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Experts highlight spreading cancer risks
News release 9 April 2008

A global epidemic of preventable industrial cancers is killing hundreds of thousands each year because governments and employers are failing to take simple and effective preventive action. Top cancer prevention experts from around the world, meeting in Scotland this month to prepare an occupational and environmental cancer prevention strategy, will reveal the full extent of the problem and will call for the use of safer substances and processes and a phase out of the worst cancer-causing culprits.

The University of Stirling will host the global conference on ‘Occupational and Environmental Cancer Prevention - from research to policy to practice’ - on Friday 25 April 2008. The conference will also uniquely involve other important groups in civil society to discuss prevention.

The scientists, researchers and NGOs will present evidence showing in many countries across the world, including Scotland, far more people die each year from occupational and environmental cancers than from all road fatalities and murders combined. Yet prevention programmes on such cancers are either entirely absent or remain minute parts of expensive public health programmes that instead focus heavily on the lifestyle factors that cause cancer rather than tackling the source of cancer-causing substances.

Andrew Watterson, who leads the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at the University of Stirling and is co-organiser of the conference, said: “Today, there are more people in more countries exposed to more cancer causing industrial substances than in any time in history. We use hundreds of cancer-causing substances in, quite literally, industrial quantities when there are healthier and frequently better alternatives. If we change work practices we can remedy the sick workplace rather than indulge in a hit-and-miss attempt at a cure.

“There is a silver bullet cure to occupational cancers, but it is not a drug or surgery. Industrialised countries including in the UK are failing to make the link between workplace pollutants and cancer, failing to give preventive advice and failing to provide support for the affected individuals.”

In the USA, states such as Massachusetts have introduced legislation that has led to successful toxics use reduction of substances such as solvents and many other cancer-causing substances. Pam Civie, from the Toxics Use Reduction Institute will outline this work at the conference.

In Finland efforts to track exposures to cancer-causing substances and record occupational and environmental cancers have, combined with better informed workplace inspections, allowed for effective interventions. In Germany, various workplace cancers have been recognised that are not for instance recognised in the UK, latency periods and lengths of time people are exposed are also much shorter in some cases than in the UK.

According to Professor Rory O'Neill, co-organiser : “The don’t-look, don’t-find approach means over half of all work-related cancers are unrecorded and uncompensated – in the UK alone that amounts to several thousand cases each year. Rather than act on what we know, we are seeing instead a toxic epidemic of occupational and environmental cancers exported to the developing world.”

Keynote speakers from the World Health Organisation, European Environment Agency and the European Agency on Safety, Health and Work will be among hundreds of delegates from a global range of agencies and experts from the USA, Canada, Australia and across Europe. They include international researchers and scientists, policy makers, politicians, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), environmental groups, trade unions, local authorities and industries involved in reducing and preventing exposure to cancer-causing substances.

Prof Watterson added: “By sharing experiences that are proven to have worked in reducing cancer incidences, we aim to inform and influence public health initiatives and stimulate an international debate. These new approaches to cancer prevention could benefit not just public health, but also the economy. We need to see action from governments, health and safety authorities and employers – without it thousands each year will pay with their lives.”

Notes to editors

1 The most commonly cited estimate of the proportion of cancers linked to work is the 1980 Doll/Peto estimate of 4 per cent. Evidence presented to the conference will reveal this is a substantial under-estimate, with at least one in every 10 cancers likely to be linked to work.

2 Extremely few cancer causing substances have ever been banned – asbestos was only banned in the UK in 1999, for example, and hundreds of thousands of workers are still routinely exposed to asbestos in situ.

3 Recent studies have shown even well known workplace carcinogens are poorly controlled. UK studies have recently shown for example that both official safety agencies and employers have seriously under-estimated the numbers exposed to silica and the chemical MbOCA and the extent of those occupational exposures.

4 University of Stirling researchers have highlighted 10 top workplace cancer-causes for urgent action: Asbestos; Silica; Metals; Solvents and other chemicals; Mineral oils; Wood dust; Diesel/vehicle exhaust fumes; Passive smoking; Solar radiation and Ionising radiation.

5 Researchers in the UK and in New Zealand have estimated the price to the economy of an occupational cancer at between £1m and £2.5m. Preventive measures like substitution of harmful with safer chemicals could introduce healthier work methods, often at minimal cost.


Further information:

Prof Andrew Watterson. Tel 01786 466283 Email

Andy Mitchell, Media Relations Manager, University of Stirling
Tel: 01786 467058. Email: