All posts by Rory O'Neill

Work with BPA leads to enormous body load

Some workers who make or work with the endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) have levels in their bodies 1,000 times higher than the general public, a study by a US government agency has found.

The research led by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found, on average, these workers had 70 times more of the chemical in their bodies than the general public, levels well above what has been shown to affect reproduction. BPA is also linked an increased risk of breast cancer and other health effects.

A total of 77 workers at six US companies that make BPA, BPA-resins or BPA-filled wax provided urine samples after two consecutive days at work. The average total BPA in their urine was 70 times higher than a study of US adults, according to findings published in the Annals of Work Exposures and Health.

One worker’s levels spiked up to 18,900 micrograms per gram of BPA at the end of the shift on the second day of work. The median level of BPA in the general public is a little less than 2 micrograms per gram.

NIOSH’s Cynthia Hines, lead author of the study, said there are no workplace exposure limits for BPA in the US. “If we clearly had an exposure level – for example something like lead – we’d go the extra measure to make them aware of their risk with those levels,” Hines said. “With BPA, we don’t have standards.”

She said the researchers did send general advice to the companies and workers on how to reduce exposure. Industry has argued that the body passes all accumulated BPA within a day, and so current exposures cause no harm. The federal study, which consistently showed higher levels after the second day of work, undercuts that argument.

 

Canada’s asbestos ban hailed as a union victory

In a major victory for Canada’s trade union movement, the country’s federal government has announced a ban on the import, export, manufacture and use of asbestos.

While Canada banned asbestos mining in 2012, imports of asbestos-containing products have been increasing over the past five years, and some asbestos-containing products have also been exported from Canada.

Speaking after the 15 December 2016 announcement, Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the global union confederation ITUC, said “we congratulate the Canadian trade union movement for this success, and the government’s move will increase pressure on other countries which still have not implemented a ban. Tens of millions of people are exposed to asbestos, and all governments need to act as Canada now has to stem the appalling toll of death and disease.”

Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), said: “Canada’s unions, along with survivors and health advocates, have been working hard for this ban for decades. We know this will strengthen occupational health and safety protections for workers and make workplaces and public spaces safer for everyone”.

CLC is continuing to press the government for a national registry of people affected by asbestos-related diseases, the implementation of a comprehensive health response covering early detection and treatment as well as measures to protect workers in situations where asbestos is present such as building renovations.

The CLC has also called for the government to support demands at the United Nations that chrysotile asbestos be added to the list of especially hazardous materials regulated under the Rotterdam Convention.

Further information: IBAS news release.

New UK voluntary action pact targets silica risks

Photo: Jawad Qasrawi
PACT IN? A new UK safety pact to address risks posed by inhaling deadly silica dust is entirely voluntary. Unions also want a tighter, more rigorously enforced exposure standard.

UK union Unite has joined industry representatives, academics and safety and health professionals signing up to a 12-month voluntary plan of action to tackle the risks from inhaling silica dust at work.

Respirable crystalline silica (RCS) The potentially deadly mineral is encountered in a wide range of jobs from construction, to mining, ceramics, stone masonry, quarrying, brickmaking and fracking. Exposures can cause the lung-scarring disease silicosis, lung cancer and other chronic health problems.

Discussions convened by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) last year have resulted in the new pact.  Representatives from the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the Office of Road and Rail (ORR), Crossrail Ltd, the Mineral Products Association and Unite are among those to have joined IOSH in signing the commitment.

Signatories have agreed to work together to reduce exposure to RCS through effective monitoring and management of dust. They also say they will increase awareness and understanding of the potential health risks associated with exposure to RCS in order to change attitudes and behaviours and share good practice on the management of RCS across industry sectors.

In the commitment, the organisations state that it is “an agreed plan of action that will pool the knowledge and resources of some of the leading organisations involved in managing the risks of RCS”.

According to Imperial College London research, around 800 people in Britain a year die from lung cancer caused by prolonged RCS exposure at work, with 900 new cases being diagnosed annually.

In the commitment, Unite national safety officer Bud Hudspith notes: “Silica dust kills thousands of workers every year – Unite is committed to improving controls on silica and challenging employers and regulators at every level to achieve this. Where relevant, we expect to see explicit commitments in tender documents on the control of silica dust.”

