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.


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.


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.”


Trade secrets law protects Samsung, not Korean workers

Global electronics giant Samsung, which in 2018 made a public apology for the toxic workplace exposures that led to a spate of occupational cancers known to have killed over 100 workers in Korea, can keep its toxic secrets, a court has ruled.

On 20 February 2020, the Seoul administrative court ruled in favour of Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, allowing it to withhold certain information regarding the chemicals used in its microchip production. By law, the company is required to provide the government with biannual reports on the exposure levels of about 190 hazardous chemicals. In 2018, a court ordered the government to release in full this information relating to Samsung’s LCD factories, despite the company’s fierce opposition.

Samsung took the case to the administrative court, claiming its rivals could use any such full disclosure to “deduce” trade secrets related to chip production. Campaign group SHARPS, which advocates for Samsung’s occupational disease victims, had pressed for the full disclosure because this information can be used as evidence for workers’ compensation petitions.

The advocacy group, which has appealed the latest court decision, commented: “The latest ruling is in tune with a revised trade secret law that took effect on 21 February. The amendment exempts companies from the disclosure of information on hazardous materials should they prove it as core national technology. It does not spell out what constitutes ‘a core national technology,’ but empowers them to lodge criminal complaints and seek punitive damages for any such disclosure.”

SHARPS, supported by 14 lawmakers from a branch of Overland Park family law firms, has pledged to reverse the trade secrets amendment. At a 24 February press conference, a statement from the 14 lawmakers noted: “Unknown to us, controversial clauses were deeply hidden in the amendment. We repent our negligence in the legislation and take responsibility.”

SHARPS said it “will also petition the Constitutional Court to determine the constitutionality of the amendment.”


Occupational cancer webinar, 28 February 2020

The European Cancer League (ECL), the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) and the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) are to run a special webinar on occupational health and the European Code Against Cancer on 28 February, 12:00-1:00pm UK time, 1:00-2:00pm CET.

They say with more than 100,000 deaths per year, cancer is the number one work-related cause of death in the European Union. Over half (53 per cent) of all work-related deaths are caused by occupational cancer. Ensuring adequate prevention strategies and protection measures for workers requires an EU-wide response, yet there are large differences in the level of protection of workers across Europe.

Presenters are Tony Musu of the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), who will give an introduction to occupational cancers and the role of civil society in reducing work-related exposure risks, and William Tailler from the European Commission, who will provide an overview of the legislative and regulatory actions the Commission is taking to prevent exposure.

Occupational cancer webinar, 12:00-1:00pm UK time, 1:00-2:00pm CET, 28 February 2020. Register now.


Diesel ‘fog’ footage spurs cancer concern at UK rail depot

Toxic diesel fumes emitted by trains at a UK rail depot could be linked to a number of staff members developing cancer in recent years, the union Unite has warned. The transport union said three staff members at the Neville Hill rail depot in Leeds have developed cancers of the throat, with a fourth being diagnosed with throat and lung cancer.

A further four staff members also developed cancers of the lung, mouth, bowel and kidney respectively. Two of the eight staff members affected have died from the disease. All of the cancers have been diagnosed within a six-year period, with four staff members being diagnosed within the last two years. Nearly of all of the staff have worked at the depot for more than a decade and four of the staff are making legal claims.

Unite said the troubling instances of cancer at the site were revealed as a ‘shocking’ video filmed in late December 2019 emerged of a train spewing a ‘toxic fog’ of diesel emissions into the depot – an occurrence workers at Neville Hill report happens regularly.

The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified diesel engine exhaust emissions as a class one carcinogenic agent in 2012, putting the fumes in the same cancer-causing category as asbestos and tobacco. IARC said diesel emissions can cause lung cancer and said there was also a ‘positive association’ with bladder cancer.

Unite said it is raising its concerns with Network Rail, which owns the depot and East Midlands Rail, which runs and employs staff at the depot, and is calling on them to take ‘decisive action’ to stop workers being exposed to diesel emissions. Unite regional officer Kevin Hepworth said: “The video captures just how this cancer-causing toxic fog fills the depot that staff are expected to work in. Unite believes that the carcinogenic diesel emissions that our members at Neville Hill have been surrounded by day-in day-out, often for years at a time, could be linked to cancer rates at the depot.”

Unite national officer for health and safety Rob Miguel said: “Sadly the problem with diesel emissions at Neville Hill is just the tip of the iceberg. Exposure to diesel emissions is common across all sectors in which staff work in enclosed environments where engines are running. Inadequate controls such as archaic outdated ventilation systems, mean the health of countless workers is being put at serious risk.”

Unite runs a diesel exhaust emissions register, where members can log their exposures. The union says the register can assist its prevention efforts and provide evidence to support compensation claims where workers go on to develop diesel exhaust fume related ill-health.

