All posts by Rory O'Neill

More evidence links welding fumes to cancer

More priority needs to be given to protecting the world’s estimated 111 million welders and other workers from exposure to toxic welding fumes, according to Harvard University’s David Christiani.

The professor of environmental genetics at the university’s TH Chan School of Public Health was among 17 scientists from 10 countries who met last month at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France, to review scientific literature and evaluate the carcinogenicity of several welding chemicals to humans.

“The Working Group found new evidence to support the conclusion that welding fumes are a likely cause of lung cancer in humans, possible cause of kidney cancer, and definite cause of melanoma of the eye,” Christiani said. In addition to fumes, welding can expose workers to radiation and asbestos, which are known to cause cancer.

The UK Health and Safety Executive’s 2012 top 10 occupational cancer ‘priorities for prevention’ include welding-related lung cancer.

Two other chemicals evaluated at the IARC meeting — molybdenum trioxide (sometimes used in welding) and indium tin oxide (used to make computer screens) — were determined to be possibly cancer-causing in humans.


Industry seeking to ‘sabotage’ global asbestos controls

Unions should take action to stop the asbestos industry once again ‘sabotaging’ efforts to better control its toxic exports, the global union for the construction sector has said.

BWI was speaking out ahead of a crucial conference to update the UN’s Rotterdam Convention list of especially hazardous substances subject to ‘prior informed consent’ (PIC) health warnings when they are exported. Past conferences, which take place every two years, have seen the blocking of every attempt to get chrysotile asbestos – the only form currently in production – added to the PIC list, after extensive lobbying by the industry.

A requirement for consensus – which is being challenged at this conference – means the asbestos lobby only has to enlist the support of one government to block the proposed listing. The latest Conference of Parties, to take place in Geneva from 24 April to 5 May, will see government representatives from 160 countries gather to discuss which hazardous substances should be listed. It will be the sixth time the conference will hear a UN recommendation that chrysotile asbestos be added to the PIC list.

“Chrysotile meets all the criteria for inclusion,” said Ambet Yuson, BWI’s general secretary, “so it is outrageous that this is being blatantly and persistently blocked by asbestos exporting countries. We need all governments to push the exporting nations to behave responsibly, and to recognise that this Convention is fundamentally flawed.”

He added the requirement for unanimity should be removed “in order to put an end to this farcical situation, which completely undermines the credibility of this important international convention.”

Global union IndustriALL and international trade union confederation ITUC have also urged their affiliated unions to press for a change to the voting system, backing a proposal by a group of African nations. The recommends a switch to the 75 per cent approval system that exists already for the two other UN treaties dealing with hazardous substances and exports, the Basel and Stockholm conventions.

Regulators collude with or capitulate to the agrochemical lobby

Regulators in the the US and Europe have been accused in turn of colluding with or capitulating to the global agrochemical lobby as it seeks to keep a cancer-linked herbicide on the market.

Global food and farming union IUF slammed a 15 March 2017 ruling by the European Chemicals Safety Agency (ECHA) that the toxic herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, is not carcinogenic.

The conclusion of ECHA’s risk assessment committee – which goes against the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) March 2015 expert assessment that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans” – is based largely on unpublished industry reports.

But IUF says ‘substantial evidence’ from independent researchers was disregarded by ECHA in a ‘weight of evidence’ approach which prioritises ‘risk’ over hazard elimination.

The ECHA report was issued two days after internal Monsanto documents released by a United States court documented the company’s consistent efforts to produce glyphosate-friendly studies and squash independent reviews by government regulatory bodies.

The court released the documents, which reveal the extent of collusion between Monsanto and the Environmental Protection Agency, in response to a lawsuit brought by agricultural workers linking glyphosate exposure to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer.

The European Commission must issue a final decision on glyphosate reauthorisation by the end of 2017.

According to IUF: “In Europe, the fight over glyphosate, and the wider struggle to rescue the food system from its addiction to toxic pesticides and destructive production methods, has come full circle to where it was one year ago.”

The global union added: “Public authorities have once more demonstrated the extent of their capture by the industry they are charged with regulating, while new evidence for banning glyphosate continues to accumulate. Sustained public pressure is needed now more than ever to take our food system off the pesticide treadmill.”

IARC said its evaluation of glyphosate is not affected by the ECHA review, and the ‘probable human carcinogen’ designation will remain.

A 23 March 2017 paper in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health is highly critical of the science used to justify glyphosate’s approval and called for a ‘urgent’ review. “It is incongruous that safety assessments of the most widely used herbicide on the planet rely largely on fewer than 300 unpublished, non-peer reviewed studies while excluding the vast modern literature on glyphosate effects,” it noted.

“After a review of all evaluations, we conclude that the current safety standards are outdated and may fail to protect public health and the environment.”

UN experts slam myth that pesticides are necessary

Two United Nations experts have called for a comprehensive new global treaty to regulate and phase out the use of dangerous pesticides in farming, and move towards sustainable agricultural practices.

