Download a PDF of the Hazards article Burying the evidence


Cancer in the UK
- Case history Hospital asbestos killed women
No protection, no warning, no action
Downplaying the cancer risks
What’s wrong with Doll Peto?
- Deadly omissions
What are the real risks?
What causes work cancer?
HSE’s practical disaster
- HSE metalworking fluids guide ducks cancer issue
- HSE’s belated trichloroethylene warning
What HSE has to say for itself
- Fatal failings on formaldehyde
Low priority, high risk
- Canadian campaign demands prevention
- Industry wins, workers lose
- 21st century workplace cancers
- Cancers and their work causes
- The breast cancer omission
Industry’s influence


An unjust public health disaster
Stopping work cancer dead
- The great work cancer con
- Industry's deadly research role
Fighting cancer the union way

Key recommendations


Buy Hazards 92

Killed by work carcinogens
Below, some of the cases reported by Hazards in the past two years.

John Willett
Heating engineer
Dead at 54

Barry Welch
Stepson of construction worker
Dead at 32

Janet Watson
Dead at 59

Rebecca Little
Dead at 53

Vanda Johansson-Corcoran Hospital cleaner
Dead at 60

James Emerson
Consultant plastic surgeon
Dead at 47.

Jennifer Pascott
Ex-wife of furnace bricklayer
Dead at 67

Ian Lunn
Dead at 61

Roger Ricketts
Dead at 59

Rob Dawber
Rail worker
Dead at 45

Mike Wise
Ex-apprentice joiner
Dead at 47

Linda Pyke
Garment worker
Dead at 56

Ian Cruickshank
Shipyard worker
Dead at 52

Teresa Maguire
Wife of boilermaker
Dead at 67

John Costello
Maintenance worker
Dead at 58

Alan Anthony
Dead at 72

Derek Trelfa
Rail worker
Dead at 66.

Christopher Panting
Coach finisher
Dead at 63

Melvin Raymond
Dead at 63

Sylvie Tapley
Daughter of asbestos worker
Dead at 59

Raymond Gould
Dead at 60

Mike Brien
Cleaning company boss
Dead at 53

Robert Brown
Dead at 57

Anthony Farmer
Ex-engineering worker
Dead at 47

Joseph Murray
Shipyard worker
Dead at 63

Joseph Martin
Electrical clerk
Dead at 51

Barry Price
Dead at 67

Peter Hathaway
Dead at 59

Geoffrey Norris
Dead at 65

John Dickerson
Dead at 73

Cheryl Williams
Wife of plumber
Dead at 52

Thomas Avan
Rubber worker
Dead at 76

Roger Chalk
Textile worker
Dead at 56

Alison Corbett
Shipyard clerical worker
Dead at 68

Vernon Barker
Steelworks labourer
Dead at 57

Brian Sim
Dead at 42

David Baker
Gas worker
Dead at 56

Barry Young
Electricity worker
Dead at 55

Peter Rodgers
Dead at 56

Michael Betts
Dead at 63

Mike Ledger
Dead at 61

Judy Darby
Specialist cleaning contractor
Dead at 60

Rodney Milliner
Dead at 60

Bernard Freeman
Dead at 67

John Spoors
Shipyard work
Dead at 78

William Cullen
Dead at 64

Mary Smith
Wife of lagger
Dead at 75

Robert Cox
Engineering factory worker
Dead at 79

Margaret Littlemore
Factory worker
Dead at 54

Philip Gibbon
Dead at 60

James Brown
Dead at 90

James Dorgan
Mechanical engineer
Dead at 76

Bruce Ernest Barnard
Ex-Royal Navy gunner
Dead at 71

Gordon Maule
Dead at 71

Ronald Buckley
Tile layer
Dead at 76

Robert Earl
Garage worker.
Dead at 64



The unremarked deaths of 18,000
work cancer victims each year

Burying the evidence
[Hazards 92, November 2005]

Britain is facing a cancer epidemic which has been almost entirely missed in official statistics. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill reports on an occupational cancer crisis that is killing 50 people every day and calls for an urgent and fully resourced public health response.

Jonathan Kay image
Jonathan Kay (right) died in August 2005 at the age of 40. Shortly before his death, he had learned his employer, Kelda Group plc – formerly Yorkshire Water Authority – had admitted liability for the asbestos cancer that was to kill him. Mr Kay, a graduate engineer and father-of-two, did not live long enough to discover how much compensation the firm would pay out.

Four months before his death from mesothelioma, a cruel and invariably fatal asbestos cancer, he said: “There was a level of dust that you could see in the air. You could taste it in your mouth.” Mr Kay said his employers never gave him protective equipment, even though the government had introduced strict regulations regarding the use of asbestos some 20 years previously.

”They should have provided me with appropriate guidance, information and equipment and none of that happened,” he said.

His solicitor Paul Webber said: “Jonathan Kay fought hard for justice for himself, but most importantly for him, for his young family. Despite clearly being in extreme pain, he continued in his quest… Although Jonathan did not live to receive the compensation, he died secure in the knowledge that his family would be protected.”

Barry Welch image

Jonathan Kay is one of a new generation of younger workers succumbing to asbestos cancers. Barry Welch (right) was just 32 when he died of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma in April 2005, his death the result of a cancer which until recently was assumed to be a disease of old age. His exposure to the fatal fibre is thought to have occurred in childhood, caused by dust on his stepfather’s work clothing (Hazards 91).

Neither Jonathan nor Barry had spent years in highly polluted heavy industry. They form part of an emerging epidemic which authorities failed to spot and, for the new generation of workplace killers, are doing precious little to prevent.

Cancer in the UK

More than one in three people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. One in four will die from cancer. More than a quarter of a million people in the UK are diagnosed with cancer every year (1).

Figures for England alone in 2003 put the total death toll for the year at 126,800. The UK figure for 2002 was over 155,000.

Cancer death rates in the UK have changed little since 1950, while the other major causes of death – heart disease, stroke and infectious diseases – have all declined. Cancer became the most common cause of death in females from 1969 and in males from 1995 (2).

It is a very modern killer. Cancer accounted for about 25 per cent of all deaths in England and Wales in 2000, compared to 15 per cent in 1950 and less than 5 per cent in 1901 (3). The number of people in the UK diagnosed with cancer is increasing, as is the proportion of UK deaths caused by cancer.

Lung cancer reports were relatively rare at the start of the 21st century. It did not even have an International Classification of Diseases (ICD) code until 1940.

The massive increase in smoking in the 20th century was an indisputable and major cause of the lung cancer explosion. But coincident with the explosion in smoking, was an explosion in workplace exposures to a continually widening pool of workplace substances that had been poorly studied and which were, for much of the century, poorly controlled.

While smoking cessation has become a major public health priority and has spurred an entire prevention industry, no similar campaign has been waged to address the carcinogens encountered and inhaled by millions at work. Primary prevention – removing the risks – could prevent all occupational cancers. But too little official regard for the risks has meant precious little regard for prevention.

Hospital asbestos killed women

In August 2005, the family of a nurse who died after being exposed to asbestos dust in a hospital was awarded £175,000 in damages from the Department of Health.

Rebecca Little image

Rebecca Little (right), 53, of Catterick, died in February 2002 from the asbestos cancer mesothelioma. Her family, with legal support from Mrs Little’s union Amicus, had fought to prove her illness was caused by exposure to the dust at a London hospital in the 1960s. The Department of Health eventually admitted liability for breach of duty of care.

