All posts by Rory O'Neill

New report confirms work breast cancer risks

A first of its kind review of the scientific literature on women workers and breast cancer has uncovered more than 20 occupations associated with considerably increased risk of breast cancer compared to the risk for the general population.

“Because workers are often exposed to carcinogenic or toxic substances at regular doses for long periods of time, they are the modern day canaries in the coal mine,” said Jeanne Rizzo, president and CEO of San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund, which undertook the study. “We are confident that there is a better way forward, and that a cancer-free economy is within our grasp. It’s time to put breast cancer out of work.”

The study report, Working Women and Breast Cancer: The State of the Evidence, is the product of more than two years of work and is a review of most of the scientific studies that have been published in the past 25 years. The study found a link between breast cancer and a number of workplace exposures including solvents, pesticides, ionizing radiation and other toxic materials. There also was an association with night shift work.

The report concluded: “Research is inadequate, but there is enough to raise alarm about women’s work, occupational exposures and breast cancer. At the same time, policies are insufficient to protect worker health.”

Among the 20 plus occupations with considerably increased risk of breast cancer compared to the general population were:

  • First responders (police, firefighters, military personnel) – Up to 2.5 times higher risk
  • Food and beverage production workers – Up to 5 times higher risk
  • Hairdressers and cosmetologists – Up to 5 times higher risk
  • Manufacturing and machinery workers – Up to 3 times higher risk
  • Doctors, physicians and other medical workers excluding nurses – Up to 3.5 times greater risk

The report recommended that women should be included in occupational studies, noting they have “historically been excluded… which means that health issues that predominantly affect women, including breast cancer, have been at best understudied and at worst ignored.”

Responding to the findings, UK national union federation the TUC called for urgent action to address occupational breast cancer risks in women. TUC head of health and safety, Hugh Robertson, said: “This is a damning report and shows that much more must be done to protect women from exposure to chemicals at work.”

He said in July this year the TUC had asked the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the UK’s official health and safety regulator, “to produce new guidance on night work to help protect women from breast cancer, but this report shows that more needs to be done across the board to reduce the risk from work.”

BCF infographic page 26

Dick Clapp, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Health, Boston University School of Public Health and a member of the President’s panel on occupational and environmental cancer, welcomed the report.

He said: “The authors have produced a comprehensive and thoroughly documented review of the state of the evidence that should be immensely valuable to advocates, students and policy-makers. The Breast Cancer Fund deserves enormous credit for their leadership and vision in illuminating this important part of the breast cancer story.”

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European Commission blamed for 100,000 work cancers each year

The European Commission’s drive to simplify legislation for businesses has come under fire from trade unions for blocking EU laws that could save thousands of lives per year. Laurent Vogel, a senior researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), said that more than 100,000 workers were dying from work-related cancers each year, and blamed the European Commission for inaction.

Vogel is citing official data coming from the EU health and safety agency, EU-OSHA. And he said their fatalities toll is probably an underestimate. “100,000 deaths could be perfectly avoided. And the reality is above this figure, because it does not include the cases of cancers caused by endocrine disruptors,” said Vogel, speaking at a July 2015 EurActiv Institute workshop.

The Commission’s push for ‘Better Regulation’ is effectively blocking attempts to protect workers who suffer from exposure to toxic chemicals in their daily jobs, he added. “We have been discussing the revision of the carcinogens directive for the last ten years,” he said, claiming that Better Regulation “has completely paralysed the process”.

He denouncing a “cynical show” where business lobby groups request the Commission to conduct endless impact assessment studies before any new legislation can be considered.

“The recent scandal on the endocrine disruptors policy is a clear example of that,” Vogel said. “It gives you the real meaning of the nice words ‘better regulation’. They are used to paralyse any regulatory initiative when industrial lobbies just ask you to do so.” He said there has been “a dramatic increase” in breast, prostate and other cancers linked with workplace exposure to endocrine disruptors. Vogel stressed that binding limit values on exposure to some chemicals “are not sufficient” to protect workers from exposure to hazardous substances. “For instance, if we take the existing binding limit values, even if they are fully respected, they are still causing cancers,” he said.

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.

 

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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.