All posts by Rory O'Neill

Europe sets new ‘compromise’ standard for diesel exhaust fumes at work

The Europe-wide trade union body ETUC has welcomed a new diesel exhaust fumes exposure standard. It says 3.6 million workers in the EU are at risk of exposures, adding the new European occupational exposure limit will prevent at least 6,000 deaths per year from lung cancer.

Esther Lynch, ETUC’s confederal secretary, said the new standard was in response to a major awareness and lobbying effort by workers and their trade unions. “Exposure to diesel exhaust is a significant workplace killer. Unfortunately many employers see diesel exposure as being something they can do nothing about. This is not the case and unions will work with employers to ensure that these legally binding limits are complied with,” she said.

The compromise agreed on diesel engines exhaust emission (DEEE) means exposures will be subject to the more stringent requirements of the carcinogens and mutagens directive. A binding occupational exposure limit (BOEL) will be set at 0.05 mg/m³, with a transition period of two years for most jobs and an additional five years for underground mining and tunnel construction.

ETUC’s Esther Lynch said “the compromise is a victory for the European trade union movement. It is a step forward in our long-standing and on-going battle for eliminating work-related cancers but existing EU legislation still needs many improvements. One of the important challenges is to include reprotoxic substances. We urge the Commission to propose a legislative initiative in 2019”.

In 2017, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Occupational Exposure Limits (SCOEL) recommended a much more stringent diesel exhaust standard of 0.02mg/m3.

Breast cancer risk in women working nights confirmed by new study

Women who work at night, especially during pre-menopause, may be at greater risk of developing breast cancer, a new study has found. The study comes two years after an Oxford University study claiming there was no association was rebutted and dismissed as ‘bad science’ by work and breast cancer experts.

The new analysis of surveys in Australia, Canada, France, Germany and Spain looked at nearly 6,100 women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and approximately 7,000 who had no diagnosis. Participants answered self-administered questionnaires or telephone interviews about their occupation and about risk factors for breast cancer.

The findings, published in the European Journal of Epidemiology, revealed the rates of certain breast cancers increased with the number of hours worked per night, as well as the number of years spent on the night shift. However, the risk seemed to diminish two years after going off the night shift.

“Women who work at least three hours between midnight and 5am run a 12 per cent greater risk of developing breast cancer than women who have never worked at night,” said study co-author Anne Grundy, a research associate at the University of Montréal’s Department of Social and Preventive Medicine. “Among pre-menopausal women, the risk associated with working at night increases to 26 per cent.”

Night workers who work shifts longer than 10 hours have a 36 per cent increased risk of breast cancer, again compared to women who have never worked nights. The risk is as high as 80 per cent among women who work night shifts in excess of 10 hours for more than three nights per week.

“Women who were still working nights at the time of the study had a breast cancer risk that was 26 per cent higher than those who had stopped working at night at least two years previously,” said Grundy. “We need to go further in our research so that labour policies ultimately take into account this risk for women, and so that companies take preventive action and adjust work schedules.”

Scientists hid Monsanto’s involvement in their ‘independent’ research

An academic journal has conceded that agrochemicals giant Monsanto didn’t fully disclose its involvement in published research that claimed Roundup, the world’s best selling herbicide, is safe. The ‘Expression of Concern’ issued by Critical Reviews in Toxicology, a journal that analyses health risks of chemicals, may bolster arguments that Monsanto, acquired by Bayer this year, ghost-wrote safety reviews.

Monsanto has defended the independence of the 2016 review of glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient. However, on 26 September 2018 the publisher of Critical Reviews in Toxicology said it was issuing the Expression of Concern about four papers published in a 2016 supplement because the authors “have been unable to provide an adequate explanation to why the required level of transparency was not met on first submission.”

Bayer faces litigation by more than 9,500 plaintiffs in the US, mostly farmers, who blame exposure to glyphosate for non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), with an NHL cancer court settlement to a former school groundsman this year spurring renewed calls for a ban.

An assessment determining there was a ‘probable’ cancer association, published in a 20 March 2015 Lancet Oncology paper prepared by an International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) working group, had already led to an industry backlash. Some consider the four Critical Reviews in Toxicology papers first published online in September 2016 were intended to be part of Monsanto’s armoury in a glyphosate product defence campaign that has also seen threats to IARC’s funding.

