All posts by Jawad

EU workplaces awash with unregistered cancer chemicals

Europe’s workplaces are using 5,675 chemicals that manufacturers or importers consider to be carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic for reproduction (CMR).

The figures come in a January report of notifications to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). ECHA compared the data supplied by manufacturers and importers when notifying the classification and labelling of hazardous substances under the classification, labelling and packaging regulations (CLP) with the registration dossiers submitted by firms handling larger quantities of chemicals under the REACH rules.

Of the 5,675 chemicals marketed in the EU that manufacturers or importers regarded as CMRs, just 1,169 were registered – a discrepancy that alarmed the union thinktank ETUI. “Why this is – and what makes NGOs and trade unions deeply unhappy – is that the REACH regulation only requires CMRs produced in Europe or imported in quantities of one tonne or more a year to be registered,” said the ETUI’s chemical risks expert Tony Musu.

ETUI said “a large number of CMRs are floating around the EU market outside the REACH registration procedure” intended to keep tabs on the risks of these hazardous chemicals to consumers’ and workers’ health.

ETUI news report. ECHA news release and report, 19 January 2015. Risks 689.

Australian study confirms firefighter training cancer risk

Firefighters who worked at a training facility in the Australian state of Victoria have a higher incidence of skin, testicular and brain cancers, a comprehensive study has found. The study, conducted by Monash University, examined cancer and death rates linked to the Country Fire Authority’s (CFA) Fiskville site between 1971 and 1999 (Risks 565).

It found 69 cancers among the 606 people who worked and trained there, resulting in 16 deaths. Researchers found a cancer cluster in the high-risk group – those who worked full-time on the site training firefighters, and who were exposed to flammable chemicals, combustion, foams and recycled firewater. Of 95 high-risk workers traced, 25 had cancer and six had died from their cancer, the study found. A parliamentary commission of inquiry launched in December 2014 is expected to conclude in June this year.

The United Firefighters Union (UFU) Victorian branch, which had campaigned for recognition of the cancer risk to its members, welcomed the report and called for the immediate resignation of CFA chief executive Mick Bourke. UFU’s Mick Tisbury said: “He and the CFA have been denying there was anything wrong with the place for years, they have put our health and safety at risk. We’re not expendable. We have families. We are people.”

Research co-investigator Professor Malcolm Sim said: “Their death rates from other causes of disease, like heart and respiratory disease, were quite low, because these are healthy, fit people. That’s why their cancer results stood right out. There was a big gap between cancer and other diseases you don’t usually see in people like this, with healthy lifestyles.”

Monash University news release and full report. UFU Victoria notice and news release. Victorian Premier Andrew Daniels’ news release. ABC News. The Age. The Guardian. Risks 688.

Debate about work cancer links hots up

A union thinktank has welcomed a call for more research and action on the prevention of work-related breast cancer, and has criticised a study that suggested bad luck was the major factor in cancer causation.

The European trade union research institute (ETUI), which has its own health and safety unit, was commenting after the publication of two contrasting reports. One, a resolution from the American Public Health Association (APHA), called for more research and action to address the occupational causes of breast cancer. The other, in the journal Science, suggested most cancers were the result of ‘bad luck’, and largely dismissed the occupational, environmental, socioeconomic and other causes.

According to ETUI: “The organisations struggling to support workers who have fallen victim to cancer as a result of their jobs” will have welcomed the APHA appeal, in contrast to the message of the Science paper. ETUI was critical of the Science paper, which had already been denounced by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and others.

Laurent Vogel, a researcher in the ETUI’s health, safety and working conditions unit, said the paper ignores breast and prostate cancers and “confuses causality with a merely statistical relationship. It bypasses an essential feature that certainly cannot be attributed to individual luck, for it is possible to come up with a social mapping of each form of cancer and to show important links between working conditions and the different locations of cancer in the human body.”

Jim Brophy, whose research for Stirling University prompted the APHA resolution, said: “Breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer in women across the globe but the majority of women do not have the known or suspected risk factors, therefore more attention to the exposures and hazards faced by women at work is required.”

ETUI news report. Stirling University news release. Risks 687.

