancer charity urged to recognise risks

A newly merged breast cancer charity has been urged to acknowledge the environmental and occupational links to breast cancer and to back calls for prevention.

An open letter signed by concerned organisations and scientists expresses the hope that the merger between Breakthrough Breast Cancer and the Breast Cancer Campaign will prompt “progressive changes to breast cancer prevention policies.” The signatories of the letter to Breast Cancer Now, the new organisation headed by Baroness Delyth Morgan and which describes itself as ‘the UK’s leading breast cancer research charity’, include From Pink to Prevention, Breast Cancer Consortium, Challenge Breast Cancer Scotland, the Hazards Campaign and the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL).

The letter addressed to Baroness Morgan asks Breast Cancer Now to review its line on the incidence, risk and prevention of breast cancer, noting “we hope that future prevention policies will include the previously downgraded or overlooked roles of environmental and occupational risk factors in breast cancer”.

The letter adds that the organisation should “use its public and political influence to shape a new vision for breast cancer policy”, recognising the environmental and occupational links to breast cancer and promoting action to prevent exposures. It expresses concern that the organisations forming the new charity have consistently opposed precautionary policies to limit these exposures, and have downplayed the risks of substances including endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).

Sarah Woolley, a shop steward and executive council member with the UK bakers’ union BFAWU, urged trade unionists to back the campaign. Writing on the union’s website she said by “spreading the word and holding the government, manufacturers, companies and cancer research charities to account for their rather worrying lack of action and acknowledgement of EDCs, we can help stop breast cancer before it starts, rather than concentrating solely on treating it once we have it.”


‘Slow-motion’ tragedy for American workers

The power of industry to stall or stop lifesaving workplace rules in the US has been exposed in a Center for Public Integrity (CPI) investigation. CPI cites silica – which the federal safety regulator OSHA says threatens 2.2 million workers in the country, and which can cause cancer, deadly lung diseases and other serious health conditions – as a “striking example” of the government’s failure to properly regulate toxic substances in American workplaces.

“The silica rule still isn’t finished. If it is enacted despite industry protests, it will be only the 37th health standard issued by the agency in its 44-year history,” CPI notes. It says this is an ignominious record given the human and economic costs of work-related disease in the United States.

According to a widely cited University of California, Davis, study, an estimated 53,000 people died in the US in 2007 from on-the-job exposures – outnumbering those killed in suicides, motor vehicle accidents, falls or homicides. More than 400,000 others got sick as a result of their jobs. The price tag: an estimated $58 billion. Federal safety regulator OSHA puts the annual toll at more than 50,000 deaths and 190,000 illnesses.

CPI’s 18-month investigation “found that the epidemic of occupational disease in America isn’t merely the product of neglect or misconduct by employers. It’s the predictable result of a bifurcated system of hazard regulation – one for the general public and another, far weaker, for workers. Risks of cancer and other illnesses considered acceptable at a workplace wouldn’t be tolerated outside of it.”

OSHA doesn’t try to put a happy spin on its largely 44-year-old workplace chemical-exposure limits: The operative word, the agency says, is “antiquated” – simply complying “will not guarantee that workers will be safe.” In 2013 the agency launched a side-by-side comparison with other standards, some discretionary and some required only in California, to urge employers to voluntarily rely on more protective guidelines.



IARC links more pesticides to cancer

Three pesticides that have been heavily used in both agricultural and non-agricultural applications have been linked to cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) evaluated the carcinogenicity of the insecticides lindane and DDT and the herbicide 2,4-D. An IARC working group of 26 experts from 13 countries classified the insecticide lindane as carcinogenic to humans, giving it the highest Group 1 risk rating.

The experts, who published their findings online on 22 June 2015 in The Lancet Oncology, concluded there was sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of lindane for non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). The IARC group noted that large epidemiological studies of agricultural exposures in the USA and Canada showed a 60 per cent increased risk of NHL in those exposed to lindane.

The insecticide DDT was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), based on sufficient evidence that DDT causes cancer in experimental animals and limited evidence of its carcinogenicity in humans. Epidemiological studies found positive associations between exposure to DDT and NHL, testicular cancer, and liver cancer.

The herbicide 2,4-D was classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B), based on inadequate evidence in humans and limited evidence in experimental animals.