The industry attack prompted a January 2018 rebuttal from IARC’s director, running to 10 pages, saying the criticism  of the agency was motivated by  “major financial interests” and lambasting the “unprecedented, coordinated efforts to undermine the evaluation, the program and the organization.” It added: “The attacks have largely originated from the agro-chemical industry and associated media outlets.”

One of the papers subject to the Expression of Concern spelled out the scientists’ contention that “the data do not support IARC’s conclusion that glyphosate is a ‘probable human carcinogen’ and, consistent with previous regulatory assessments, further concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans.”

However, the journal’s expression of concern came after it was revealed the initial disclosure statement made by the authors indicated Monsanto’s involvement was limited to paying a consulting firm to develop the journal supplement entitled ‘An Independent Review of the Carcinogenic Potential of Glyphosate.’ It declared that no Monsanto employees or attorneys reviewed the manuscripts submitted to the journal.

In fact, the company had been heavily involved in preparation of the papers. Internal emails filed in litigation revealed that Monsanto scientists played a significant role in organising, reviewing and editing article drafts. Elaine Devine, a spokesperson for Critical Reviews in Toxicology, said the Expression of Concern “will remain on the scholarly record.”

A co-author of two of the four criticised studies, Douglas L Weed, has previously rallied to the defence of the petrochemicals industry, after research linked low level exposures to benzene to Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, the same cancer now linked to glyphosate . Weed was criticised for failing to make clear that CONservation of Clean Air and Water in Europe (Concawe), which provided financial support for his paper, is a research and lobbying organisation wholly financed by oil refinery companies.

This is not the first time Critical Reviews in Toxicology’s conflict of interest processes have been questioned. The authors of a 2013 paper claiming chrysotile asbestos presents a low risk to health  failed to acknowledge their study was bankrolled by the global asbestos industry. Lab rats, a 2013 investigation by Hazards magazine, said this paper provided the asbestos industry with “an opportunity for another product defence road trip.”


Texas firefighters with cancer often denied compensation

Many cities in the state of Texas, USA, are denying workers’ compensation to firefighters with cancer, according to union leaders and state lawmakers.

Over the past six years, more than 90 per cent of the 117 workers’ compensation claims filed by Texas firefighters with cancer have been denied, according to the Texas Department of Insurance.

Cities are ignoring a 2005 Texas law requiring the state government to presume that firefighters’ cancers are caused by exposure to carcinogens on the job, union officials told the Houston Chronicle.

“The sky-high denial rate of cancer is the first problem,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. “Firefighters with denied claims often have fewer treatment options and face the risk of financial ruin because of lost income.” All seven of the association’s members who filed workers’ compensation claims since 2016 have been denied, the union said.

Firefighters have said that cities use a memo by the Texas Intergovernmental Risk Pool to dodge the presumptive cancer law. The memo only presumes three types of cancer are caused by firefighting: testicular, prostate and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Union leaders have said that the memo and the risk pool ignore substantial research linking firefighting to other forms of cancer. Firefighters are much more likely to win benefits on appeal, with nearly 65 per cent of cases winning workers’ compensation appeals over the past six years. But less than one-fifth of firefighters disputed their denied claims.

Firefighters risk being sued by the cities that employ them, and often it’s too daunting a task to battle in court while battling cancer.

Legislators based the Texas law not on the “conclusive presumption” that the cancers are caused by the job, which cannot be rebutted, but on “rebuttable presumption,” which can be. In the latter case, employers or their insurers might point to smoking or family history of cancer, for example, in an attempt to deny workers’ compensation.

UK prof defends WHO cancer agency against industry attack

A leading UK professor has defended a major World Health Organisation (WHO) agency that has been ‘vilified’ by industry lobbyists after it determined the pesticide glyphosate to be ‘probably carcinogenic’ to humans.

In an expert opinion on the well-resourced, high level industry attack on the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Neil Pearce, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), said: “Disappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, this controversy has led to attacks not only on the IARC decision, but also on some of those involved in the IARC Monograph meeting which made the decision, and on IARC itself.

“These events are not happening in a vacuum. There have been attacks on previous IARC decisions on potential causes of cancer such as formaldehyde, diesel fumes and radiofrequency electromagnetic fields. More ominously, there are moves by some governments to threaten to cut the funding of IARC, in response to these recent ‘inconvenient’ decisions.”

