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.”
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are being urged by trade unions to back an agreement between the European Council and European Parliament to give workers more and better protection against occupational cancer.
The call from trades unions came after the new measures won the support of the parliament’s employment committee. “This is an important victory for trade unions which have campaigned for many years to stop the pandemic of occupational cancers,” said Esther Lynch, confederal secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).
The agreement on the first revision of the Directive on Carcinogens and Mutagens, approves the introduction of binding occupational exposure limits (OELs) for an additional 11 cancer-causing substances including chromium (VI) compounds and crystalline silica, and goes far beyond what the European Commission originally proposed.
For instance, member states will now have to organise lifelong health surveillance for workers exposed to carcinogens. The agreement also requires the commission to explore extending the deal to reproductive toxicants by 2019.
“Improved health surveillance will help save many lives” said Lynch “and protection from exposure to reproductive toxicants, if implemented, should prevent miscarriages, congenital malformations and serious health problems among the future children of exposed workers.”
The ETUC aims to get binding OELs adopted for 50 priority carcinogens by the end of 2020, and is urging employers to engage in negotiations for further action to tackle work-related cancers. It said occupational cancers are the leading cause of work-related deaths, with more than 100,000 deaths every year in the EU.
British trades union confederation TUC is taking its campaign against occupational cancer into cyberspace. A live TUC Education webinar on 14 September will hear TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson explore which industries are most affected by occupational cancer, what the law says and what unions can do to reduce or eliminate the risks.
“The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) puts the annual occupational cancer toll at over 8,000 deaths a year – but we know it is considerably higher,” said Robertson. “Asbestos has been banned for almost 20 years but deaths – over 5,000 each year – are still increasing, despite being tightly regulated. But other risks, like breast cancers linked to shiftwork and lung and bladder cancer linked to diesel exhaust fumes, are still commonplace and frequently neglected problems.
“The TUC is aiming to give safety reps the tools to identify and challenge effectively cancer risks at work. Let’s not allow another working generation to be put at potentially deadly risk from preventable exposures.”