Mrs Little trained as a nurse at the former Charing Cross Hospital between 1968 and 1970. Her husband, Dr Julian Little, also worked at the hospital and was able to provide evidence about the presence of poorly maintained asbestos. He said his wife’s motive in starting the case was to highlight the dangers of asbestos in old hospitals.

Adrian Budgen, a partner with Irwin Mitchell solicitors, represented the Little family. He said the number of mesothelioma cases are expected to increase for at least a decade and added: “Particularly shocking, however, is that mesothelioma, once thought to be an 'old person's disease', is now increasingly claiming younger victims and in a wider range of occupations, including hospital staff.”

Irwin Mitchell also represented the family of hospital cleaner Vanda Johansson-Corcoran, who died in October 2003 aged 60 from the same cancer. An inquest ruled in September 2004 that her death was caused by an industrial disease after years of being exposed to asbestos while cleaning a boiler room at Airedale Hospital, Steeton, near Keighley. She had worked as a cleaner at the hospital from 1978 to 1981 and was diagnosed with mesothelioma in August 2002.

An increasing number of workers are not living long enough to claim their pension, thanks to this asbestos cancer. Barry Welch was just 32 when he died of mesothelioma in April 2005. Melvin Raymond was 63 when mesothelioma killed him in February, Derek Trelfa was 66 when he died of the same condition in January and Sylvie Tapley and Janet Watson were both just 59. Joiner Ian Lunn who died in August 2004 was 61 and shipyard work Ian Cruickshank only 52. Former electrician and organic farmer Raymond Gould died in August 2005 from mesothelioma aged 60, seven weeks after being told he had contracted the disease. Cleaning company boss Mike Brien died of mesothelioma in March, aged 53.

Two of the most common work-related cancers, mesothelioma and lung cancer, have another thing in common – they are potent killers. Mesothelioma is invariable fatal. The mortality rate for lung cancer in the UK is 95 per cent.

No protection, no warning, no action

Jim Smith is recovering from a May 2005 operation to remove a tumour “the size of a pea” from his bladder. “I was having trouble going to the loo so went to the doctor. The doctor found blood in my urine.”

Jim joined the gas board in his mid-teens as an apprentice electrician. He worked at gas works around the north west producing “town gas”, where coal was heated to produce gas for industry and domestic use, from 1961 to 1969. He was made redundant as Britain’s North Sea natural gas supply came on line.

Since then he’s worked in “clean” jobs in offices and sales, and is clear where the blame lies for his health problems. “As an apprentice with the gas board they gave you all the crappy jobs to do. I had to climb into the retorts and fix lights for maintenance workers, but everything was covered in a tarry deposit. There was no discussion of health and safety and little by way of protection. If you were lucky you’d get a pair of gloves and a disposable mask – but you only got those if you made a song and dance. You even had to provide your own boiler suits.”

Working in the retort house, where the gas was produced, was known to be the dirtiest, most unpleasant job. “We had to climb into the retorts. When you went to shower you were covered in this brown stuff. It stuck to your skin. Since then I’ve had these marks, warts, on my body.” He also had to work under the large gasometers that used to be a common sight in major towns. “You were walking through this gunge, mire. I once sank up to my neck in brown, tarry gas waste. They had to hose me down and couldn’t even get it off then.”

The tarry waste is rich in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other toxins. Direct contact with the skin is known to lead to an increased bladder cancer risk in town gas workers. And Jim had other exposures to highly dangerous substances while doing the job. Carbon tetrachloride, a highly hazardous cancer causing solvent, was used in open bowls to clean off the oily deposit from machinery. Asbestos lagging was everywhere.

“I’ve been told the gas board was aware of the problems in the 1960s but didn’t do anything then,” says Jim. “I only found out the problem could be related to work when I contacted Sheffield Occupational Health Advisory Service (SOHAS) and Greater Manchester Hazards Centre. I’m a bit bewildered by it all. When the doctors told me I had cancer it was a shock. Then you start to ask why, what caused this, and you don’t get any answers. The medical people don’t want to get too involved, they are scared of being quoted.”

Since the operation Jim, now aged 59, has had trouble with his bladder, having to rush to the toilet at short notice and feeling understandably stressed. “I have to take a bottle with me in the car. My sleeping pattern has been thrown to hell. I’m going through all this now because of my early years with the gas board. I feel dreadful about it. I think the gas board had a duty of care to contact ex-employees to warn them of the risks and of the possible symptoms. Then maybe I’d have spotted my problem that bit sooner. They never contacted me. They never said anything.”

Jim’s is not an isolated case. Simon Pickvance of SOHAS, who first told Jim of the link between bladder cancer and work in town gas production says in the Sheffield area alone he has “seen several town gas plant workers with bladder cancer in the last three years.”

Keith McFadzien Jones was barely out of childhood when he first worked with asbestos. In February 2005 he was told, aged 50, those exposures in his youth had given him mesothelioma, an asbestos cancer few survive for more than two years.

“It’s terribly wrong,” he says. “I was an innocent, I left school, went to a place of work. I had been cared for all those years by my parents who handed me over to a firm as a bonded apprentice joiner hoping they would care for me. They did not provide that care, knowing how dangerous this stuff is.

“Asbestos board was everywhere, it was cheap. They were getting things done on the cheap, putting this stuff into thousands of homes.”

Keith was 15 when he was taken on by a joinery offshoot of Sheffield building firm Gleesons. “We were never warned about asbestos risks. We’d cut it, then eat our lunch at the same spot.” Keith worked periodically – sometimes for a few days, then maybe not for months – with “asbestolux”, an asbestos board with a relatively high asbestos content. He used disposable masks “for the sawdust. Everyone thought that was the greatest hazard, but the dust was always in your nose, like snuff. It must have been the same with the asbestos.

“We made it into firedoors and other panels. The foreman said it was asbestos-free and the company gave us no warnings. We were working quite willy-nilly with asbestolux. Being told it was asbestos-free made things worse, it was an open invitation.”

Keith left the firm aged 21, a qualified joiner, and believes that was the last time he worked with asbestos. By then, though, the damage was done. He first experienced symptoms, shortness of breath and “a pain like I’d been punched in the back” in September 2004, as he arrived in Russia on his honeymoon. He has not been able to work since 21 November 2004 because of his mesothelioma, a cancer his surgeon told him was “a living hell.” According to Keith: “I was desperately short of breath. It was just as though someone is stood on top of my chest and I couldn’t breathe.”

He has since had a radical extrapleural-pneumonectomy, a rare, experimental procedure in the UK which involved him “being opened up front and back” to remove the tumour that encircled his chest cavity. Surgeons say it is about the most extreme operation a human body might survive. He’s had chemo- and radiotherapy and is taking 24 different tablets a day, including morphine-based painkillers. He knows all this is probably an effort to extend his life, not cure him.

“I want to live as long as I can. I know how deadly the thing is but at least I’ve been given a chance. When I was diagnosed I was devastated, brokenhearted, but because of my family and my Christian beliefs I have pulled myself together. I have a new wife and three kids and two grandkids. Another grandchild is due in January.”

He now receives a disability pension but his wife, who is Russian and who has to care for him, receives nothing. “My wife can’t claim anything because she is not a UK citizen. But it’s her that is having to get up in the night because I feel unwell, who has to take care of me. It’s so unfair on her.

“I just plod on and keep going but it devastates families. My eldest, a teacher, became ill with stress – he’d thought dad was indestructible. I hope my story leads to more awareness and prevention, so others don’t have to go through this. These industrial cancers, then tend to ignore them. This is a bloody problem and is going to be in the future.”

