Night shift work ‘probably’ causes cancer in humans

The available evidence suggests working night shifts “probably” causes cancer in humans, a group of top experts has concluded.

In June 2019, the working group of 27 scientists from 16 countries met at the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France, to finalise the evaluation of the carcinogenicity of night shift work. The working group included scientists whose work had previously reached divergent conclusions, some sceptical of a link between night shifts and breast cancer and some strongly supportive of an association.

The group assessment will now become the official IARC cancer rating for night shift work, and will be published in volume 124 of the IARC Monographs.

Writing in the Lancet Oncology in July 2019, the authors note: “Overall, the Working Group concluded that a positive association has been observed regarding night shift work and breast cancer; however, given the variability in findings between studies, bias could not be excluded as an explanation with reasonable confidence.”

They also noted studies “provide some evidence that night shiftwork is positively associated with risk of prostate and colorectal cancer; however, because the studies were few in number and the results lacked consistency, chance and bias could not be ruled out.”

The authors conclude: “In sum, the Working Group classified night shift work in Group 2A, ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’, based on limited evidence of cancer in humans, sufficient evidence of cancer in experimental animals, and strong mechanistic evidence in experimental animals.”

In a 24-7 economy, night work could be a growing threat to health. A TUC analysis of official figures last year indicated the number of people working night shifts in the UK has increased by more than 150,000 over the past five years. The union body said the number working nights now stands at more than 3 million workers – or one in nine of the total UK workforce.


UK union GMB to campaign on work-related bladder cancer

The UK union GMB is to launch an awareness campaign on the link between work in certain industries and bladder cancer.

The decision at the union’s annual Congress commits it to target a problem it says particularly affects workers in the male-dominated chemical dye and rubber industries. However, the union said the chemicals linked to bladder cancer also occur “in hair dyes, paints, fungicides, cigarette smoke, plastics, pollutant emissions from industrial installations, and metal and motor vehicle exhausts, which can affect both male and females.”

GMB says there are an estimated 100,000 men and women living with bladder cancer in the UK and approximately 15,000 new cases are diagnosed annually, making it the fifth most common cancer overall.

GMB London’s regional secretary, Warren Kenny, said: “Occupational bladder claims thousands of lives per year, and it is likely that official statistics are underestimated as there are many causes of the cancer, meaning the link to work is often not made. Due to the long latency before symptoms manifest, it is often perceived to be an older person’s condition. As such there has been little campaigning for preventative approaches and such an approach is long overdue.”

Kenny said the union would work with both the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Fight Bladder Cancer campaign to “provide a much needed focus on this overlooked cancer and help to provide access to decision-makers in industry and government who can help address the shortage of research funding and poor prioritisation of bladder cancer.”

Samsung victim wins decade long fight for recognition

A victim of occupational cancer caused by toxic exposures while working at Samsung has won a decade long fight for compensation.

On 5 June 2019, Han Hye-kyung was notified her workers’ compensation claim had been approved by the South Korean compensation authority KCOMWEL.

Han, 41, was diagnosed with a brain tumour at the age of 27 in 2005. Four years earlier, in 2001, she had resigned from Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, where she had handled hazardous chemicals while soldering together LCD parts for six years. Han was only 17-years-old and still in high school when she began to work at Samsung.

In 2009, Han, together with her single mother, Kim Si-nyeo, petitioned unsuccessfully for workers’ compensation. However, in 2017 South Korea’s supreme court ordered KCOMWEL to posthumously pay workers’ compensation to a Samsung worker who died of a brain tumour. This decision paved the way for Han to request the re-evaluation of her workers’ compensation case. Two years later KCOMWEL finally decided in Han’s favour.

Both Han and her mother Kim are active members of grassroots campaign group SHARPS, which has spearheaded the campaign for justice for Samsung’s occupational disease victims. Both have attended “countless” SHARPS pickets, protests and rallies.

Despite the family facing terrible hardship, they turned down a surreptitious 2013 offer from Samsung executives of KRW 1 billion (U$1m/£665,000) and full medical coverage, because the settlement was conditional on the family severing its ties with SHARPS.

Strong support in New Zealand for firefighter work cancer law

The New Zealand firefighters’ union (NZPFU) has said it has received ‘strong support’ in its campaign for official no-fault compensation for firefighters struck by a range of cancers. The union was speaking out after it enlisted the help of a Canadian union legal expert to promote the case for ‘presumptive’ legislation, where named cancers are presumed to be caused by work as a firefighter and compensated by the country’s no-fault Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC).

The New Zealand union praised the assistance it has received from Winnipeg Firefighters Union (UFFW) president Alex Forrest, a firefighter and lawyer and expert on firefighters’ cancer. NFPFU said with his help New Zealand was “well on the way to achieving cross-party support for presumptive legislation to recognise firefighters’ occupational cancers.”