Lindane – which was used in agriculture, wood preservatives, disinfectant ‘fog’ bombs, and lice and scabies treatments – and DDT are no longer approved for use in the UK. However, workers with historic exposures may still be at risk of developing related cancers. And DDT is still used in control of insect-borne diseases like malaria.

Use of the herbicide 2,4-D is still allowed in the UK. It has found favour with local authorities for weed control on pavements and in parks and other public areas.

Nuke workers face ionising radiation cancer risk at low exposures

Prolonged exposure to low doses of ionising radiation can cause cancer in nuclear workers, a study has found. Research coordinated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which looked at the exposures of over 300,000 nuclear workers in the UK, France and the US, found that protracted exposure to low doses of ionising radiation can cause the blood cancer leukaemia.

The study, published online on 21 June in The Lancet Haematology, shows that the risk of death from leukaemia increases linearly with the radiation dose. “To date, this study provides the most precise evaluation of the risk of developing leukaemia linked to the protracted low doses of radiation received by nuclear workers throughout their careers,” commented IARC researcher Dr Ausrele Kesminiene, a study co-author.

“It shows that the nuclear workers we studied have a small increase in the risk of dying from leukaemia as their exposure to radiation increases.”

The International Nuclear Workers Study (INWORKS) evaluated the exposures of more than 300,000 nuclear workers in France, the United Kingdom, and the USA between 1943 and 2005. The study assessed the risk of developing certain cancers, such as leukaemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. The study found there was “strong evidence” for a positive association between exposure to ionising radiation and risk of death from leukaemia.

Indicating the findings are grounds for a rethink about permissible exposure limits for ionising radiation, IARC director Dr Christopher Wild explained: “Current standards used for radiation protection remain primarily based on acute high-dose exposures, derived from studies based on atomic bomb survivors in Japan.”

Low level solvent exposure linked to breast cancer

Women exposed to low levels of common organic solvents at work are 20 per cent more likely to develop breast cancer, a new study suggests.

The study looked at 1,205 women diagnosed with primary breast cancer between 2009 and 2011 and who were on the Western Australian Cancer Registry. They were matched to 1,789 controls from the electoral roll. Exposure to solvents was determined through telephone interviews. About a third of the women were occupationally exposed to solvents.

“The risk of breast cancer was 20 per cent elevated for women exposed to aliphatic solvents or to aromatic hydrocarbons other than benzene. The risks were lower for those exposed to benzene and chlorinated solvents,” the paper, published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, noted.

The authors added the risks, which were not statistically significant, “tended to be higher for breast cancer diagnosed before menopause than post-menopause, for those exposed to benzene, aliphatic and other aromatic solvents and chlorinated solvents.” They say the study suggests that there may be an association between occupational exposure to aliphatic and aromatic solvents and the risk of breast cancer at the low levels of exposure experienced by women in their study.

The authors note: “Our findings are consistent with previous reports of an elevated risk of breast cancer associated with occupations where exposure to solvents is likely.”

‘Silent epidemic’ in US linked to work chemicals

Workplace chemical exposures are the eighth leading cause of death in the US, but the country lacks any prevention strategy, an advocacy group has warned.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) said these exposures are responsible for more than 40,000 premature deaths each year. The group, unveiling a new worker right-to-know website, said occupational exposures kill malignantly, from cancer, neurological breakdown, cardiopulmonary disease, and other chronic maladies.

“More Americans die each year from workplace chemical exposure than from all highway accidents, yet we have no national effort to stem this silent occupational epidemic,” stated PEER executive director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that allowed chemical exposure on-the-job is roughly 1,000 times higher than in the general environment. “In the US, environmental protection stops at the factory door.”

PEER warns that these occupational risks may be on the rise as thousands of new chemicals are introduced in US workplaces each year. Yet scrutiny by the US workplace safety regulator OSHA is in slow decline, PEER notes. At its current rate of health inspections, it would take OSHA nearly 600 years to sample chemical exposures at half the nation’s industrial facilities that handle hazardous substances.

“Reversing this long lethal trend requires a national commitment to ‘green’ the American workplace,” said Ruch. “Above all, OSHA needs to rediscover its ‘H’ by taking affirmative steps to sharply reduce the slow poisoning of American workers.”

PEER worker right-to-know chemical exposure database.

Global asbestos industry celebrates business as usual

Asbestos demo genevaGovernments backing the asbestos industry have derailed attempts to require mandatory warnings on all its cancer-causing exports.