These cases are not exceptional. Tens of millions of UK workers have faced deadly risks at work in recent decades. They were not warned of the risks. They were not provided protection. And their employers did not track them down to issue potentially lifesaving guidance on the need for vigilance and health surveillance. And the response of the UK government and safety authorities has been just as complacent.

• Colin Dyal - living with mesothelioma. Full case history
• Barry Welch – dead at 32. Full case history
• June Hancock – environmental exposure. Full case history
• Teresa Maguire - washing overalls killed her. Full case history

Downplaying the cancer risks

Working out the relative contribution of lifestyle, diet, pollution, occupation and other factors to the overall cancer toll is at best informed guesswork. The Health and Safety Executive’s cancer webpages, updated in 2005, give HSE’s best guess. It says: “Our current best estimate is the proportion of cancer deaths in Great Britain due to occupational exposures over the last few decades is 4 per cent, with an associated uncertainty of 2 per cent to 8 per cent. Applying these estimates to the latest five year’s mortality data for Great Britain provides an estimated annual number of cancer deaths from work-related causes of 6,000 (uncertainty range 3,000 to 12,000)” (4).

This HSE estimate is cribbed from one study, which concluded cancer was overwhelming a “lifestyle” issue (5). HSE said: “An important estimate of the overall proportion of cancer attributable to occupational causes remain that put forward by Doll and Peto in 1981 in a report to the US Congress. They estimated that 4 per cent (plausible range of certainty 2 per cent to 8 per cent) of cancer mortality was due to occupational causes.”

It added: “Although, this estimate relates to the US over two decades ago, it is seen as broadly applicable to Great Britain today and remains the best overall estimate available.”

An annual total of 6,000 deaths from occupational cancer is certainly a major public health concern. It is almost double the annual number of deaths on the road and is more than 20 times the number of workplace fatalities each year.

However, HSE has got things badly wrong in two respects. Firstly, a cursory glance at occupational cancer deaths in the UK quickly reveals HSE’s figures do not reflect the real toll. Official figures show 1,874 people died of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma alone in 2003 (6). Its notoriously inadequate occupational cancer reports picked up 616 occupational skin cancer cases in 2004 (4). The figure is approaching HSE’s lower estimate and we have only looked at two cancers, and lung cancer – far and away the most common and most deadly occupational cancer – isn’t included at all yet.

Doll/Peto estimated work accounted for 15 per cent of all lung cancers in American males, which would equate to over 3,000 deaths in UK males in 2002. A 2005 British Medical Journal paper put the number of work-related passive smoking lung cancer deaths alone at 160 in just one year (7).

Asbestos related lung cancers alone will at least match the mesothelioma total (8).

What HSE doesn’t say is that the Doll/Peto figure is just one of a number of estimates, and is much lower than many of the other estimates reported in the literature. A simple investigation of Doll/Peto’s methods reveals they produced a figure that by design fell considerably short of the true toll. How far short is a matter of debate, but in terms of deaths per year, we are talking thousands.

Even Doll/Peto acknowledged their estimates amounted to no more than informed guesses, noting it was “impossible to make any precise estimate of the proportion of the cancers of today that are attributable to hazards at work.” It is possible to identify significant flaws in Doll/Peto which mean it can only be a large under-estimate of the true toll.

Jim Brophy image

This was good news for some, but a death sentence for others. “The companies were ecstatic when Doll/Peto came out, because it posed the whole thing politically as a lifestyle issue,” Stirling University occupational cancer authority Dr Jim Brophy (right) told Hazards. “That had consequences for prevention, in that it effectively ended any chance of a structured and well resourced strategy to combat occupational cancer.”

The impact of the ensuing occupational cancer epidemic went beyond traditional industrial jobs. Ex-teacher Alan Anthony died aged 72 on 27 May 2005, his mesothelioma linked to renovation work in the school he worked at in the 1970s. Hairdresser Janet Watson, who had worked in hair salons for 30 years, died aged 59 from the same condition. Her death in September 2004 was judged to be “death from an industrial disease” at inquest, caused by the asbestos commonly used in old-style hood hairdryers. Neither of these deaths would have been included in the HSE-approved cancer estimates – teachers and hairdressers didn’t figure in Doll/Peto’s at risk group.

Neither did health workers. Hospital consultant James Emerson died aged 45 from mesothelioma caused by exposure to damaged asbestos lagging in a hospital during his time as a medical student and junior doctor.

Thousands have gone on to die from cancers they just shouldn’t have developed, at least according to the Doll/Peto estimate, including the family members of workers exposed to asbestos, who got a second hand “paraoccupational” dose from the contaminated clothes and hair of a family member. And asbestos is just one of many potent occupational carcinogens encountered by millions in Britain’s workplaces.

HSE, however, embraced the Doll/Peto figure. The result has been little priority paid to the prevention of most occupational cancers, creating one of Britain’s most lamentable, preventable public health disasters.

What Doll Peto said
Cancer deaths by cause
Pollution 2%
Occupation 4%
Tobacco 30%
Diet 35%


What’s wrong with Doll Peto?

Two major US reports published shortly before the Doll/Peto report – one from US government organisations (9) and another backed by employers’ organisations – put the occupational cancer contribution at at least 20 per cent of all cancers, with the industry-backed report conceding occupational cancer constituted “a public health catastrophe” (10).

A major review of environmental and occupational causes of cancer published in September 2005 (11) concluded: “It is difficult to estimate the impact of Doll and Peto’s views, but their 1981 article had been cited in over 441 other scientific articles by the end of 2004. More importantly, it has been cited repeatedly by commentators who argue that ‘cleaning up the environment’ is not going to make much difference in cancer rates.”

While industry groups and HSE embraced the Doll/Peto estimates, others were more critical. Hazards magazine warned in 1996 that the estimate “was always suspect and is now totally discredited” (Hazards 58). A 1995 paper in the Mt Sinai Journal of Medicine said the occupational cancer figure was too low and added it failed to take account of the limitations of the data on which it was based (12).

This paper and others noted that the Doll/Peto estimate was limited to an analysis of deaths in those under the age of 65. Cancer is primarily a disease of the old – only 26 per cent of the deaths in England in 2003 were in people under the age of 60 (3), so it is likely the great majority of occupational cancers would have been omitted from the figure.

Occupational cancers by definition only occur in those of working age and above and, because of latency periods before the development of disease, many are likely to emerge in old age. We have an aging population – as other causes of death decline more are likely to survive long enough to develop their occupational cancers.

Doll/Peto not only top sliced the numbers, it only considered cancer risks posed by a list of 16 substances or industries. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), however, classifies 89 substances as definite human carcinogens, 64 as probable human carcinogens and 264 as possible human carcinogens. A 2004 paper in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives reported that this included 28 definite, 27 probable and 113 possible human occupational carcinogens (13).

Occupational cancer risks to women are almost entirely ignored in the Doll/Peto analysis, which concentrated on jobs which in the preceding decades had been largely the preserve of men (14).

And Doll/Peto excluded African-Americans from the analysis, a group over-represented in high risk jobs and with higher and increasing cancer rates.

The impact on occupational cancer incidence of the synthetic chemicals produced in unprecedented volumes in recent decades would not have been estimated in Doll/Peto’s analysis – this only considered a small number of well established cancer risks - but could have been predicted on the basis of limited human evidence and more extensive toxicological and animal studies.

According to Dr Lorenzo Tomatis, who until 1993 headed the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) programme evaluating chemicals, there is a marked double standard in operation when it comes to proof of risk.