Unite launches asbestos awareness campaign

Unite members who think they’ve been exposed to asbestos are being urged to join the union’s asbestos register. The call forms a part of the union’s new campaign to raise awareness about “the silent killer”. The register already contains the details of over 11,000 Unite members and has been developed to identify members who were employed by the same company, or on the same site, to support personal injury claims by those developing asbestos related diseases. As part of the campaign the union is issuing new guidance to safety reps on dealing with asbestos at work.

Unite news release and online campaign pack on asbestos for Unite members. Risks 687

Crude oil exposure linked to kidney cancer

A study of refinery workers has found exposure to crude oil may lead to a marked increase in kidney cancer risk. Researchers, whose findings were published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, looked at cancer patterns in 9,454 workers employed in the oil refinery industry in Finland in the period 1967 to 1982 and found there was a threefold increase in the kidney cancer risk for exposure to hydrocarbons in crude oil.

Ahti Anttila and others. Kidney cancer risk in oil refining in Finland: a nested case-referent study, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, volume 57, issue 1, pages 68–72, January 2015. Risks 686.

More evidence on wood dust and lung cancer

People with substantial exposure to wood dust at work have a greatly increased risk of lung cancer, a study has found. The paper published in January 2015 in the journal Environmental Health concludes there was “evidence of increased risk of lung cancer among workers with substantial cumulative exposure to wood dust.”

Eric Vallières, Javier Pintos, Marie-Elise Parent and Jack Siemiatycki. Occupational exposure to wood dust and risk of lung cancer in two population-based case-control studies in Montreal, Canada,  Environmental Health, volume 14, number 1, 7 January 2015. doi:10.1186/1476-069X-14-1. Risks 686.

Global cancer agency slams cancer ‘bad luck’ paper

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has said it “strongly disagrees” with the conclusion of a scientific report on the causes of human cancer published in the journal Science on 2 January 2015.

The World Health Organisation’s specialised cancer agency said the study, which has received widespread media coverage, compares the number of lifetime stem cell divisions across a wide range of tissues with lifetime cancer risk and suggests that random mutations (or “bad luck”) are “the major contributors to cancer overall, often more important than either hereditary or external environmental factors.”

IARC says there are “limitations and biases in the analysis” and a “serious contradiction” between the paper’s conclusion and the extensive body of scientific evidence on the issue. “We already knew that for an individual to develop a certain cancer there is an element of chance, yet this has little to say about the level of cancer risk in a population,” explains IARC director Dr Christopher Wild.

“Concluding that ‘bad luck’ is the major cause of cancer would be misleading and may detract from efforts to identify the causes of the disease and effectively prevent it.” Noting that preventive efforts and not luck had led to substantial reductions in some cancers, the IARC director concludes: “The remaining knowledge gaps on cancer aetiology should not be simply ascribed to ‘bad luck’. The search for causes must continue while also investing in prevention measures for those cancers where risk factors are known.”

IARC statement, 15 January 2015. Risks 686

US public health body wants breast cancer prevention

An American Public Health Association (APHA) policy statement on ‘Breast Cancer and Occupation: The Need for Action’ is thought to be the first such call by a major public health body on breast cancer and the risks faced by women due to the hazards in the work environment.

The policy statement says “gender and social class bias” could explain the lack of research and preventive efforts on occupational breast cancer. It concludes: “Action required starts with making a national priority of promoting and supporting research on occupational and other environmental causes of breast cancer. Other public health actions include hazard surveillance and primary prevention activities such as reductions in the use of toxic materials, informed substitution, and green chemistry efforts.”

The related webpage includes detailed information on the research establishing a clear occupational breast cancer risk. The impetus for the resolution came from a groundbreaking study by Stirling University’s Jim Brophy, Margaret Keith, Andy Watterson and others, who in a 2012 paper revealed that working in a “toxic soup” of chemicals can double a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer (Risks 583).

High risk jobs included those in agriculture, plastics, food packaging, metal manufacture and the bar and gambling industry, according the study. The research led to prevention initiatives and calls worldwide, including a campaign by the North American steelworkers’ union USW (Risks 594). APHA is the largest and oldest public health organisation in the world.

Breast Cancer and Occupation: The Need for Action, APHA, agreed November 2014, posted online January 2015. Risks 686, 17 January 2015. Stirling University news release.

