All posts by Rory O'Neill

Scientists warn of nanotube ‘asbestos’ cancer parallel

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 study highlights high work cancer toll

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.


Rise in US asbestos imports after long-term decline

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.”

Take a look at the TUC’s occupational cancer webinar

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.

European re-think needed on workplace cancers, says UK union body

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.”

Europe’s unions say occupational cancer protection ‘in sight’

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.


Trade union webinar challenges occupational cancer risks

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.”


Light at night linked to breast cancer

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.

Canadian study confirms asbestos exposure comes at a very high price

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.”

UN treaty ‘discredited’ as asbestos lobby claims victory

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.