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.”
- TUC occupational cancer webinar, starts live 2.30pm, 14 September 2017.
Women who live in areas with higher levels of outdoor light at night may be at higher risk for breast cancer than those living in areas with lower levels, according to a Harvard University study.
The large long-term study also found a stronger association among women who worked night shifts. “In our modern industrialised society, artificial lighting is nearly ubiquitous. Our results suggest that this widespread exposure to outdoor lights during night-time hours could represent a novel risk factor for breast cancer,” said lead author Peter James, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, looked at data from nearly 110,000 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study II from 1989 to 2013. The researchers linked data from satellite images of Earth taken at night-time to residential addresses for each study participant, and also considered the influence of night shift work. The study also factored in detailed information on a variety of health and socioeconomic factors among participants.
Women exposed to the highest levels of outdoor light at night – those in the top fifth – had an estimated 14 per cent increased risk of breast cancer during the study period, as compared with women in the bottom fifth of exposure, the researchers found. As levels of outdoor light at night increased, so did breast cancer rates.
The link was stronger among women who worked night shifts, suggesting that exposure to light at night and night shift work contribute jointly to breast cancer risk.
Other research by Harvard scientists based on the same Nurses’ Health Study II had earlier found an association between shiftwork and breast cancer.
- Peter James and others. Outdoor light at night and breast cancer incidence in the Nurses’ Health Study II, Environmental Health Perspectives, volume 125, issue 8, 17 August 2017. doi: 10.1289/EHP935
Asbestos isn’t just the biggest industrial killer of all time, it is also a massive drain on the economy, new research has confirmed.
Canadian researchers estimated the lifetime cost of newly diagnosed lung cancer and mesothelioma cases associated with occupational and para-occupational [typically exposed family members] asbestos exposure for the calendar year 2011, including healthcare, productivity and output, and quality of life costs. In the year there were 427 cases of newly diagnosed mesothelioma cases and 1,904 lung cancer cases attributable to asbestos exposure.
The researchers estimated the economic burden at $C831 million (£515m) in direct and indirect costs for the total 2,331 newly identified cases of mesothelioma and lung cancer and $C1.5 billion (£0.93bn) in quality of life costs. The calculation is based on a value of $C100,000 (£62,000) per quality-adjusted life year. This amounts to $C356,429 (£221,000) and $C652,369 (£404,000) per case, respectively.
The authors conclude the cost is “substantial”, but add: “This burden estimate is large; yet, it is only the tip of the total economic burden, since it includes only 2,331 newly diagnosed occupational and para-occupational cases from one calendar year.” They add that the estimate does not include other occupational diseases that are associated with asbestos exposure, such as pleural plaque and several other cancers, and non-occupational exposure, “so our estimate of the societal economic burden of new cases in Canada is likely a conservative one.”
- Emile Tompa and others. The economic burden of lung cancer and mesothelioma due to occupational and para-occupational asbestos exposure, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published Online First 29 July 2017. doi: 10.1136/oemed-2016-104173
A United Nations (UN) treaty on the control of toxic exports has been ‘utterly discredited’, unions have said. The charge came after a bid to add chrysotile asbestos – the only form of the cancer-causing fibre still traded – to the Rotterdam Convention’s list of the most hazardous substances was blocked for a sixth time.
On 3 May 2017, at a UN-organised conference in Geneva, out of the 156 countries party to the convention, just seven with commercial interests in continued asbestos use – Belarus, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Syria and Zimbabwe – vetoed chrysotile’s addition to the treaty’s ‘prior informed consent’ list, a measure that would require exports to be accompanied by a health warning. It requires a unanimous decision of government representatives for a substance to be listed. Addition of chrysotile to the list cannot now be considered until the next conference, in two years’ time.
It was an outcome that caused anger and exasperation in the contingent of global unions, campaigners and asbestos disease sufferers in attendance in Geneva to put the case for long overdue action that would both save lives and that met all the UN’s criteria for listing.
Brian Kohler, safety director of the global union IndustriALL, said: “The Rotterdam Convention is broken. Enough is enough. For the Convention to be effective, it must stop allowing the financial interests of a few powerful oligarchs to threaten the lives of millions. It’s a shameful example of a dysfunctional system and a discredit to the entire United Nations system. How many hundreds of thousands of people must die from asbestos-related diseases before the parties to the Rotterdam Convention change this?”
The global construction union BWI described the UN negotiations as a ‘biennial farce’. General secretary Ambet Yuson said “it is outrageous that this is being blatantly and persistently blocked by asbestos exporting countries.”