The move would require a simple amendment of the compensation law to recognise an inclusive list of firefighters’ cancers as qualifying for payouts. To coincide with the Canadian expert’s visit, the union organised a presentation to MPs, who NZPFU said “had great questions and all left supportive of our campaign,” followed by a parliamentary lobby.

Presumptive cancer lists in North America cover compensation for brain, bladder, ureter, kidney, colorectal, oesophageal, breast, testicular, prostate, lung, skin, leukaemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma.

South Korean government study confirms microchip factory cancer risk

Female workers at South Korean semiconductor plants face a 1.59 times higher risk of contracting leukaemia and a 2.8 times higher risk of dying from the disease than other workers, according to the findings of the country’s first ever government backed study.

The risk of female workers in the industry dying from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was 3.7 times higher. Study finding presented by the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency (KOSHA) also identified elevated risk ratios for thyroid cancer, stomach cancer, breast cancer, brain and central nervous system cancer, and kidney cancer.

The 10-year epidemiological study examined 201,057 current and former workers at six semiconductor companies, including Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix. Its findings provide a conclusive official confirmation of claims made over the past decade by workers’ rights campaigners.

SHARPS, the campaign group that has fought a high profile campaign for semiconductor factory occupational disease victims, said the risks may have been underestimated as in-house subcontracted workers were not included in the analysis.

“In the cases of stomach, breast, and thyroid cancer, they need to examine whether the increases [in reports] are the result of night-time shift work or the effects of radiation exposure [at factories] rather than simply being due to more opportunities for health checks,” the group added.

Hwang Sang-gi, the SHARPS president and father of Samsung occupational cancer victim Hwang Yu-mi, said campaigners had been vindicated.

“When our Yu-mi applied for industrial accident recognition in 2007, Samsung insisted [her leukaemia] was an isolated case, and the government just parroted that position, so they didn’t end up taking responsibility. Now it has been proven that what we said 10 years ago is 100 per cent correct,” he said.


Monsanto hit by new cancer and surveillance exposure

Global agrochemicals giant Monsanto has faced a double hit, ordered to make another massive cancer compensation payout and accused of compiling a potentially illegal dossier on its opponents.

On 13 May 2019, a jury in California awarded more than $2bn (£1.5bn) to a couple who said the best-selling weedkiller Roundup was responsible for their cancer. It is the third time that the German pharmaceutical group Bayer, which now owns Monsanto, has been ordered to pay damages over the glyphosate-based herbicide.

The jury ruled the company had acted negligently, failing to warn of the risks associated with the product. Bayer denied the allegations and says it will appeal. It insists that Roundup is safe to use.

The jury in Oakland, California, said Bayer was liable for plaintiffs Alva and Alberta Pilliod contracting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after they used the product for years to landscape their home and other properties. “The jury saw for themselves internal company documents demonstrating that, from day one, Monsanto has never had any interest in finding out whether Roundup is safe,” said their counsel, Brent Wisner.

The jury awarded each of them $1bn in punitive damages as well as a total of $55m in compensatory damages. Bayer now faces more than 13,400 US lawsuits over Roundup’s alleged cancer risk.

The court award came after the French newspaper Le Monde  revealed on 9 May 2019 that government officials in the country are investigating a potentially illegal file compiled by Monsanto on critics of its chemicals and genetically modified crops.

The document was prepared for the company by PR agency Fleishman Hillard, which in 2018 also “helped Monsanto Company (now part of Bayer) develop their 2017 Sustainability Report: Growing Better Together.”

The PR company’s website recommends firms ‘get smart’ on reporting, with new approaches “ushering in an era of hybrid reporting that’s tailored to the particular needs of companies and their stakeholders.

Bayer says it has now dropped the global public relations firm.

‘Urgent’ action call on growing occupational cancer menace

Occupational cancer is the large cause of work-related deaths and the numbers affected are increasing, leading experts have warned.

A position paper authored by an international group of work cancer specialists, published in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine, notes “it is clear that occupational cancer now represents the primary cause for work-related deaths globally and in many regions of the world, and the numbers continue to grow. In spite of efforts for prevention and control by several international organisations, institutions and authorities, the level of occupational cancer mortality and morbidity has remained high.”

The paper cites recent estimates that indicated occupational cancer accounted for 27 per cent of the 2.4 million deaths due to work-related diseases. It notes: “In numerical terms, this estimate means that the number of deaths attributable to occupational cancer annually increased from 666,000 deaths in 2011 to 742,000 deaths in 2015. This increase could be explained by different variables such as the evidence on new carcinogens, the methods of estimation, changes in the industry distribution of workers and the growing and ageing of the population.”

The authors concluded that the need to define a global policy on occupational cancer prevention is an “urgent matter” requiring the “development of a priority action strategy to control and reduce occupational cancer as effectively as possible.”

Global trade union body ITUC has identified occupational cancer prevention as a priority issue, and has developed prevention guides and campaign materials.

Vested interests again protect deadly substances at UN meeting

Exports of deadly substances including chrysotile asbestos and a slew of pesticides will not require a health warning after a handful of governments defended them at a United Nations conference.