The professor added: “We all look up to IARC and see it as a beacon of independence and objectivity in a world which is becoming increasingly partisan and polarised, and in which scientific evidence is increasingly disparaged and ignored. Facts matter, science matters, and in this field, there is no other agency which even comes close to IARC in terms of independence, objectivity, and transparency.

“A few of the myths about IARC that are currently being propagated include ‘IARC finds that everything causes cancer’, ‘IARC does no research, it only has opinions’ and ‘IARC has been found to be corrupted’ – I could go on. The facts are that IARC is under attack because it is objective, effective, and sometimes produces inconvenient findings.”

He said a detailed review 2015 of the agency’s approach on which he was a co-author found “IARC processes are sound, and that recent industry-funded criticisms have been unfair and unconstructive.” He concluded we “need independent scientific bodies such as IARC which can review the scientific evidence objectively, and without conflicts of interest, even if this leads to conclusions that some may find inconvenient.”

Monsanto guilty of ‘malice or oppression’ in concealing glyphosate risks

A California jury has found Monsanto guilty of concealing the dangers of glyphosate, the world’s most widely-applied herbicide, and awarded a terminally ill schools groundskeeper total damages of US$289 million.

The unprecedented 10 August 2018 verdict delivered by the San Francisco, California jury in favour of Dewayne Johnson, 46, will weigh heavily on the more than 4,000 similar cases already lodged in the US alleging a glyphosate link to the blood cancer non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Monsanto has announced it will appeal.

Prior to Monsanto’s acquisition by Bayer, the company had set aside US$258 million for litigation; Bayer had a fund of US$447 million.

Based on the substantial number of internal company documents made public for the first time as part of the trial process, the jury determined that Monsanto knew of the potential health risks associated with glyphosate exposure yet acted with “malice or oppression” in failing to warn the public.

The company papers chronicle a protracted campaign by Monsanto to discredit independent research, capture regulatory bodies and defund the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which in 2016 determined glyphosate was probably carcinogenic to humans.

Monsanto vice-president Scott Partridge denounced the verdict and attacked IARC as “corrupted” because they do “no testing, they do no analysis, they have no laboratories”. However, global food and farm union IUF said this was the “same procedure followed by the regulatory agencies Monsanto consistently sought for decades to influence.”

In his trial testimony, Dewayne Johnson told the court: “I never would’ve sprayed that product on school grounds or around people if I knew it would cause them harm. It’s unethical. It’s wrong.”

Carey Gillam, research director of US Right to Know, commented: “Monsanto and its chemical industry allies have spent decades actively working to confuse and deceive consumers, farmers, regulators and lawmakers about the risks associated with glyphosate-based herbicides. As they’ve suppressed the risks, they’ve trumpeted the rewards and pushed use of this weed killer to historically high levels.”

She added: “The evidence that has come to light from Monsanto’s own internal documents, combined with data and documents from regulatory agencies, could not be more clear: It is time for public officials across the globe to act to protect public health and not corporate profits.”

Selected media coverage
Democracy Now. Workweek Radio podcast. The Guardian. Bloomberg News.


Samsung finally agrees diseases compensation arbitration

After years of pressure, Samsung Electronics Co Ltd has finally agreed to a binding arbitration framework that calls on the multinational corporation to fully compensate Korean victims of  diseases caused by hazardous exposures in its plants.

In a major victory for campaigners, Samsung on 21 July 2018 said it would accept unconditionally an arbitration proposal expected from a mediation committee in October. Samsung spokesperson Kim Jeong-seok told the TV network SBS. “We have decided to accept the proposal by the mediation committee.”

SHARPS, the advocacy group that has spearheaded the campaign for justice for Samsung occupational disease victims and their families, also agreed to the proposal. The group has highlighted work-related conditions including a range of cancers, blood diseases and nervous system disorders in former Samsung production line workers.

Samsung effectively walked away from the mediation committee in July 2015, instead launching its own much-criticised compensation programme. This prompted SHARPS to stage a 1,000-day sit-in at its corporate headquarters in south Seoul.

On 18 July 2018, the mediation committee made a final proposal for a binding arbitration process, declaring it would dissolve itself if either party did not accept the proposal.

This deal, agreed by both sides, means Samsung will begin to put in place safety measures proposed by the mediation committee by October 2018, by when the electronics multinational will also make a formal apology for the harm it has caused. Samsung will also compensate SHARPS-profiled victims under a new scheme proposed by the committee by October 2018. The compensation scheme will remain open for further referrals for ten years.