Russia and Kazakhstan – the world’s biggest asbestos exporters – headed a group of just four governments that refused to allow chrysotile asbestos to be put on the Rotterdam Convention’s list of hazardous substances for which ‘prior informed consent’ is required by importers. These two asbestos exporters were joined by Zimbabwe – which wants to re-open its mothballed asbestos mines – and Russia’s ally, Kyrgyzstan.

The group of four blocked the recommendation of the scientific committee to the United Nation’s convention, and the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the 160-plus countries participating in the May conference assessing substances for inclusion on the list. The system requires a unanimous vote.

The International Chrysotile Association (ICA), the asbestos industry’s global lobby organisation, was jubilant. “For the fifth time, inclusion of chrysotile has not been agreed. It is historical and without precedent. The policy of controlled use promoted by ICA still is the responsible accepted approach,” an ICA statement said.

Prominent anti-asbestos campaign Kathleen Ruff retorted: “Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, the corrupt information and the immoral conduct of the tiny number of countries who are sabotaging the Convention in order to protect their asbestos profits was condemned by the overwhelming majority of countries attending the conference.”

UK union Unite, Australian unions AMWU and CFMEU, and global unions BWI and IndustriALL protested outside the United Nations building on 12 May, as the convention conference started. IndustriALL ran a two-week long publicity campaign on Geneva transport to remind conference participants and the wider public that asbestos is still in production and responsible for killing at least 100,000 people a year.

Most work cancers go uncompensated in Australia

Less than 10 per cent of people diagnosed with occupational cancer in Australia get any compensation, a report has revealed.

Occupational Cancer Costs, a new review of workers’ compensation claims undertaken by Cancer Council Australia, found an average of 395 claims a year were made nationwide for work-related cancers, resulting in payouts of Aus$30 million (£15m), but that was a fraction of those who could possibly apply.

The council says a recent analysis suggests exposure to known cancer-causing agents at work such as dust, chemicals and diesel exhaust could cause up to 5,000 new cases a year in Australia. This meant more than 90 per cent of people diagnosed with a work-related cancer had not received compensation.

Report author Terry Slevin, chairman of Cancer Council Australia’s occupational and environmental cancers committee, said: “Workers who develop cancer because of workplace exposures should receive adequate compensation – but a much better approach for everyone is to ensure appropriate protection is in place to prevent the cancer. If they don’t act, employers and regulators will be sitting on a cancer time bomb.”

He added: “Australian businesses learnt their lesson the hard way when it came to the impact of asbestos and many Australians are still paying the price. We should be able to carry out a day’s work, and go about our working lives without putting themselves at risk of developing cancer. We also need to make sure those who are affected are properly compensated.”

The findings echo those in the UK, where hardly any non-asbestos cancers are compensated, and only a minority of even these asbestos cancers result in payouts. A TUC-backed report published in Hazards magazine in 2013, revealed for most occupational cancers the chances of getting any compensation is below 1 in 50.

TUC calls for action on glyphosate

UK union body TUC is calling for union safety reps to ensure workers are not exposed to a cancer-causing pesticide. A new briefing says because of the unquestionable risks posed by glyphosate, which can also cause short- and long-term skin, eye and respiratory problems and serious liver and kidney damage, it is “necessary to try to prevent any workers coming into contact with glyphosate.”

The TUC briefing comes in the wake of a March 2015 report in the journal Lancet Oncology, which revealed the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) new classification of glyphosate – the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and the world’s most widely-used herbicide – as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

IARC, a part of the World Health Organisation (WHO), cites evidence in Canada, Sweden and the USA linking workers’ occupational exposure to glyphosate to increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The report led to calls from the global food and farming union IUF to keep deadly pesticides out of the workplace and the food chain. The UK Alliance for Cancer Prevention said the use of glyphosate largely to kill off weeds in urban areas was not justified.

According to the TUC: “No workers should be put at risk of exposure to any substance that can lead to cancer. Many employers will not know about the risks from glyphosate, especially as the manufacturers still continue to insist there is no risk, despite the evidence.”

It adds: “Health and safety representatives should make sure they bring the information to their attention. Safety representatives must ensure that their employer reviews their risk assessments and share the results with them.” Safety reps have a right to see this information, the TUC said.