After a decades-long battle for compensation, the voices of ailing General Electric workers in Canada are finally being heard. Early indications are that around two-thirds of the previously denied occupational cancer and other work-related disease claims made by former employees at the GE plant in Peterborough, Ontario – one of Canada’s oldest industrial operations – are being overturned.
The reversals are part of an ongoing review by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), which committed to re-open 250 rejected claims for a range of devastating illnesses, following a Toronto Star investigation into hazardous working conditions at the Peterborough factory. Of the 47 files reviewed to date, the WSIB has now approved 30.
Earlier this year, health researchers Bob and Dale DeMatteo published a comprehensive report with the union Unifor which found that GE Peterborough workers were exposed to more than 3,000 toxic chemicals in their workplace between 1945 and 2000, at levels hundreds of times higher than what is now considered safe.
WSIB spokesperson Christine Arnott said the board’s review is considering “new information or evidence that was not available when an original claim decision was made,” including the DeMatteo report. “We want to make sure our decisions reflect the best available scientific evidence and current knowledge of historical exposures,” she said.
A significant part of the evidence that originally weighed against the 660 claims made by GE Peterborough workers between 2004 and 2016 was a health study conducted by General Electric in 2003. That study, which was later submitted to the WSIB, claimed there were no excess cancer rates at the GE factory when controlling for factors like age and smoking. Around half of workers’ claims were subsequently denied, abandoned or withdrawn.
Earlier this year, GE workers’ union Unifor commissioned its own expert review of the GE study, which found it was of “mediocre quality” and “too poorly conducted to instill any faith in its results.” It also pointed to flaws in the methodology that may have misrepresented the exposure risks workers faced on the job.
Urgent action is required to protect workers from cancer risks at work, a major international conference has heard. “Workplaces are not merely spaces where people work – they are spaces where people live their lives. Anything which would be prohibited on grounds of consumer health or environmental protection should also be prohibited in workplaces,” said Laurent Vogel, a researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI).
His remarks came in a closing address to a November 2017 ‘Work and cancer’ conference in Brussels. Conference papers have now been made available online.
A study into the costs of occupational cancers in the European Union, commissioned by the ETUI and carried out by a consultancy firm, revealed that the highest levels of exposure to carcinogens are still experienced by manual workers. Taking France as an example, 36 per cent of lung cancers, 10 per cent of bladder cancers and 10 per cent of pharyngeal cancers can be traced back to occupational exposure.
According to ETUI, cancers at these sites are frequently associated with exposure to the carcinogens most commonly encountered in construction and industrial settings, including asbestos, silica, hexavalent chromium, wood dust and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Commenting on the existing EU law on workplace carcinogens, ETUI added: “It is worth remembering that the Directive obliges employers to replace carcinogens, ‘as far as is technically possible’, by substances which are not dangerous or are less dangerous to health or safety.”
European Union countries have voted to renew the licence of glyphosate, a widely used weedkiller at the centre of a major workplace health and environmental controversy. The proposal at the European Commission’s Appeal Committee got 18 votes from countries in favour and nine against, with one abstention, ending months of deadlock. The UK backed the reauthorisation.
The Commission said the new five-year licence was agreed ahead of the 15 December expiry of the existing licence.
Glyphosate is marketed as Roundup by the US agrochemical giant Monsanto. Its use worldwide has risen almost 15-fold since 1996, when so-called ‘Roundup Ready’ crops, genetically engineered to resist glyphosate, were introduced.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which reviewed evidence of the cancer risks to exposed workers, concluded the chemical is “probably carcinogenic”. A counter offensive by industry group Croplife America and Monsanto, who said the IARC assessment was based on flawed science, is believed to have swayed some regulators. However, unions and environmental campaigners have accused the industry lobby of bankrolling ‘doubt science’ to defend their product.
There have also been accusations that European and other regulatory agencies have been ‘captured’ by industry, with officials having undeclared links and many key committees being dominated by scientists working for the industry.
The global food and farming union IUF, several plantation unions in Africa and environmental groups had called for a ban. Following the meeting, France announced it plans to ban the use of glyphosate within three years.
South Korea’s Supreme Court has ruled that the family of a Samsung worker who died of a brain tumour is eligible for state compensation for an occupational disease.