The voluntary IOSH-backed pact falls short of a key UK trades union demand for a tighter silica exposure standard, backed up by rigorous enforcement. In 2015, UK safety regulator the HSE admitted firms were continuing to expose workers to excessive levels of silica dust.

In March 2016, the US Labor Department announced it would halve the occupational exposure standard from the level it then shared with the UK, 0.1mg/m3, to 0.05mg/m3.

Cancer all-clear for night work was based on ‘bad science’

Photo: Jawad Qasrawi
OLD PROBLEM The Oxford University study giving night work a cancer all-clear included many retired workers who’d not worked nights for years. But you need to look at younger workers with a recent long-term history of night work if you want to spot raised breast cancer rates.

An Oxford University study that concluded the classification of night work as a cause of breast cancer in women is no longer justified was based on ‘bad science’, top researchers have warned.

The large scale ‘meta-analysis’, published online on 6 October 2016 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI), concluded “night shift work, including long-term night shift work, has little or no effect on breast cancer incidence.” It added the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) ranking of night work as a ‘probable’ cause of breast cancer in women “is no longer justified.”

But three of the most respected epidemiologists on night work and breast cancer have now said they “fully disagree” with this conclusion, noting a succession of methodological flaws in the research “invalidate” its conclusions.

Harvard Medical School epidemiologist Eva Schernhammer told Hazards magazine that given the Oxford study’s “bad science”, it was “not surprising” it found no effect. In a detailed criticism of the paper, published online on 15 December, she said the JNCI paper’s many shortcomings “preclude it from making the conclusion that there is no association between night work and breast cancer risk.”

Johnni Hansen, a researcher with the Danish Cancer Society, was equally unimpressed. “They base their conclusion on a poor study, but even worse is that their conclusion may hinder preventive initiatives for night workers,” he said.

Richard Stevens, of the University of Connecticut medical school, who has written influential papers on the topic with both Schernhammer and Hansen, was blunt. “Why was the paper written in the first place?” he asked.

The main cohorts in the Oxford study, which was financed by the Medical Research Council, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Cancer Research UK (CRUK), were “worryingly old”, with many over retirement age, and the follow up was “unusually short”, Hansen said.

The risk of women developing breast cancer appears to wane in the years after night working ends, so studying retired workers without recent exposures misses the point and the cancers, said Schernhammer. She said the higher risk is seen in women with long exposures – at least 15 years – early in their careers. Hansen added the authors behind the JNCI study should have recognised the possibility of ‘truncation bias’ in their analysis.

Night work was sometimes defined so loosely in the study participants, a single night shift might have seen a worker added to the ‘exposed’ group despite facing minimal exposure and risk. The JNCI paper also discounted case-control studies and those exploring the mechanism behind a possible association.

According to Stevens, the JNCI meta-analysis “excluded case-control studies, of which there are many, for no good reason.”

He added that studies considering the biological mechanisms give a valuable insight into why and where you might look for an association. Understanding the process, something integral to his own research, was important, he indicated.

Stevens, Schernhammer and Hansen, together with Scott Davis, a professor of epidemiology in the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, are the stand-out epidemiologists on night work and breast cancer.

Not one of them was asked to review the paper. “We are the four epidemiologists who have been working for by far the longest on the epidemiology of night work and breast cancer,” said Stevens, who is dismayed the Oxford study, led by molecular epidemiologist Ruth Travis, found its way in to a high visibility journal like JNCI.  “Any of the four of us would have quickly noticed the severe flaws of the Travis paper and pointed them out to the editors of JNCI.”

He said it was “absurd” that the night work association with breast cancer was being dismissed on the back of a “troubling” paper by “a distinguished group of experienced researchers who should have known better.”

The JNCI study’s lead author, Ruth Travis, declined an invitation from Hazards to address the detailed criticisms of the study.

Australian study links diesel exhaust to high lung cancer rates in miners

Diesel exhaust exposures are leading to high rates of fatal lung cancers in underground miners, according to a new study.
Researchers from Australia and the Netherlands found underground production workers, including diesel loader operators and shotcreters, face the highest risk. They called for strict controls to limit their exposure.

The study, published online in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, marks the first phase of an investigation into conditions in Australian mines. Using Department of Mines and Petroleum data from 2003 to 2015 and other studies, it modelled the average levels of exposure among employees in a range of occupations on Western Australian mine sites. It then estimated the number of lung cancer deaths caused by those levels with stark results.

“If somebody were to be exposed as an underground miner, we saw that that person would be exposed to on average 44 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3),” said lead investigator Dr Susan Peters from the University of Western Australia.

At this exposure level over a 45-year working lifetime, compared to the general population the miners would have 38 extra lung cancer deaths per 1,000 males. Above-ground mine workers were found to face a lower but still elevated risk, with an average exposure of 14 µg/m3 over 45 years causing about 5.5 additional lung cancer deaths per 1,000 workers.

The paper concludes “exposure levels in the contemporary Australian mining industry are still substantial, particularly for underground workers. The estimated excess numbers of lung cancer deaths associated with these exposures support the need for implementation of stringent occupational exposure limits for diesel exhaust.”

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified diesel exhaust as a  top rated ‘Group 1’ human carcinogen in 2012.

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IARC scientists defend glyphosate cancer ranking

The World Health Organisation (WHO) agency that labelled the world’s most widely used herbicide a probable cause of cancer in humans has hit back after the agrichemical industry responded with a savage attack on its science and funding.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) panel of scientists made the evaluation on glyphosate, the chief ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup brand, in March last year. The IARC ranking prompted British union federation the TUC to call on safety reps to ensure members were not exposed to the pesticide. The global farming union IUF called for a ban.

For its part, CropLife America, the industry’s lobbying group, demanded that US authorities repudiate the IARC ranking and cut funding to the UN agency. A 24 October 2016 statement from the group said it “welcomes the interests of a variety of Congressional committees that may provide oversight on all manner of pesticide policy matters ─ including the interest shown about IARC funding.”

Monsanto labelled the IARC findings as “junk science,” and claimed the IARC members are part of an “unelected, undemocratic, foreign body.”

The attack came as a surprise to the IARC working group, which is comprised of recognised independent experts from scientific agencies around the world, including the US. Aaron Blair, a scientist emeritus at the US National Cancer Institute, served as chair of the IARC team.

Australian epidemiologist Lin Fritschi, a member of the IARC working group, said the team’s work was solid and the industry attacks on the team’s credibility are unwarranted. “I definitely wasn’t expecting anything at all,” said Fritschi, who specialises in the occupational causes of cancer.

“We were independent and just looked at the science. We had strict rules on what was admissible and came to a conclusion based on that evidence. We made the right decision based on the evidence.”

Fritschi, a distinguished professor at Curtin University in Australia, added: “The people most at risk are people who use glyphosate a lot, such as farmers and gardeners, and they are the ones who should try and reduce their use.”

Why are preventable occupational and environmental breast cancer risks ignored?

Breast Cancer Awareness Month has provided a welcome focus on a condition that has risen sharply over the last 40 years, but campaigners are concerned the UK government and breast cancer charities are resolutely ignoring the host of preventable occupational and environmental causes of the condition.

To address this, campaign group From Pink to Prevention has produced a new ‘toolkit’ with an interactive webpage, posters and an action guide. As a first step it says it wants the annual awareness event renamed ‘Breast Cancer Prevention Month’.

The campaign says it “is disturbed to discover the failure of leading breast cancer charities to inform women about all the risk factors, and questions the exclusive focus on lifestyle factors (alcohol, exercise and smoking) and the 10 per cent of cases linked to genetic factors, to the exclusion of the impact toxic chemicals are having on the health of every single one of us.”

From Pink to Prevention adds: “Given that the vast amount of existing research into lifelong (womb to grave) exposures to environmental and occupational risk factors and the fact that breast cancer is a hormonal disease, this selective narrative could be seen as a barrier to official and public recognition of the right to know.”

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas is backing the campaign for a greater emphasis on preventive action. Her early day motion notes “that along with lifestyle causes, better treatment and care, women’s everyday exposure to environmental and occupational toxicants is the crucial missing piece of the breast cancer jigsaw and the public’s right to know demands urgent attention.”

More information

Unions expose Samsung’s ‘medieval practices’ worldwide

The global reach of Samsung’s ruthless pursuit of profits impacts dangerously on the lives of its workers, a new report has charged.

Samsung – Modern tech medieval conditions, published by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the global union IndustriALL, reveals how the company’s ‘corporate greed’ is causing problems from cancer to brutal working conditions and job insecurity throughout the multinational’s supply chains.