“A necessary requirement for declaring an environmental chemical carcinogenic to humans is that conclusive epidemiological studies support a causal relationship, and particularly robust evidence for an association between occupational exposure and human cancer is required because a causal association is accepted, while the evidence for a contribution of dietary factors to the cancer burden is usually circumstantial and, in come cases, rather weak,” he said.

He told a Collegium Ramazzini conference in September 2005: “Punctilious precision is used in calculating occupational and environmental risks, while a wide latitude is allowed for risks related to diet, ranging between 10 per cent and 70 per cent.” He added that Doll/Peto acknowledged that occupational cancinogens “tend to be those which increase the risk of some particular type(s) of cancer very substantially,” and others might not have been detected simply because they have not been investigated or because the exposure concerned a small number of individuals, and no suspicion was raised.

The end result is that cancers are attributed a “lifestyle” cause with relative ease, while production and use of occupational carcinogens continues unremarked and unabated. “The emphasis given to lifestyle factors, to the detriment of information on the role of chemical pollutants, favoured the uninterrupted production of agents with negative effects on health that remain hidden or secret or are deliberately underestimated,” said Tomatis. “Furthermore, attributing most cancer cases to lifestyle, which is related to free personal choice, unduly amplifies the individual’s responsibility, diverts attention from the lack of commitment of health authorities and obscures the aetiological role of other risk factors.”

Some observers are unsurprised at the conclusions of the Doll/Peto report. Sir Richard Doll, co-author of the 1981 report that informed HSE’s cancer strategy for quarter of a century, was a favourite expert of some of the world’s most hazardous industries. In court depositions in 2000, he admitted T&N, Britain’s most prolific asbestos killer, had donated £50,000 to the Oxford college where he was warden “in recognition of all the work I had done for them.” [see The great work cancer con below]

DEADLY OMISSIONS What Doll/Peto missed

• Many cancers were missed entirely from their analysis or designated not work-related, including melanoma and breast cancer, the most common cancer among women.

• Overall risks to women would be under-estimated because of their relatively late entry to the industrial workforce in large numbers.

• Prostate cancer, the most prevalent cancer among men, was only considered a risk for cadmium-exposed workers. Studies have linked prostate cancer to exposure to pesticides, metalworking fluids and other occupational exposures.

• The study only included 16 substances or industries thought to be carcinogenic to humans, a small fraction the true number.

• The report only considered mortality (deaths) and not morbidity (number of cases), which is a considerably higher figure – in the UK even Doll/Peto’s 4 per cent figure would indicate around 11,000 cases a year.

• Excluding cancers in those over 65 years of age drastically top-sliced the number of cancers considered, this measure alone possibly reducing the work cancer toll to less than half the true figure.

• Cancers in those working in small industries were excluded.

• The analysis excluded African-Americans, a group over-represented in high risk jobs and with higher and increasing cancer rates.

• The analysis missed out those with indirect exposures to carcinogens, for example maintenance workers in contact with asbestos. These jobs are now among the highest risk for asbestos cancer in the UK.

• The study only considered human evidence – but for some substances and industries in the rapidly expanding job market the studies hadn’t be done, and for many newer exposures and industries conclusive human evidence just wasn’t yet available, but there was strong suggestive evidence from the more readily available toxicological and animal studies. As a result many cancers caused or related to workplace exposures would have switched columns to lifestyle, smoking or other causation categories.

• The report acknowledged but failed to account for the interaction of exposures, for example the greatly increased risk of lung cancer in smokers who are also exposed to asbestos. Most cancers are likely to result from a combination of exposures or circumstances.

• Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, thought to be one of the most common work-related cancers, was classified as having only a slight risk association impacting on relatively few workers.

What are the real risks?

According to Dr Richard Clapp (right) of the University of Boston Medical School, co-author of the September 2005 review (11): “Using the 1981 Doll/Peto estimates for occupational cancer probably underestimates the occupational exposure contribution by a factor of two to four in both the US and the UK.” This would mean an occupational contribution to the UK cancer total of between 8 and 16 per cent.

Dr Clapp told Hazards: “I believe occupational lung cancer is the leading work-related cancer followed by bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and leukaemia. Our review paper gives the scientific studies which back this up, along with the various exposures that cause these cancers.

“For example, for lung cancer, we review the evidence that metals, solvents, ionising radiation, reactive chemicals like BCME, environmental tobacco smoke, air pollution, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, pesticides and fibres like asbestos and silica cause lung cancer. This adds up to a substantial burden, and some of these exposures - like asbestos and ionising radiation in underground miners - act synergistically with cigarette smoke and vastly increase lung cancer risk.”

He added “there is no way to put a precise number on this because cancer is such a ‘multifactorial’ disease and even small exposures can be a critical piece of the pie when lots of people are exposed. The reason we have so much cancer is because we are exposed to so many carcinogens; we need to turn that around both by producing and using fewer carcinogenic materials and not exposing workers and others to them.”

Dr Samuel Epstein, emeritus professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, puts the occupational figure in the Clapp range, saying “based on minimal estimates” occupational carcinogenic exposures are responsible for 10 per cent of overall cancer mortality adding that for certain occupational exposures, mortality rates are much higher (15).

He said “lifestyle academics” including Sir Richard Doll “have consciously or unconsciously become the well-touted and enthusiastic mouthpiece for industry interests, urging regulatory inaction and public complacency”, adding the “puristic pretensions of ‘the lifestylers’ for critical objectivity are only exceeded by their apparent indifference to or rejection of a steadily accumulating body of information on the permeation of the environment and workplace with industrial carcinogens and the impact of such involuntary exposures on human health.”

According to Epstein, any adherence to the Doll/Peto figures is folly because their paper “excluded from analysis people over the age of 65 and blacks, just those groups with the highest and increasing cancer mortality rates. Not content with such manipulation, they claimed that occupation was only responsible for 4 per cent of all cancers, without apparent consideration of a wide range of recent studies dealing with the carcinogenic effects of such exposures… The wild 4 per cent guess was matched by ‘guesstimates’ that diet was determinant in some 35 per cent of all cancers.”

Professor Andy Watterson (right) of Stirling University’s occupational and environmental health research group, believes Clapp’s estimate of real occupational cancer incidence “is about right” and is critical of HSE for failing to act on “significant and serious health risks from workplace carcinogens.

“Lung cancers caused by asbestos exposure are not picked up and other occupational cancers simply do not show up on the official radar; the contribution of work to breast cancers is widely neglected and there are a number of carcinogens that attack humans – brain, nervous system, soft tissue sarcomas, cancer of the larynx, kidneys, stomach, bone – which are not adequately regulated.”

Even at Clapp’s lower estimate of 8 per cent of all cancers being work-related, the UK figure would be of the order of 12,000 deaths a year and about 20,000 new cases. Whichever figure you choose, the loopholes in Doll/Peto’s analysis mean the UK’s official estimate of 6,000 occupational cancer deaths certainly misses thousands of deaths a year. The shortfall on new cases is more marked still, falling short by well in excess of 10,000 cases a year.

Some occupational cancers ignored in the UK are not just recognised, but are also officially compensated in other jurisdictions (see Cancer in Canada, coincidence in UK below).

cancer cases/year (GB)
HSE/Doll-Peto Corrected
Hazards estimate
% of all cancers 4%
(range 2-8%)
(range 8-16%)
(Lower/upper estimates)
(12,000- 24,000)
New cases
(Lower/upper estimates)

What causes work cancer?