Their 7 March 2017 report, which is highly critical of the claims made by the pesticide industry, notes chronic exposure to pesticides has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, hormone disruption, developmental disorders and sterility.

The experts for the UN’s Human Rights Council note: “The assertion promoted by the agrochemical industry that pesticides are necessary to achieve food security is not only inaccurate, but dangerously misleading.” It adds: “The industry frequently uses the term ‘intentional misuse’ to shift the blame on to the user for the avoidable impacts of hazardous pesticides. Yet clearly, the responsibility for protecting users and others throughout the pesticide life cycle and throughout the retail chain lies with the pesticide manufacturer.”

Farmers and agricultural workers, communities living near plantations, indigenous communities and pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposure and require special protections, the report notes.

It was authored by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, and the Special Rapporteur on Toxics, Baskut Tuncak. They told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that widely divergent standards of production, use and protection from hazardous pesticides in different countries are creating double standards, which are having a serious impact on human rights.

The Special Rapporteurs pointed to research showing that pesticides were responsible for an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year. The overwhelming number of fatalities, some 99 per cent, occurred in developing countries where health, safety and environmental regulations were weaker. Urging a new approach to farming, they say: “It is time to overturn the myth that pesticides are necessary to feed the world and create a global process to transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production.”


Slow progress on chemical standards in Europe, as industry dominates

Tighter rules on certain reproductive and cancer hazards at work have been agreed by a key European Parliament committee, but new evidence suggests that overall the European Union’s standard setting process is being undermined by covert chemical industry influence.

On 28 February 2017, members of the parliament’s employment and social affairs committee accepted an amendment that would bring reproductive hazards under the scope of a revised law. The MEPs also accepted that an occupational exposure limit for crystalline silica of 50 micrograms per m3 should be phased in, half the level sought by the Commission and industry lobbyists.

An exposure limit for cancer causing chromium VI of 1 microgram/m3 was also accepted, in stark contrast to the 25 microgram level proposed by the Commission and the industry. A tighter wood dust standard was also accepted.

The report was presented by Marita Ulvskog, a Socialist and Democrat group Euro MP and vice-chair of the employment and social affairs committee. Speaking after the vote, which returned a resounded 38 to 6 majority in favour of the amendments, she said: “The committee is proposing to widen the scope of the EU legislation on the protection of workers from carcinogens or mutagens at work to include reprotoxic substances.”

She added: “We also need to ensure that workers exposed to these harmful substances benefit from lifelong monitoring. It does not matter how long you have been exposed to these substances, you can still develop life-threatening diseases long after you have ended your job.”

According to the safety unit on the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), the vote by MEPs was an ‘important victory’ for unions. But it added: “This vote is only a step towards the adoption of a directive that would save thousands of lives each year from the minimalist proposals that had been made by the Commission and had the support of industrial lobbies.”

The full European Parliament will vote on the amendments in April, with the agreement of the Council of Ministers then required.

Concerns over the European Union’s standard setting process, however, have heightened after it was revealed experts with industry links dominate the committee advising the European Commission on the occupational exposure limits for hazardous substances.

A report published on 24 February in the French daily newspaper Le Monde revealed that 15 out of the 22 members of the Scientific Committee on Occupational Exposure Limit Values (SCOEL) have ties with companies in sectors likely to be affected by the Commission’s plans to adopt new occupational exposure limits (OELs) for certain carcinogens or mutagens at work. The Le Monde investigation established the links between the 15 SCOEL experts and companies including BASF, Shell and Monsanto or trade lobby groups.

Laurent Vogel of the ETUI’s safety unit said the revelations raise concerns about the credibility of the standard setting process. He told Le Monde: “Excessively high OELs are a shortcut to disaster. Workers wrongly believe that they are protected, whereas in practice such OELs are the equivalent of handing companies a licence to kill.”


EU panel recognises four chemicals as human hormone disrupters

A top European Union committee has for the first time recognised chemicals as hormone disrupting for humans.

Substances with these endocrine disrupting (EDCs) properties have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and other health effects. Now, as a result of the February 2017 vote by the EU REACH committee, the EDC notation on four chemicals will appear in their records on the EU Candidate List of substances of very high concern (SVHC).

“The EDC criteria discussion has been a long and painful and somewhat of a never-ending story. Therefore we are very pleased with this concrete step in the right direction”, said Frida Hök, policy adviser with the environmental non-profit ChemSec.

The four chemicals in question, DEHP, DBP, DIBP and BBP, are all phthalates used as plasticisers in plastic products. ChemSec says it has been identifying EDCs for many years and in 2011 started adding substances to its SIN [Substitute It Now!] List based solely on their hormone disrupting properties.

Currently, the SIN List contains 32 substances identified by ChemSec as EDCs, which the group says makes it the most comprehensive list of EDCs available. It says chemicals on the SIN List have been identified by ChemSec as Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC) based on criteria established by the EU chemicals regulation REACH.


Farm work cancer risk from pesticide incidents

Farmworkers who have a high pesticide exposure event – such as a spill – are more likely to experience molecular changes to their DNA that may lead to prostate and other cancers, according to a large study of pesticide applicators.