The country’s highest court overturned an appeal court’s decision in the case of Lee Yoon-jung, who was diagnosed with a brain tumour at age 30 and died two years later. Lee worked at a Samsung chip factory for six years from 1997 to 2003, but there was no record available of the levels of chemicals she was exposed to while working there.
The appeal court denied the claim filed by Lee, based on government investigations into the factory conducted after she left her job. The investigations reported that the workers’ exposure to some toxins, such as benzene, formaldehyde and lead, were lower than maximum permissible limits. They did not measure exposure levels to other chemicals or investigate their health risks.
The Supreme Court said such limitations in government investigations should not be held against a worker with a rare disease whose cause is unknown.
The case filed by Lee’s family is the second this year where South Korea’s highest court has ruled in favour of a worker. In August, the Supreme Court struck down a lower court’s ruling that denied compensation to a former Samsung LCD factory worker with multiple sclerosis.
Lim Ja-woon, the lawyer representing Lee, said brain tumours are the second-most common disease, after leukaemia, among former Samsung workers seeking occupational disease compensation from the government or the company. He said 27 Samsung Electronics workers have been diagnosed with brain tumours, including eight who worked at the same factory as Lee.
The ‘most efficient’ way to eliminate asbestos diseases is to ban all use of asbestos, a new study has concluded.
The research paper, which looked at Barriers and facilitators to the elimination of asbestos related diseases, was co-authored by experts from the UN’s World Health Organisation (WHO).
The paper, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, notes: “Evidence-based strategies for the elimination of asbestos related diseases (ARDs) exist. Banning the production and use of all forms of asbestos as recommended by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and WHO, has been proven as the most efficient evidence-based strategy to eliminate ARDs.”
The paper cites a WHO report published this year on the economic impact of asbestos bans which concluded: “There are no observable mid- or long-term negative economic impacts from bans or a decline in asbestos production or consumption at the country-level, and no observable persistent negative effects at the regional level,” adding: “There are substantial and increasing costs associated with the continuing production and use of asbestos, with the potential to far outweigh the short-term economic benefits…”
The new study concludes that “banning the production and use of all forms of asbestos, as recommended by the International Labour Organisation and WHO, continues to be the most efficient and proven evidence-based strategy to eliminate ARDs.”
- Joanne Vincenten, Frank George, Marco Martuzzi, Peter Schröder-Bäck and Elizabet Paunovic. Barriers and Facilitators to the Elimination of Asbestos Related Diseases—Stakeholders’ Perspectives, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, volume 14, number 10, 2017.
- Lucy P Allen, Jorge Baez, Mary Elizabeth C Stern and Frank George. Asbestos-Economic Assessment of Bans and Declining Production and Consumption, World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe, 2017.
There is strong evidence that certain carbon nanotubes used in manufacturing could pose the same cancer risk as asbestos, a study by the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) has concluded.
Commercial uses of carbon nanotubes (CNTs) including special paints, sports equipment such as bicycle frames and tennis racquet handles, boat hulls, aircraft, sports cars and computer motherboards. However, some CNTs are similar in size and shape to asbestos fibres, leading researchers to question whether they might have the same harmful effect on our lungs.
In a study involving mice, the researchers from MRC’s Toxicology Unit studied the changes asbestos fibres and CNTs caused in the cells lining the pleura – a key site for the development of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma – over a number of months. The mesothelioma that developed in the mice after asbestos or CNT exposure was similar to mesothelioma samples from patients exposed to asbestos.
In a paper published in he journal Current Biology, the authors note that for both substances changes to cells occurred that are also seen in mesothelioma sufferers.
“Unlike previously reported short-term studies, this is the first time the mesothelioma-causing effects of long and thin carbon nanotubes have been monitored in mice over many months,” said the study’s senior author, Professor Marion MacFarlane.
“Because it is diagnosed in humans when it’s quite advanced, we don’t know much about how or why it forms. This research could help us define key indicators for early detection as well as provide information for developing targeted therapies for this devastating disease.”
Canadian research has identified the high toll each year from work-related cancers.