A September 2005 University of Massachusetts Lowell report (11) identified examples of “strong causal links between environmental and occupational exposures and cancer”, many of which are commonly encountered in UK workplaces today, including:

• Metals such as arsenic, chromium and nickel and cancers of the bladder, lung, and skin.

• Chlorination byproducts such as trihalomethanes and bladder cancer.

• Natural fibres such as asbestos and cancers of the larynx, lung, mesothelioma, and stomach.

• Petrochemicals and combustion products, including motor vehicle exhaust and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and cancers of the bladder, lung, and skin.

• Pesticide exposures and cancers of the brain, Wilms’ tumour, leukaemia, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

• Reactive chemicals such as vinyl chloride and liver cancer and soft tissue sarcoma.

• Metalworking fluids and mineral oils and cancers of the bladder, larynx, nasal passages, rectum, skin, and stomach.

• Ionising radiation and cancers of the bladder, bone, brain, breast, liver, lung, ovary, skin, and thyroid, as well as leukaemia, multiple myeloma, and sarcomas.

• Solvents such as benzene and leukaemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; tetrachloroethylene and bladder cancer; and trichloroethylene and Hodgkin’s disease, leukaemia, and kidney and liver cancers.

• Environmental tobacco smoke and cancers of the breast and lung.

HSE’s practical disaster

HSE has a reluctance to raise the spectre of occupational cancer risks, even where they are well established.

A webpage on metalworking fluids created in 2005 (16) omitted entirely any mention of cancer risks. Dr Frank Mirer, director of the US autoworkers’ union UAW wrote to HSE saying: “I find the omission of a mention of occupational cancer in the new page or metalworking fluids to be a significant gap.” He pointed to a series of papers showing an occupational cancer risk (See HSE metalworking fluids guide ducks cancer issue, below).

On a rare occasion HSE did revisit its occupational cancer estimates, it revised them down. It now says the ratio of asbestos related lung cancers to mesotheliomas may be lower than 1 to 1 – a 2005 HSE paper puts the ratio of asbestos lung cancers to mesotheliomas at between 2/3 and 1 to 1 - much lower than many other estimates (17).

The authors acknowledge their figure will miss some cancers because it under-estimates the effects of chrysotile (white asbestos), which has been the dominant exposure since 1970. And their analysis only includes cancer deaths up to the age of 74, whereas many asbestos related lung cancer deaths occur in older workers.

While many observers believe the ratio of asbestos-related lung cancers to mesothelioma may be closing as fewer workers are experiencing the very high exposures which were linked to much higher numbers of lung cancers and a drop in smoking will reduce those caused by the synergy between smoking and asbestos exposure, HSE’s new estimate is significantly lower than generally cited figures. Stirling University’s Dr Jim Brophy described the lower estimate as “garbage”.

Dr Joe LaDou, editor of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, noted in 2004: “The number of lung cancer deaths caused by asbestos is at least equal to the number of deaths from mesothelioma. The ratio may be much higher than 1 to 1, with some reports suggesting up to 7 to 1” (18).

If the HSE estimates are troubling, the official records of actual cases are appalling. Even by HSE’s new low estimates, there should be between 1,220 and 1,870 asbestos-related lung cancers recorded every year. Official reporting schemes record fewer than 150 cases a year and the government’s industrial injuries benefits scheme for asbestos related cancers pays out to fewer than 100 people each year (6).

And while HSE may have stuck with Doll/Peto’s 1981 estimates of risk, a generation has gone by and new evidence has come to light, including evidence for cancers dismissed entirely by the report or only included in very limited circumstances.

A 2004 paper reported the risk of ovarian cancer increases with increased exposure to diesel exhaust at work. It found individuals with the highest cumulative exposure to diesel exhaust had more than 3.5 times the risk of ovarian cancer (19).

A 2005 paper concluded exposure to wood dust increased the chances of developing not only nasal cancer but also lung cancer, finding the risk of lung cancer was increased by 57 per cent with wood dust exposure in absence of smoking, by 71 per cent for smoking in the absence of wood dust exposure, and by 187 per cent for individuals who were exposed to both smoking and wood dust (20).

The Department of Health’s Committee on Carcinogenicity reported in December 2004 that “there was some limited evidence to suggest an association between farmers/farm workers, exposure to pesticides and increased risk of prostate cancer” (21). A September 2005 paper concluded exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) dramatically increased the risk of laryngeal cancer, up by 5.2 times (22). A 2004 paper linked workplace exposure to the pesticide chlropyrifos to a doubling of the lung cancer risk (23).

And a slew of papers have linked occupational factors to the development of gliomas, including exposure to arsenic, mercury and pulp products (24), work in pulp mills (25) and other occupations (26).

HSE’s belated trichloroethylene warning

A Health and Safety Executive warning about the cancer risk from the common industrial solvent trichloroethylene came after a period when the safety watchdog had been actively encouraging its use in workplaces.

The 2002 HSE warning said that trichloroethylene, often known as "trike," was to be classified as a category 2 carcinogen, which means it may cause cancer. It added that employers should consider using an alternative solvent or cleaning process or, if this was not possible, enclosing the degreasing process as far as possible. Prior to this, HSE had for a decade been explicitly recommending trichloroethylene use as an “ozone friendly” alternative to the more worker-friendly trichloroethane – unions in the 1970s had run successful campaigns to get rid of trike, in some cases negotiating trichloroethane as a safer alternative.

In February 2000, chemical manufacturer Dow failed in a bid to stop Australia's chemical standards body NICNAS labelling trichloroethylene as a carcinogen and mutagen. It took a further two years before HSE issued its warning.

What HSE has to say for itself

While HSE has stood still, the evidence has moved on. Evidence on pesticides and cancer, passive smoking and cancer, breast cancer linked to occupational exposures and shift work, the recognition of formaldehyde as an occupational carcinogen and a plethora of other studies all passed HSE by without comment.

A spokesperson for HSE told Hazards: “Doll and Peto’s 1981 estimate of the proportion of US cancer mortality due to occupational causes was based on knowledge about the scientific evidence on occupational cancer at that time.

“Over the past 20 years or so, we have made the judgment that we consider these estimates to be broadly applicable to the situation in Great Britain today. This judgment has mainly been based on the lack of discovery of any major new occupational carcinogens and better workplace controls including the banning and substitution of many carcinogens.”

He added that “work is underway to update the estimate,” and should be available by the end of 2006. A report of an HSE workshop on the “burden of occupational cancer in Great Britain”, based on an experts’ workshop held in November 2004, was published online in October 2005 (27). The participants agreed it was “timely and feasible to update Doll and Peto’s 1981 estimate.”

HSE’s sluggishness in researching and adopting a new, more realistic estimate has its critics. “Using their low estimates to set priorities, undoubtedly directs resources elsewhere that would otherwise be directed toward enforcing regulatory restrictions on occupational exposures, researching safer materials and processes, etc., resulting in more cancer in workers than need be,” said Boston University’s Dr Clapp. “This is an unjustifiable and avoidable public health burden.”

Stirling University’s Professor Watterson said: “Even the 4 per cent figure should have provoked a far stronger response from the Health and Safety Commission and HSE and the government than it has, with far greater priority given to developing prevention strategies.” He said road traffic accidents kill far fewer people and have been the subject of a concerted and effective prevention effort by authorities.

“I don’t see the resources available in HSC/E to pursue this important public health area. HSE seems very defensive, not looking at the subject of occupational cancer perhaps for fear of what it might find. We need less blether and more bite from HSE on effective strategies for removing known or suspect occupational carcinogens from the workplace – and more support for those with this group of occupational diseases.”