Political backing for European cancer rules review

One of the final acts of the Italian presidency of the European Union, which ended on 31 December 2014, was to host a conference on future health and safety at work policy.

The event, on 4-5 December 2014 heard Laurent Vogel, a researcher with the European trade union research organisation ETUI, call for the Europe-wide directive on carcinogens and mutagens in the workplace to be overhauled.  He told the event: “100,000 people die each year in the European Union from a failure to prevent work-related cancers,” adding: “The review process was started ten years ago; it is high time something was actually done at last to cut down workers’ exposure to countless carcinogens, mutagens and reprotoxins.”

The Italian Labour Ministry’s director general for occupational health policies, Paolo Onelli, said that Italy would join with Germany, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands to fashion a common legislative framework for more effective preventive action on occupational cancers.

The issue of occupational health will return to the EU agenda in March 2015 at the EU Council of Ministers meeting. There are fears the EU will embark on a new deregulatory drive halting any progress on health and safety initiatives after the 18 December 2014 appoint of German right-wing politician Edmund Stoiber as the European Commission’s special adviser on ‘better regulation.’

Commenting on the move, Veronica Nilsson, confederal secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, said: “I fear Mr Stoiber will not help with better regulation, but lobby on behalf of business for less regulation. That risks being at the expense of workers, consumers and the environment. It could mean further delays in much needed health and safety regulations such as on exposure at work to cancer-causing chemicals.”

ETUI news report, 16 December 2014, and Laurent Vogel’s presentation: The point of view of the European trade unions: It is urgent to revitalise the EU occupational health and safety policy. ETUC news release, 18 December 2014 and better regulation webpages. Risks 685.

Cancer blame industry absolves industry’s real culprits

Bad genes, bad luck and bad habits are frequently blamed for cancers, but stronger evidence of the occupational and environmental origins of our cancers is much more likely to be disputed or dismissed.

A December 2014 paper in journal Science, concluded two-thirds of the cancer types analysed were caused just by chance mutations. It noted: “These results suggest that only a third of the variation in cancer risk among tissues is attributable to environmental factors or inherited predispositions. The majority is due to ‘bad luck,’ that is, random mutations arising during DNA replication in normal, noncancerous stem cells. This is important not only for understanding the disease but also for designing strategies to limit the mortality it causes.”

The mention of ‘bad luck’ being the root cause of most cancers attracted blanket coverage in the popular press. In December 2014, Cancer Research UK (CRUK) said more than four in 10 cancers could be prevented by changes to lifestyle. According to CRUK, nearly 600,000 cancer cases in the UK could have been avoided in the last five years if people had healthier lifestyles.

However the tendency to blame genes, personal habits or just plain bad luck, steers the blame from many of the major environmental and occupational factors where regulatory and other interventions could eliminate the risk. ‘Chance mutations’ are frequently the product of exposure to carcinogens, with benzene exposure a particularly well documented example.

Ted Schettler, science director of the Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE), criticising the “bad luck” paper, noted: “By drawing conclusions that go beyond their data, the authors may deflect attention from the critical need to expand public health cancer prevention programs in our homes, communities, and workplaces. That would truly be an unfortunate outcome.”

Hazards magazine points to the 100 per cent mortality from bladder cancer in workers exposed to beta-naphthylamine in one US plant (Hazards, 2008). Or the conservative 2009 study that concluded one in 10 UK carpenters born in the 1940s would die of asbestos-related lung cancer or mesothelioma (Peto, 2009).

Other examples like nasal cancer in leather workers or mesothelioma hotspots in areas with high concentrations of dockwork or chemical production show that the working and living environment is frequently the difference between being at risk and being killed. Almost all causes of lung cancer, the biggest cancer killer, were identified in workplace studies (Infante, 1975).

Cristian Tomasetti and Bert Vogelstein. Variation in cancer risk among tissues can be explained by the number of stem cell divisions, Science, volume 347, number 6217, pages 78-81, 2 January 2015.
Lifestyle behind more than half a million cancers in five years, CRUK news release, 26 December 2014.
Ted Schettler. Cancer, stem cells and bad luck, critical online commentary from the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, 6 January 2015.
Silent Spring commentary. BBC News Online on the ‘bad luck’ and ‘lifestyle’ cancer stories. Risks 685.