The study, Burden of Occupational Cancer in Ontario, which concluded there are ‘many opportunities’ to reduce the number of occupational cancers, was produced jointly by the Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC) and Cancer Care Ontario’s Population Health and Prevention team.
It found solar radiation, asbestos, diesel engine exhaust and crystalline silica had the largest estimated impact on cancer burden and also the highest number of exposed workers in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province.
Approximately 450,000 Ontario workers are exposed, causing an estimated 1,400 non-melanoma skin cancer cases per year, according to the study. Fewer than 55,000 workers are exposed to asbestos, but the potent carcinogen is estimated to cause 630 lung cancers, 140 mesotheliomas, 15 laryngeal cancers and fewer than five ovarian cancers annually.
About 301,000 workers are exposed to diesel exhaust fumes every year, the study found, causing 170 lung and 45 bladder cancer cases. An estimated 142,000 Ontario workers are exposed to crystalline silica, which annually causes almost 200 lung cancer cases. The paper adds that shiftwork “may be responsible” for 180 to 460 new cases of breast cancer in the province a year.
“I can’t count the number of times that I have talked about how important it is to prevent exposure to carcinogens, but raising awareness doesn’t always lead to action,” said OCRC director Paul Demers, who is leading the study.
“I think the numbers are important to make this real and push action towards preventing exposure to these causes of cancer.” This is the first publication in the project; a Canada-wide picture is expected within about a year.
Asbestos imports to the US nearly doubled in 2016, reversing a long-term decline, latest figures have shown.
Data from the Department of Commerce and the US International Trade Commission estimate that 705 metric tonnes of raw asbestos were imported last year, compared to 343 metric tonnes in 2015. The US Geological Survey reported asbestos imports came from Brazil and Russia.
The only remaining user of raw asbestos in the US is the chloralkali industry, which uses it to “manufacture semipermeable asbestos diaphragms.”
Much of the surge in imports in 2016 came in the fourth quarter of the year, following the passage of the revamped Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Lobbyists from the American Chemistry Council, acting at on behalf of the chloralkali industry, are now pushing for an exemption from the new chemical safety law that would allow it to continue to import and use asbestos.
“Opponents of an asbestos ban have long argued that asbestos use is shrinking in the United States, but now we know just the opposite is true,” said Linda Reinstein, president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO). “Each year, asbestos-caused diseases claim the lives of 15,000 Americans. It is shocking that unlike more than 60 nations around the world, the US has not only failed to ban asbestos, but its use is increasing dramatically.”
She added: “The EPA needs to ban asbestos with no exceptions. There is no safe or controlled use of asbestos in mining or manufacturing.”
Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, said: “The chloralkali industry’s insistence on the continued use of deadly asbestos is reprehensible. Meanwhile, we shut our eyes to the communities in Brazil and other asbestos-producing nations, where miners and their families are exposed to this killer.”
TUC health and safety expert Hugh Robertson has hosted a live ‘webinar’ – an online seminar – to discuss the causes of occupational cancer, the problems with the law and what unions are doing about it. If you missed it, you can now watch the whole event online.
A plan to reduce occupational cancer rates in Europe misses both the point and many of the causes, the UK national union federation TUC has said. The trade union body estimates over 70 per cent of cancer cases are caused by exposures at work not covered by the European carcinogens directive, and adds even where there are control limits proposed these are often ‘completely inadequate’.
TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson says solar radiation is the biggest single cause of occupational cancers and these are usually easily prevented, but aren’t on Europe’s list. Shiftwork, diesel exhaust, radon and passive smoking are other notable absentees.
For silica, he says, the proposed occupational exposure limit for the lung carcinogen “will mean that 2.5 per cent of those exposed at that level will develop silicosis after 15 years. How can anyone think that that is acceptable?”
According to Robertson: “The Commission needs a proper strategy for dealing with cancers based on the principle that no workers should be exposed to carcinogens because of their work. They should put much more emphasis on removal and substitution, rather than just maximum exposure limits.”
He adds: “Of course it is not just the regulations that need to be sorted out, it is also enforcement. At present, employers are meant to remove carcinogens where practical and, if they cannot prevent exposure though other means regardless of whether there is an exposure limit, but most employers reckon that if they are operating at below the maximum limit that is enough, and regulators seem to accept that.”