SHARPS agreed to end its sit-in within days of the formal signing of the proposal for arbitration. It announced the 1,023-day protest had ended on 25 June 2018.

“We began the sit-in with two desperate tasks in mind,” said SHARPS in a statement after signing the agreement. “First, we needed to make the world know Samsung’s occupational disease issue was still ongoing, and second, we needed to have discontinued dialogue with Samsung re-initiated.

“After enduring more than 1,000 days on streets, we achieved both,” the advocacy group concluded.

The company has faced sharp criticism in the international press over its treatment of occupational disease victims. “Samsung has been bent solely upon shirking its responsibility,” noted an editorial in the Hankyoreh newspaper.

As of June 2018, SHARPS had profiled 320 Samsung occupational disease victims in Korea, 118 of whom have died. The advocacy group has, via petition or through court filings, successfully assisted 28 victims of Samsung and others in getting workers’ compensation.

Among the cancer types compensated to date are leukaemia, lymphoma and ovarian, brain and lung cancers.

Cancer-stricken worker puts Monsanto on trial

A US worker stricken with a life-threatening cancer he believes was caused by his use of the pesticide glyphosate is taking its manufacturer, Monsanto, to court. The case of Dewayne Johnson v Monsanto Co is now underway in a San Francisco, California federal court, two-and-a-half years after the lawsuit was filed.

Johnson (above), a former school groundskeeper whose doctors believe may have little time to live, began his job in 2012. The work involved regular applications of Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, whose active ingredient is glyphosate. In 2014, aged 42, he was diagnosed with the rare blood cancer Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL).

“I’ve been going through a lot of pain,” said Johnson, a father of three who goes by the name Lee. “It really takes everything out of you … I’m not getting any better.”

Exceptionally, the presiding judge has ruled that jurors may consider evidence concerning Monsanto’s efforts to conceal the potential toxicity of the product in reaching a verdict.

In addition to the Johnson case, some 4,000 claims alleging that glyphosate exposure led to Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma have now been filed in US courts. Virtually every significant agrichemical company sells a glyphosate formulation. Monsanto is now fully owned by German chemicals giant Bayer. This means the scope of potential liability for glyphosate makers is enormous.

Johnson’s lawsuit contends that Monsanto “championed falsified data and attacked legitimate studies” of the toxic effects of glyphosate and led a “prolonged campaign of misinformation” to convince governments, consumers and farmers that the product was safe.

Johnson, 46, took the stand in a crowded courtroom and said he was excited when he first got a job as a groundskeeper and pest manager for the school district in Benicia, a suburb north of San Francisco. Part of the work, which began in 2012, involved spraying herbicide to control weeds on school grounds – sometimes for several hours a day.

Although he wore extensive protective gear while spraying, he was often exposed to the Roundup and Ranger Pro chemicals, both glyphosate-based Monsanto products, due to “drift”, he testified. “You were getting it on your face everyday,” he said. “It was kind of unavoidable.”

Johnson described two incidents in which he said he was badly exposed to the chemicals due to mishaps and leaking while spraying, including a hose breaking. “It got on my clothes, got on everything,” he said of one incident, noting that before his cancer, he had “perfect skin”, but after he started spraying and suffered exposures, he got sick and began seeing rashes, lesions and sores all over his body. “I’ve had it bad everywhere.”

Monsanto has been promoting its glyphosate formulations as harmless since they were first commercialized in the 1970s. Promotion intensified in the 1990s when glyphosate sales skyrocketed with the introduction of Monsanto’s genetically modified soy, corn, cotton, rapeseed (canola) and sugar beet varieties engineered for glyphosate resistance.

But the misinformation campaign went into high gear after the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released a report in March 2015 classifying glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Internal company documents obtained by Johnson’s attorneys were publicly released in a pre-trial procedure in March 2017. They formed the basis of the investigative report, ‘The Monsanto Papers’ published by Le Monde in June 2017. More documents were unsealed and became publicly available in August 2017.

According to the global food and farming union federation IUF: “The expanded Monsanto Papers document a copiously funded, systematic effort to discredit the work of the IARC and ultimately choke off funding, operating through a network of propagandists, front groups and right-wing ‘think tanks’ linked to the chemical, agrochemical and food industries and their lobbyists.”