Fatal failings on formaldehyde

The Wood Panels Products Federation took issue with UK construction union UCATT in the mid-1990s after the union recommended avoiding MDF (medium density fibreboard) products because they contained cancer-causing formaldehyde and wood dust, which could be inhaled in the copious fine dust typical when the material was worked (Hazards 58).

WPPF quoted a report showing “investigations have failed to establish a link between formaldehyde exposure and increased cancer risk.” WPPF did not mention, however, IARC’s assessment at that time that “formaldehyde is probably carcinogenic to humans.”

In October 1997, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was accused of protecting the profits of medium density fibreboard (MDF) makers and not the health of workers exposed to MDF's toxic dust (Hazards 60). The criticism, from the Transport and General Workers' Union, followed an HSE press statement that “it is HSE's view that any health risks arising from the use of MDF at work can and should be effectively controlled by compliance with the requirements of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 1994 - there is no need for a ban on MDF.”

HSE failed to refer to its own evidence showing few employers at that time observed or even knew about their COSHH duties (Hazards 60). HSE's statement came after national TV and press stories linked MDF's chemical constituents to lung cancer, allergies and other health problems.

HSE said that it was hardwood and not the softwood that is found in MDF that is classified as cancer-causing in the UK. Formaldehyde released by the bonding resin, MDF's other constituent, was an irritant, it said.

However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the World Health Organisation's expert institute for evaluating cancer risks, does not distinguish between hardwoods and softwoods. It classifies all “wood dust” as “carcinogenic to humans”. And formaldehyde was feared to be much more than a workplace irritant. At the time IARC classified it as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

In 2004, IARC upped its formaldehyde classification to Group 1. The move followed protracted arguments between the chemical industry - which played down the link - and health advocates, who argued the commonly used industrial chemical should be subject to stringent controls. The working group, which reviewed extensive literature, concluded formaldehyde did cause nasopharyngeal cancer and also found limited evidence for cancer of the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses and “strong but not sufficient evidence” for leukaemia.

Formaldehyde is used in the production of resins that are used as adhesives and binders for wood products, pulp, paper, glasswool and rockwool. It is also used extensively in the production of plastics and coatings, in textile finishing and in the manufacture of industrial chemicals, and as a disinfectant and preservative, formalin, used in labs and embalming.

An estimated 1 million workers in Europe are exposed to formaldehyde.

IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. Formaldehyde, 2-Butoxyethanol and 1-tert-Butoxy-2-propanol, volume 88, 2-9 June 2004.

Low priority, high risk

Occupational cancer remains a low priority, a position in the nation’s public health priorities that can be traced back to Doll/Peto. And it is a low priority also reflected in the approach of health organisations other than the Health and Safety Executive. Cancer Research UK notes on its website: “Most known occupational carcinogens are either banned or well regulated within the UK and the majority of occupation related cancers diagnosed in the UK today are the result of people being exposed more than ten years ago” (28).

In fact, regulation has not been a cancer cure. Unlike the case of infectious diseases, where a response is frequently swift and draconian, there are typically long delays between the identification of a carcinogenic agent and adoption of adequate measures of prevention. Even then, measures are usually late and incomplete, and will leave a generation to await their fate as a result of prior exposures. Asbestos and ionising radiation are two clear examples. Contrast the decades of occupational health inaction to the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001, where the army was deployed and a national campaign was mobilised to deal with a non-fatal animal disease because it posed a commercial but absolutely no human health risk.

Instead, the assumption that it is “the dose the makes the poison” has been behind a piecemeal and slow, incremental reduction in workplace exposure limits, for workplaces where carcinogens are handled, quite literally, in industrial quantities. For many substances this presumed dose-response relationship is dangerous flawed.

The asbestos related cancer mesothelioma is a case in point, occurring now in people who had only incidental exposure to asbestos. Only a handful of workplace substances have ever been banned on grounds of carcinogenicity. A UK ban on asbestos - the most prolific ever industrial killer which may claim 10 million lives before it is banned worldwide (18) - only took effect in 1999. An early, precautionary move to safer alternatives would have saved millions. Commercial interests ensured that did not happen.

Canadian campaign demands prevention

The Canadian Strategy for Cancer Control (CSCC), a coalition of cancer prevention, health service and other bodies, has made a public stand in favour of “primary prevention” of occupational cancer.

A 12 October 2005 letter from CSCC’s National Committee on Environmental and Occupational Exposures (NCEOE) called on a House of Commons standing committee to back changes in Canadian law to better promote preventive measures. It called for the Canadian government to strengthen the Canadian Environmental Protection Act as it is applied “in particular to IARC 1 and 2a designed human carcinogens.” The letter also called for information bulletins to be developed to address cancer prevention and toxic use exposure reduction, an investigation of the possibilities for introducing toxics use reduction legislation, and for possible incentives for toxic use reduction programmes.

A May 2005 NCEOE report identified seven priority areas for improving primary prevention: improved surveillance; better information disclosure and labelling; community education and action; worker education and action; non-governmental organisations’ involvement in cancer prevention; employer/industry reductions in carcinogen use; and government intervention in the form of new regulations and policy.

Letter to Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, House of Commons, Canada, 12 October 2005.

Prevention of occupational and environmental cancers in Canada: A best practices review and recommendation. May 2005 [pdf].


Industry wins, workers lose

The result of the triumph of commercial interest over public health is that many occupational carcinogens are still encountered regularly in the workplace and today’s working generation is still being exposed to substances and environments that will cause tomorrow’s cancers. And the risk of exposure may, in fact, be increasing.

Figures from the French national statistic office DARES published in 2005 revealed more than 1 in 8 workers was exposed to workplace substances that can cause cancer. The analysis of the 2003 SUMER survey indicated that 13.5 per cent of the total French workforce was exposed to one or more of a list of 28 workplace carcinogens (29). The figure was higher than estimates a decade earlier. Blue collar workers were eight times as likely to be at risk, with 25 per cent exposed. Eight products, all common in UK workplaces, contributed more than two-thirds of all exposures – mineral oils, three organic solvents, asbestos, wood dust, diesel exhaust fumes and crystalline silica.

The European Union’s CAREX database of occupational exposures to carcinogens estimated that in the early 1990s 22-24 million workers in the then 15 EU member states were exposed to possible carcinogens. The most common exposures were solar radiation, environmental tobacco smoke, crystalline silica, radon and wood dust (30). The authors of a 2000 paper conclude that “a substantial proportion of workers in the EU were exposed to carcinogens.”

For Great Britain, it concludes: “According to the preliminary estimates, there were circa 5 million workers (22 per cent of the employed) exposed to the agents covered by CAREX in Great Britain in 1990-93. The number of exposures was circa 7 million.

“The most common exposures were environmental tobacco smoke (1.3 million workers exposed at least 75 per cent of working time), solar radiation (1.3 million workers exposed at least 75 per cent of working time), crystalline silica (600,000), radon and its decay products (600,000), diesel engine exhaust (470,000), wood dust (430,000), benzene (300,000), ethylene dibromide (280,000), lead and inorganic lead compounds (250,000), glasswool (140,000), and chromium VI compounds (130,000)."

By this estimate, over a fifth of the UK workforce has been exposed to possible human carcinogens and for these workers most of the resultant cancers will only emerge in a couple of decades or more.