Environmental Health News reports the research, part of the ongoing US Agricultural Health Study that is monitoring the health of more than 57,000 private and commercial pesticide applicators, adds to growing evidence that high exposure to certain pesticides may spur prostate and other cancers in people handling the chemicals.

Researchers have long suspected pesticides may play a role in the elevated cancer rates among farmers and others who apply pesticides. Earlier findings of the same study have reported higher rates of prostate cancer linked to pesticide exposures.

The current paper, published in the journal Environmental and Molecular Mutagensis, included 596 male pesticide applicators. It found men who experienced a “high pesticide exposure event,” meaning a spill or other accident that would leave them highly exposed, were more likely to have elevated levels of DNA methylation in a gene linked with increased prostate cancer risk.

This type of exposure to pesticides would be “unusually high,” said lead author Dr Jennifer Rusiecki, an assistant professor of medicine at Uniformed Services University in Maryland, USA.

  • JA Rusiecki and others.  High pesticide exposure events and DNA methylation among pesticide applicators in the agricultural health study, Environmental and Molecular Mutagensis, volume 58, number 1, pages 19-29, January 2017.

Cancer is a byproduct of industrial policy

Much of the past effort against cancer has fixated on the wrong enemies, with the wrong weapons, a leading expert has said.

US professor Devra Lee Davis said while effort was focus internally on genetic factors, the external influences – what we breathe, drink, eat and absorb through our skin – is being overlooked. Writing in The Hill, she said “the great majority of cases of cancer occur in people born with healthy genes as a result of carcinogenic exposures at work, home, and school.”

But she said the failure to recognise this has “less to do with science, and more to do with the power of highly profitable industries that rely on public relations to counteract scientific reports of risks. Studies of identical twins tell us that most cases of cancer do not arise because of inherited defects. Only one in 10 women who develop breast cancer is born with defective genes. This means that most cases come about because of ways that our healthy genes interact with the world around us.”

She added: “The list of workplace causes of cancer provides a litany of largely ignored factors. Women who work at night – like nurses or those who work in electronics – have lower levels of melatonin and higher rates of breast cancer. Men who work with chemicals or electromagnetic fields have higher rates of brain cancer and leukaemia. Those who work with wood dust and formaldehyde have higher rates of nasal cancer.”

The professor, who authored the The secret history of the war on cancer a decade ago, concluded: “If we had acted on what has long been known about the industrial and environmental causes of cancer when this national war first began, millions of lives could have been spared — a huge number of casualties for which those who have managed the effort against the disease thus far must answer.”

Towards zero work-related cancers – Australian unions show the way

Listen to the webinar of the Victorian Trades Hall We are union OHS reps prevent work cancer event.


Chemical industry emboldened by Trump’s new UN ambassador

The woman chosen by president Donald Trump and now confirmed as the US ambassador to the United Nations has launched a scathing attack on the international body which could embolden an industry lobby angry at the UN’s role in assessing chemical cancer risks.

During her confirmation hearing , Nikki Haley said: “When we look at the United Nations, we see a chequered history… any honest assessment finds an institution that is often at odds with the American national interest and American taxpayers.”

Haley was signalling that international agencies will have to answer to an ‘America First’ administration hostile to global policymakers. One already in the crosshairs is the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is under the purview of the UN’s World Health Organisation.

After industry criticism of recent cancer assessments by the agency, notably on the pesticide glyphosate, and calls spearheaded by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) for the US to cut funds to IARC, Republican lawmakers rallied to the industry call.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chair Jason Chaffetz said the IARC has a “record of controversy, retractions, and inconsistencies” and asked why the National Institutes of Health has spent $40 million since 1992 to fund it. Chaffetz expressed concern that the IARC “influences American policymaking, even though IARC avoids having to meet the strict scientific standards and government scrutiny afforded to science advisory committees in America.”

The statement was straight from the industry playbook. Speaking as he announced its latest salvo, a ‘Campaign for Accuracy in Public Health Research‘ launched on 25 January 2017, ACC president and CEO Cal Dooley said: “Public policy must be based on a transparent, thorough assessment of the best available science.” He continued: “Currently, IARC’s monographs do not meet this standard though U.S. taxpayers foot the bill for over two-thirds of the international program’s budget.”

This prolonged attack has however been refuted by many of the world’s top research scientists, including leading US cancer epidemiologists.

Their June 2015 paper in Environmental Health Perspectives, a respected peer-reviewed journal supported by US government’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), noted: “Debate and criticism facilitate self-correction and a check on the validity in science. We are concerned, however, that the criticisms expressed by a vocal minority regarding the evaluations of a few agents may promote the denigration of a process that has served the public and public health well for many decades for reasons that are not supported by data.”

The paper concludes “as a group of international scientists, we have looked carefully at the recent charges of flaws and bias in the hazard evaluations by IARC Working Groups, and we have concluded that the recent criticisms are unfair and unconstructive.”