Diesel exhaust fumes contain a mix of potent poisons linked to lung and bladder cancer, potentially fatal heart problems including heart attack and stroke, asthma, bronchitis, emphysema (the chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases or COPD) and other chronic harm including cognitive’ impairment, or brain damage.


Austrian glyphosate ban set to take effect in January

The Austrian government’s plan to ban sales and use of the cancer-linked herbicide glyphosate from 1 January 2020 looks set to go ahead. Neither the European Commission nor EU member states have challenged formally the ban on all uses of glyphosate adopted by Austria’s parliament in July this year, paving the way for it to come into effect.

In Austria, the move is supported by a cross-party coalition in parliament, civil society, environmentalists, small farmer organisations and trade unions. Should be ban now go ahead, Austria would become the first EU country to ban the world’s most widely used herbicide, best known as Monsanto’s ‘Roundup’.

However, global farm and food union federation IUF, which has called for a total ban on glyphosate worldwide, has concerns the move could still be frustrated. “While glyphosate maker Bayer/Monsanto had immediately indicated its intention to seek to overturn the ban, and the European Commission questioned its compatibility with the rules of the single market, neither the Commission nor any of the Member States registered their formal opposition during the mandatory ‘standstill period’, which expired at the end of November,” IUF noted.

“The caretaker government’s agricultural ministry and the powerful farm lobby linked to the conservative Austrian People’s Party, however, have suggested that there may still be procedural grounds for objecting to the law; opponents of the ban fear it could catalyse similar action in other EU countries.”

IUF has been critical of the EU’s inaction on glyphosate risks. In February is said while the campaign to stop glyphosate reauthorisation in the European Union failed, “it succeeded brilliantly in exposing the agrochemical industry’s grip on the regulatory agencies tasked with protecting public health and the environment.”

A briefing from the union body concluded: “Now is the time to step up organising on the broadest possible basis at national, European and international level for an immediate ban on the most toxic agrochemicals, targeted reductions in pesticide use and comprehensive support for a transition to socially and environmentally sustainable agriculture”.


Unions welcome extension to Europe’s roadmap on carcinogens

Unions have joined safety organisations and regulators across Europe in signing up to an extension of the EU Roadmap on Carcinogens. Europe-wide trade union organisation ETUC said the objective of this voluntary action scheme is to raise awareness amongst workers and employers about the risks of exposure to carcinogens.

The initiative was first launched in May 2016 under the Dutch EU Presidency, and has been extended each time the presidency switched to another nation.

Per Hilmersson, the ETUC deputy general secretary responsible for health and safety at work who signed the new covenant at a conference held by the Finnish EU Presidency, said: “The EU Roadmap on Carcinogens shows the willingness of Member States, the European Commission, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, and the social partners to work together to prevent work-related cancers.”

ETUC said the activities developed by the many partners of the Roadmap aim to provide employers with information on evaluation and risk management methods, to raise the awareness of companies regarding the risks of exposure to carcinogens, and to deepen the exchange of good practices which already exist in this field.

It said with more than 100,000 deaths each year in the EU, occupational cancers are the greatest cause of deaths due to bad working conditions.


Spain warned by unions not to weaken cancer controls and sacrifice workers’ health

Europe’s top trade union body has condemned Spanish government proposals to reduce the protection for workers against cancer-causing substances.

The government plan is on the pretext of transposing the newly revised European Union (EU) directive on carcinogens or mutagens at work into national law.

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is urging Spain’s caretaker government to abandon the plan to increase the exposure limits for the workplace carcinogens crystalline silica, acrylamide and bromoethylene.

“Sacrificing workers’ health on the altar of competitiveness is unacceptable,” said ETUC deputy general secretary Per Hilmersson. “It is unthinkable to subsidise companies by allowing them to increase workers’ exposure to cancer-causing substances, and pass the healthcare and others costs to families and society. EU directives on occupational health and safety only define minimum standards. Member States should maintain or have higher levels of protection for workers, not reduce standards to the EU minimum.”

For crystalline silica, the current Spanish occupational exposure limit value is 0.05 mg/m³, in line with the US. However, the draft decree to transpose the EU directive allows for twice as much exposure, with the proposed new level set a 0.1mg/m³.

ETUC says the scientific literature shows that there is a significant mortality rate at this level, from silicosis, lung cancer and other health effects. Researchers have calculated the rate of potentially fatal silicosis is six times higher at the weaker 0.1mg/m³ standard.

For acrylamide, which causes pancreatic cancer, the Spanish government intends to triple the maximum exposure level. For bromoethylene, which causes liver cancer, the government would allow the exposure threshold to be doubled.


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).