But while the evidence of occupational cancer risk is increasing, there is no increased sense of urgency apparent from the authorities. In October 2005 the UK government refused to introduce a blanket ban on smoking in the workplace, choosing instead a legislative fudge which will leave many thousands of hospitality staff exposed to a passive smoking cancer risk. And the anti-regulation sentiment in the European Commission, heightened throughout a UK government European Union presidency which started in July 2005, saw proposed legislative action to reduce the occupational skin cancer risk from exposure to sunlight blocked in September 2005. Skin cancer rates in the UK have doubled in the last 25 years. By contrast Australia, with much higher potential exposures, took sensible preventive measures to reduce occupational risks, and now has a skin cancer incidence below that of the UK.

21st century workplace cancers

Helen clark image

Helen Clark (right), who fought high tech hazards on her doorstep and won acclaim worldwide, died in June 2004. Helen was chair of Phase Two, the campaign group for those fighting hazards and ill-health caused by the microchip industry in Scotland’s Silicon Glen. She suspected the cancer that was to kill her was, like other cases known to the group, related to exposures at the Greenock National Semiconductor plant where she worked.

Investigations of high tech cancer, reproductive and other health risks in UK microelectronic plants only took place after concerted Phase Two pressure. The 2001 HSE study found higher than expected levels of four cancers - lung, stomach and breast cancers in female employees, and brain cancers in males. HSE said the results were “inconclusive” and that more research was needed. The findings were criticised as flawed and an under-estimate by campaigners and their advisers. Under pressure, HSE agreed to undertake another study.

It can take a generation of exposures and a generation of deaths for traditional studies to spot an occupational cancer risk, unless the cancer is very rare in the general population. With the exception of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma, however, the most common occupational cancers are also common in the wider community.

New industries are emerging all the time, providing potential new processes and new exposures. Little is known about the possible long-term health effects the of vast number of nano-products in development or already in production, for example, but the lesson of history is that today’s wonder product can be tomorrow’s toxic nightmare (Hazards 87).

It is generally estimated there are now in the order of 75,000 different synthetic chemicals in regular use. Of these, only about 1.5-3 per cent have been tested for carcinogenicity.

Without a precautionary approach to the substances we use and the environments we create at work, we risk condemning thousands of workers to preventable deaths.

Cancer among current and former workers at National Semiconductor (UK) Ltd, Greenock: results of an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive,
ISBN 0717621448, HSE, 2001 [pdf].

Cancers and their work causes

Cancers associated in studies with exposures to workplace substances include the following.

Bladder cancer Arsenic; solvents, particularly tetrachloroethylene; aromatic amines; petrochemicals and combustion products, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; metalworking fluids and mineral oils; ionising radiation.

Bone cancer Ionising radiation.

Brain and other CNS cancers Lead; arsenic; mercury; solvents, including benzene, toluene, xylene and methylene chloride; pesticides; n-nitroso compounds.

Breast cancer Ionising radiation; endocrine disrupters; solvents; environmental tobacco smoke; PCBs; pesticides, including DDT/DDE, hexachlorobenzene, lindane, heptachlor breakdown products and triazine herbicides; combustion by-products including PAHs and dioxin; reactive chemicals including ethylene oxide; possible links to non-ionising radiation, phthalates. (Hazards 62) - See The breast cancer omission, below.

Cervical cancer
Limited evidence linking solvents, including trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene.

Colon cancer Limited evidence for solvents xylene and toluene and ionising radiation.

Oesophageal cancer Suggestive evidence for solvent exposure, particularly tetrachloroethylene. Metalworking fluids.

Hodgkin’s disease Solvents, with some evidence for trichloroethylene, drycleaning solvents and benzene; pesticides; woodworking.

Kidney cancer Evidence sketchy because of high survival rates, but some links to arsenic, cadmium and lead; solvent exposure, particularly trichloroethylene; petroleum products; pesticides linked to Wilms’ tumour in children, and to the children of fathers employed as mechanics or welders.

Laryngeal cancer Metalworking fluids and mineral oils; natural fibres including asbestos; some evidence for wood dust exposure; exposure to reactive chemicals including sulphuric acids. Excesses seen in rubber workers, manufacture of mustard gas, nickel refining, and chemical production using the “strong acid” process.

Leukaemia Organic solvents, notably benzene, with quite strong evidence for childhood leukaemia and paternal exposure to aromatic and chlorinated solvents, paints and pigments; reactive chemicals; ionising radiation; conflicting evidence on non-ionising radiation; pesticides, including carbon disulphide, phosphine and methyl bromide, plus limited evidence for DDT. Limited evidence of increased risk in the petroleum industry and those exposed to ethylene oxide.

Liver and biliary cancer Ionising radiation; vinyl chloride and angiosarcoma of the liver; PCBs. Some evidence for arsenic, chlorinated solvents and reactive chemicals.

Lung cancer Arsenic; beryllium; cadmium; chromium; nickel; solvents, particularly aromatics (benzene and toluene); ionising radiation, including radon exposed uranium, haematite and other metal ore miners; reactive chemicals including BCME, CCME, mustard gas, plus suggestive evidence for sulphuric acids; environmental tobacco smoke; petrochemicals and combustion byproducts, including PAHs; some inconsistent evidence on pesticides, including DDT; asbestos; silica; wood dust; some man-made fibres, including ceramic fibres. Some evidence supports excess risks in specific industries, including the rubber industry.

Mesothelioma Asbestos; erionite.

Multiple myeloma Some evidence for a link to solvents, ionising radiation, pesticides and dye products.

Nasal and nasopharynx cancer Chromium; nickel; some evidence for benzene, reactive chemicals and formaldehyde; metalworking fluids; natural fibres including wood dust; ionising radiation. Associated with work in footwear manufacture.

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma Organic solvents, including benzene, trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, and styrene; pesticides, including non-definitive links with phenoxy herbicides, chlorophenols, organophosphorous insecticides, carbon disulphide, phosphine, methyl bromide, ethylene dibromide, and 2-4-D. Limited evidence for DDT and other organochlorine pesticides. Some evidence for PCBs and dioxin and possibly dye products.

Ovarian cancer Limited evidence for pesticides and ionising radiation. Limited evidence for an excess in hairdressers and beauticians.

Pancreatic cancer Acrylamide; metalworking fluids and mineral oils. Some evidence for cadmium, nickel, solvent exposure, reactive chemicals, possibly formaldehyde. Limited evidence for pesticides. Some evidence for DDT and DDT derivatives.

Prostate cancer Links to cadmium, arsenic and some pesticides, notably herbicides and other endocrine disrupters. Excess risks have been found for exposure to metallic dusts and metalworking fluids, PAHs and liquid fuel combustion products, and farmers and pesticide applicators.

Rectal cancer Metalworking fluids and mineral oils. Some evidence for solvents, including toluene and xylene.

Soft tissue sarcomas Vinyl chloride monomer (angiosarcoma of the liver); pesticides. Ewing’s sarcoma in pesticide exposed workers.

Skin cancer UV and sun exposure; metalworking fluids and mineral oils; Non-melanoma skin cancers from arsenic, creosote, PAHs, coal tars and ionising radiation.

Stomach cancer Ionising radiation; metalworking fluids and mineral oils; asbestos. Some evidence for solvents and pesticides. Excess risks found in workers in the rubber, coal, iron, lead, zinc and gold mining industries.

Testicular cancer Evidence for endocrine disrupting chemicals (eg. phthalates, PCBs and polyhalogenated hydrocarbons). A literature review found significantly elevated risks in men working in industries including agriculture, tanning and mechanical industries, and consistent associations with painting, mining, plastics, metalworking and occupational use of hand-held radar.