IUF adds: “Monsanto threatened independent scientists, planted ghost-written articles in academic journals and intimidated and sought to capture (often successfully) regulatory bodies at every level. With the advent of the Trump administration and a US Environmental Protection Agency committed to eradicating worker and consumer safety protection and environmental regulation, the campaign broadened into a wider assault on public health, toxicology and cancer research.

“The Monsanto Papers trace the organisational links between the glyphosate operation and corporate efforts to combat regulation of the other toxins which permeate our workplaces and our lives.”

Monsanto has recently redoubled its offensive to try to silence its critics. Earlier this year, in connection with another, similar US lawsuit against it, Monsanto lawyers demanded that the online campaign organization Avaaz turn over all internal communications referencing the company or glyphosate “without limitation.”


Russian asbestos exports display Donald Trump seal of approval

The US president’s long-time love affair with asbestos has garnered a literal stamp of approval from a Russian mining company. Uralasbest, one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of asbestos, has taken to adorning pallets of its product with a seal of Trump’s face, along with the words “Approved by Donald Trump, 45th president of the United States.”

The move follows the US Environmental Protection Agency’s recent decision not to ban new asbestos products outright. The EPA said it would evaluate new uses of asbestos but environmental groups have criticised the agency for not going further by barring them on public health grounds.

In a Facebook post, Uralasbest published pictures of its Trump-adorned chrysotile asbestos, writing: “Donald is on our side!” Uralasbest, which is located in the mining city of Asbest in the Ural Mountains, is reported to have close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

“Vladimir Putin and Russia’s asbestos industry stand to prosper mightily as a result of the Trump administration’s failure to ban asbestos in the US,” said Ken Cook, president of the US Environmental Working Group. “Helping Putin and Russian oligarchs amass fortunes by selling a product that kills thousands each year should never be the role of a US president or the EPA, but this is the Trump administration.”

Trump has been a vocal fan of asbestos for decades, calling it “100 per cent safe, once applied” in his 1997 book ‘The Art of the Comeback’. He also described the anti-asbestos campaign as a mob conspiracy.

In 2012, the future president tweeted that the World Trade Center “would never have burned down” after the 11 September attacks if asbestos hadn’t been removed from the building. The Twin Towers did not burn down, they collapsed as a result of structural damage caused by a terrorist attack.

“By allowing asbestos to remain legal, the Trump administration would be responsible for a flood of asbestos imports from Russia and other countries into the US, as well as the wave of illnesses and deaths that will continue for years to come,” said Linda Reinstein, co-founder and president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO).

Russian asbestos producers now coordinate the global asbestos industry promotional campaign, using a well-resourced public relations campaign to target exports on developing nations and to attack their critics.



Experts warn of impact of ‘dramatic decline’ in work cancer studies

As evidence establishes occupational exposures are responsible for a substantial proportion of all cancers, studies to identify the groups at risk and the substances causing problems are drying up, top occupational cancer experts have warned.

Four papers in the August 2018 issue of the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine highlight a problem that could ‘stall’ efforts to reduce the burden of occupational cancer, they say.

A study led by Claire Marant Micallef identified 94 ‘pairings’ of occupational exposures with cancer sites, but for almost a quarter of these (21) too few studies had been done to determine what proportion of these cancers are related to work.

The study by Dana Loomis and his co-authors identified 23 different cancer types associated with workplace exposures, and 12 occupational agents associated with more than one cancer.

James Jung and his team noted that while it was possible to identify occupational associations, analyses based on job titles and industries were often too broad to make an accurate quantification of the extent of the risk to those in the precise jobs experiencing the carcinogenic exposures.

In an accompanying commentary, occupational cancer researchers Aaron Blair and Lin Fritschi warn the situation could be getting worse, noting there is already evidence “of a curtailment on occupational cancer research efforts.” They point to a survey of 15 major journals that found the number of articles on occupational cancer “declined dramatically from around 80-90 per year from 1991-2003, to about 30 in 2009.”

They conclude: “It is vital that we continue to undertake high-quality epidemiological studies to provide the information necessary to identify new occupational carcinogens, to fully understand the risks from currently identified workplace hazards and to reduce the burden of work-related cancer.”

Blair and Fritschi note: “In particular, we need to address agents that are used in low-income and middle-income countries, where we would expect high exposure levels.”