“From denying justice to the families of former employees who died from cancers caused by unsafe workplaces, to dodging tax and engaging in price-fixing cartels, one thing is constant: Samsung’s corporate culture is ruthlessly geared towards maximising profit to the detriment of the everyday lives of its workers,” said Sharan Burrow, ITUC’s general secretary.

The report’s publication came ahead of a 7 October rally at Samsung’s Seoul headquarters. The protest, on World Day for Decent Work, was organised by the Seoul-based health and safety campaign group SHARPS (Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semi-Conductor Industry).

“Corporate greed, corporate bullying cannot be tolerated – it’s time for a global rule of law to guarantee globalisation with fair working conditions, with rights, minimum wages on which people can live with dignity and safe and secure work,” said Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL.

Sharan Burrow said: “Beginning with Samsung, we have begun to expose corporate greed and the failure of the world’s biggest corporations to account for abuse in their supply chains – from union busting, poverty wages, insecure and unsafe work, to forced overtime, informal work and modern slavery.”

The ITUC leader added: “It doesn’t end here: we will keep up the pressure for reform and the rule of law, we will engage with pension funds managing workers’ capital regarding investment strategies and we will stand with workers everywhere as they demand the rule of law. We will end corporate greed.”

The ITUC is petitioning Samsung to end worker abuse and to abolish its no-union policy.

 

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UK union group probes rare brain cancer cluster

Audrey Musson is one of five widows of Staveley Chemicals workers who died from the rare brain cancer, glioma. Pictured with a photo of her late husband Neville. Photo: Sheffield Star

The families of five chemical plant colleagues who all died of a rare type of brain cancer have said they want answers. The cluster of glioma cases, affecting men who all worked at Staveley Chemicals in Derbyshire, was unearthed by the Chesterfield-based Trade Union Safety Team (TRUST).

The ongoing investigation by the trades council-linked TRUST, working with experts from Stirling University’s Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group, is exploring links with chemicals handled at the site.

TRUST’s John Knight, who with colleague Joanne Gordon is leading the research, said: “Having done some initial research we have found that in the normal population, 8 in every 100,000 people would be expected to die from this rare condition, here we have at least four in a localised vicinity. This together with the fact that the men died within a few years of each other makes it very unusual.”

He added: “As part of our in-depth research we will also look into possible causes of this rare brain cancer, including any exposure to hazardous substances such as known carcinogens like benzene and mercury.”

Audrey Musson, the widow of Staveley glioma victim Neville Musson, said she hopes a new investigation into any links between the deaths and the chemical plant may give them, and potentially others, some answers.

She added: “They all died of these brain tumours, so alarm bells started ringing. The researchers now are trying to find a link with the chemicals. It’s so upsetting, but we’ll see what comes out of this. If there’s anybody else out there whose husbands had brain tumours, we’d like anybody to come forward.”

TRUST’s Joanne Gordon said: “We will do our level best to get to the bottom of what is a very concerning case.”

In a statement, the last owners of Staveley, French firm Rhodia, said it was sympathetic to the concerns of the families and would respond if reliable data or new findings became available.

 

US industries queue up to defend their toxins

A new US chemical safety law has triggered an immediate response from chemical producers – a helter-skelter rush to ensure their favourites are the back of the queue for official scrutiny.

The Frank R Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act for the 21st Century, passed into law in June this year, gave the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority needed to evaluate and regulate the tens of thousands of commercial chemicals it oversees in the US.

The law was hailed as a more transparent ‘new risk-based safety standard’, replacing the Toxic Substances Control Act’s (TSCA) cost-benefit analysis that required EPA to include commercial considerations when deciding on chemical restrictions.

“But many industry group comments suggest we’ve not heard the last of the old argument,” writes chemical safety journalist Elizabeth Grossman. She says on the ‘keep off’ list are top causes of occupational cancer, including asbestos, benzidine dyes and vinyl chloride monomer.

While industry groups are actively defending the toxic substances they produce or use, other stakeholders are calling on EPA to make these high risk substances a priority. Senator Barbara Boxer, the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee’s ranking Democrat, has written to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy asking that asbestos be among the first 10 chemicals the Lautenberg Act considers.

“The EPA’s proposed choices are due by mid-December,” writes Grossman. “They will reveal whether the Lautenberg Act will move to restrict hazardous chemicals of great concern to workers and work sites.”