The substances were being considered for inclusion on the UN Rotterdam Convention’s ‘prior informed consent’ (PIC) list, which would require exporters to inform importers of the potential risks. Both chrysotile and paraquat had also been recommended for inclusion by UN officials on numerous previous occasions.

Commenting on the failure of the UN Conference of the Parties to list chrysotile despite the long-term support of the overwhelming majority of governments for the move, Phillip Hazelton of the Asian Ban Asbestos Network (ABAN) said: “The long term blockage to listing chrysotile, the world’s biggest occupational disease killer, must end and it’s up to those countries who are as frustrated as we are, to do it. They must come forward with a viable solution to break the blockade on the listing of chrysotile asbestos.”

Pesticides Action Network Asia Pacific (PANAP) expressed deep concern at the failure of the conference to list four of the five highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) proposed for inclusion on the PIC list.

A small number of countries blocked the listing of paraquat (Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile), fenthion (Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda), acetochlor (Argentina, Chile), and carbosulfan (Kenya, India, Brazil).

“It is highly disappointing that some policymakers still chose to misinterpret the Convention and to ignore the body of evidence of the serious harm these pesticides cause to human health and the environment,” said Sarojeni Rengam, PANAP executive director.

“The incredibly slow pace with which pesticides are listed in the Rotterdam Convention – which doesn’t even constitute a ban, and only requires Prior Inform Consent in trade – show that existing mechanisms will not satisfactorily solve the problem of pesticides use.”

Governments agree to ban on cancer chemical

Firefighters’ unions have played a central role in a successful push to get a cancer-linked chemical banned under a United Nations treaty.

Governments at a Stockholm Treaty meeting in Geneva agreed to the global ban on PFOA/PFAS, fluorinated chemicals linked to cancer and reproductive harm that does not break down and causes adverse health effects at background levels.

Unions and environmental campaigners welcomed the ban, but criticised “unjustified” five-year exemptions for PFOA use in semiconductor manufacturing, firefighting foams, fire-resistant textiles claimed to protect workers, photographic coatings for films, and medical devices.

Additionally, China, the European Union and Iran obtained wide-ranging exemptions for fluorinated polymers, medical textiles, electrical wires, and plastic accessories for car interior parts.

“From a firefighter’s perspective, we know we have significantly raised PFAS levels in our blood,” said Commander Mick Tisbury of Australia’s United Firefighters Union (UFUA). “We feel we have a ticking time-bomb in our bodies; we do not know when it will explode or even if it will explode – we just want the bomb removed!”

Governments agreed special controls on PFOA-containing firefighting foams, prohibiting production, export or import and not permitting their use in training.

Before the meeting, industry fire experts and firefighters released a new report demonstrating that cost effective fluorine-free firefighting foams meeting regulatory standards and have been widely adopted by world-class airports and major companies.

“Governments should listen carefully to industry fire safety professionals and firefighters who actually put out fires and rapidly move to phase out fluorinated firefighting foams,” said Pamela Miller, co-chair of IPEN, a network of environmental and chemical safety campaigns. IPEN worked closely with firefighters’ unions to press for the PFOA ban.


Work cancer risk warning after UK government safety cuts

New evidence confirming a cancer risk to tyre and rubber workers may go ignored because of the UK government’s safety deregulation and cuts, the union Unite has warned. The union was commented after research published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine revealed that workers in the tyre and rubber industry remain at significant risk of developing cancers caused by exposure to N-nitrosamines and rubber dust.

Unite noted the study findings were “particularly timely as it comes just before International Workers’ Memorial Day as the theme for this year’s event is dangerous substances – get them out of the workplace,” with the 28 April global event having a particular focus on occupational cancer prevention.

The union, which represents thousands of workers in the industry, says it is unable to properly address the new health concerns as there is no longer an effective body where it can raise such issues. It charges that this “is a result of the Conservative government’s attacks on safety laws.”

Unite says the  UK government safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), previously had a Tyre and Rubber Industries Safety Action Group (TRISAG), with active involvement of both employers and unions, where safety concerns could be raised and dealt with. “However TRISAG has been scrapped as a result of government pressure and no similar body has replaced its work,” the union says.

The new study confirms earlier findings that “N-nitrosamines exposures are associated with mortality from cancers of the bladder, lung, stomach, leukaemia, multiple myeloma, oesophagus, prostate, pancreas and liver.”

Unite national officer for the rubber industry Tony Devlin said: “This authoritative study is a stark reminder of the long-term health implications of being exposed to rubber. These dangers are being neglected as a direct result of the government’s cuts which are denying workers an effective voice in the corridors of power.”

He added: “The lack of an effective forum to deal with exposure to cancer causing substances is another example of how the government has washed it hands of workplace health and safety. Cancer deaths will not be reduced unless effective measures are taken to cut exposure levels to N-nitrosamines and rubber dust.”

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).