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) said a ‘front organisation’ for the global asbestos industry, the International Chrysotile Association (ICA), has “managed to get the recommendation for listing blocked for over a decade. The ICA is notorious for spreading false and misleading information to keep the chrysotile trade afloat.”
ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow said: “Another generation will be blighted by asbestos disease as a result of past exposures. But the chrysotile industry is determined to inflict this deadly epidemic on our grandchildren too. This criminal cabal of cancer pushers must be put out of business and brought to justice. We will do all we can to make sure this happens.”
An attempt to change the voting rules so a 75 per cent majority could agree listing also failed. The highly toxic pesticide paraquat was another victim of the unanimity requirement, again missing out on listing. The Convention’s expert group had said both substances met all the requirements for listing.
- See the Hazards photofile.
Korean authorities have for the first time recognised officially a case of work-related leukaemia resulting from exposures in a Samsung LCD factory.
The Korea Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service (COMWEL) ruled that Kim, a 33-year-old worker who was diagnosed with leukaemia after working for five years and seven months in a Samsung Display – formerly Samsung Electronics – LCD factory had contracted the illness in the course of his employment.
Although there have been earlier awards to workers in the company’s semiconductor factories, this is the first time that leukaemia contracted from working in an LCD factory has been recognised as an occupational disease. After conducting an epidemiological study of the factory, COMWEL determined that the illness was work-related, despite the low level of exposure to harmful substances.
“Considering the fact that Kim did not wear adequate protective gear and worked long hours, it is likely that he was exposed to carcinogens and harmful substances in greater concentrations than were found in the epidemiological study,” COMWEL wrote in the judgment.
“Working at Samsung Electronics was Kim’s first job, and taking into account the latency period for leukaemia and the fact that he received the diagnosis at the young age of 25, we acknowledge that there is a significant causal relationship between Kim’s leukaemia and his occupation.”
The cancer research community is giving too much attention to ‘tumour biology’ at the expense of efforts to prevent the tumours in the first place, a commentary in the journal Lancet Oncology has warned.
Commenting on the heavily promoted emphasis on ‘precision oncology’, the editorial points to the growing support for research on immunological and genetic susceptibility to cancers. “But can this insatiable desire to enhance our fundamental understanding of tumour biology overshadow the health gains that could be secured by improved environmental protection?”, it questions.
“Cancer is a product of both nature and nurture, in which environmental risk is an equally crucial — and often neglected — factor because it is a multisectorial issue.”
The editorial highlighting the ‘cancer risk paradox’ continues: “A large-scale economic inefficiency clearly exists, with financial resources being divided into both the science of cancer prevention and also into efforts to help those who have developed cancer as a direct result of human mismanagement of the planet. To see a world in which fewer people die of cancer, both areas must be addressed.”
Warning against moves to remove environmental protections, promote polluting industries or to fail to regulate pollution effectively, the paper concludes: “To eradicate cancer, governments need to both identify and act not only on increased risk susceptibility, but also ensure that people are not exposed to carcinogenic materials through gross environmental mismanagement.”
Ontario will do the “right thing” for factory workers left fighting work-related cancer and other diseases but who have been routinely denied compensation, the province’s labour minister has said.
The commitment from Kevin Flynn came in the wake of a 173-page report by General Electric (GE) retirees and the union Unifor documenting working conditions in a GE plant in Peterborough from 1945 to 2000.
The report said workers were exposed to more than 3,000 toxic chemicals, including at least 40 known or suspected human carcinogens. “These GE workers have suffered horrific and often terminal diseases at a disproportionate rate, yet approximately half of the compensation claims filed have been rejected, abandoned or withdrawn due to what was deemed to be insufficient proof,” said Joel Carr, Unifor national representative.
Workers were exposed to large quantities of hazardous substances including asbestos, arsenic, vinyl chloride, beryllium, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, PCB, uranium and lead, without proper protection. There are currently 31 Unifor members with claims to the province’s compensation board (WSIB) for GE job-related illness, including several forms of cancer.
The report, authored by experienced occupational health researchers Bob and Dale DeMatteo, was commissioned by the Advisory Committee on Retrospective Exposures, consisting of retired GE workers and supported by Unifor.
Responding to the report, Ontario labour minister Kevin Flynn said he wants an “expedited” settlement process in place “as quickly as possible” for those struggling without workers’ compensation.
Flynn signalled the government is considering a way to process the claims similar to how compensation for work-related illness is handled for firefighters, for whom a list of cancers are presumed to be work-related. “We’ve talked about a presumptive approach to this,” the minister said.