Thyroid cancer Ionising radiation.

Summarised from: Richard Clapp, Genevieve Howe, Molly Jacobs Lefevre. Environmental and cccupational causes of cancer: A review of recent Scientific literature. Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts Lowell, September 2005.

Industry’s influence

Even if we evaluate all the available evidence, we may not be evaluating the evidence we need, or evidence that honestly reflects the real occupational risks.

According to Stirling University’s Dr Jim Brophy: “The reaction of manufacturers that produce or employ products that might be deemed to be carcinogenic has at times been to suppress the damning research rather than to take steps to prevent harm to the exposed populations.” [see Industry’s deadly research role below]

Dr James Huff, who headed IARC’s chemical evaluation programme until 1980, said in 2003 that the agency had lost its position as “the most authoritative and scientific source” on cancer risks “due to the increasing influence of those aligned with the industry point of view regarding chemicals and their inert hazards to public and occupational health.” He found representatives with industry sympathies or affiliations routinely outnumbered those aligned with public health at IARC evaluation meetings (31).

In the decade from 1993, ratings for eight chemicals were upgraded, but 12 were downgraded. In the preceding decade, before industry asserted its influence on the decision making process, no IARC assessments were downgraded (Hazards 80).

In fact it can take a concerted campaign to get action to prevent cancer risks, even when the evidence of harm is overwhelming. A lowering of the maximum permissible workplace exposure levels for benzene was strongly resisted by industry, which is still resisting recognition of the risks of low concentrations (32).

According to Dr Lorenzo Tomatis, who headed the IARC programme until 1993, industry is now dictating terms. “The prevailing assumption, also used as an improper justification, was that the production of certain goods is necessary and vital, even when it was only aimed at increasing consumption of inessential goods, and that the risks involved in their production are an unavoidable price that society must pay.”

He said this “disregarded the evidence that the highest price is paid by a particular sector of the population, in which morbidity and mortality are considerably higher than those in the rest of the population.”

An unjust public health disaster

This unequal risk of occupational cancer means a minority of the population are facing an enormously elevated, serious and preventable risk. That risk is not being taken seriously and those cancer cases are not, on the whole, being prevented. Work-related cancer is far more common in blue-collar workers – there is an undeniable correlation between employment in lower status jobs and an increased risk (33).

Studies have found, for example, that 40 per cent of the lung and bladder cancer cases in certain industrial groups can be caused by occupational exposures (34). French statistics office figures published in 2005 found 1 in 8 workers were exposed to carcinogens at work, but that the figure was 25 per cent for manual workers and just 3 per cent for managers (29).

And the exposures causing these cancers are not the result of informed, lifestyle choices. They are the consequence of being required to spend the working day in a place that contains carcinogens and where decisions about how they are used and controlled are almost entirely outside the influence of the person facing the risk.

The asbestos cancer mesothelioma is one of the most stark examples. A 2004 British Medical Journal editorial on the UK asbestos cancer epidemic noted: “For a man first exposed as a teenager, who remained in a high risk occupation, such as insulation, throughout his working life, the lifetime risk of mesothelioma can be as high as one in five. There are now over 1,800 deaths per year in Britain (about one in 200 of all deaths in men and one in 1,500 in women), and the number is still increasing” (35).

According to the 2005 UMASS Lowell report (11): “Unequal workplace exposures among different populations provide further indications of the ability of occupational exposures to cause harm.” It adds that studies in the US steel industry found the highest rates of lung cancer – 10 times expected – were in non-white workers, employed in the highest risk jobs. This racial inequality in occupational cancer risks has been reported in a number of studies (36).

Long-term benzene workers are 30 times more likely to die of leukaemia, the UMASS Lowell report says, and adds: “More than half of asbestos workers have died of cancer and the relative risk of lung cancer among asbestos workers who smoke is 55,” or 55 times the general level in the population.

According to the CAREX report for Great Britain (29), all the workplace exposures to carcinogens were restricted to about one-fifth of the working population. If the occupational cancer risk was equal across the population, based on HSE’s figure of 6,000 deaths a year, this would equate to 1 per cent of all deaths being caused by occupational cancers in any given year. However, the responsible exposures are limited to a much smaller group who bear most of the risk, suggesting that 5 per cent or more of deaths in this group could be caused by occupational cancers.

According to Stirling University’s Dr Jim Brophy: “Even the lowest estimates of occupational cancer risk for the overall population translate to a 25 per cent risk in the exposed population. I think work-related cancer is being diluted as workers at high risk are thrown in with the general population. A revised public health strategy would emphasise government regulations and accountability to curtail worker and community exposures to carcinogens rather than relying on individual behaviour modification or allocating the bulk of research cash to discovering a cure for cancer.”

It is not just about prevention of cases of occupational cancer, it is also about efforts to make sure those cancers do not kill. For now, occupational cancer remains a virtually invisible killer. Those who have already faced the exposures that will result in them developing cancer are not being told of that risk and are not getting the surveillance that might allow an early and possibly lifesaving intervention.

Stopping work cancer dead

Brophy is among a growing body of occupational health professionals who think the Doll/Peto carve up of cancer by cause did a disservice to prevention efforts, not just by getting it wrong, but by failing to fully reflect the complexity of cancer causation. “The reason we don’t see any of the occupational cancers other than mesothelioma is because at any time there are multiple causes, and where the default designation is ‘lifestyle’.”

His colleague at Stirling University, Professor Andrew Watterson, agrees: “Good public health practice should now automatically recognise the multi-causality of many cancers and the significant part that work circumstances and related wider environmental factors will play.

“Instead we continue to have a narrow, skewed and flawed focus on lifestyle factors that ignore other exposures to carcinogens. This may reflect government policy which bends to the wishes of employers, pushes deregulation and doesn’t have an effective policy on or properly resourced structure to address occupational and occupationally-related cancers.

“The government should be leading here, removing known and suspected occupational and environmental carcinogens and not downplaying the risks and recognition of carcinogens.”

The 2005 UMass Lowell report (11) notes: “The least toxic alternative should always be used. Partial but reliable evidence of harm should compel us to act on the side of caution to prevent needless sickness and death. The right of people to know what they are exposed to must be protected.”

Dr Richard Clapp, co-author of the UMASS Lowell study, says: “Besides constant vigilance by worker health and safety advocates in unions, non-governmental organisations and academics, government enforcement of existing exposure limits, lowering these limits as new information becomes available and supporting REACH are the preventive actions needed in the UK and elsewhere. The need to limit exposures to environmental and occupational carcinogens is urgent.”

The European Union’s Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) draft law, which aims to protect public health and promote a non-toxic environment, has been the subject of protracted and polarised debate between those who advocate a public health approach and those that say it would place an uncompetitive burden on Europe’s chemical suppliers.

However, the approach has received strong support from the European Trade Union Confederation’s health and safety thinktank, HESA.

Its October 2005 report (37) said REACH would prevent tens of thousands of cases of occupational disease every year and would lead to savings running to billions over 10 years. REACH, which is scheduled to come into force in 2007, would apply to chemicals including all those recognised by the EU as causes of occupational cancer. The ETUC believes REACH would lead to substitution of some of the substances of greatest concern with less hazardous substances – including those covered by the EU-wide law on carcinogens (38), which on paper at least encourages substitution of carcinogenic substances with less hazardous alternatives.

If all carcinogen use in the workplace stopped today, there would still be a working generation and hundreds of thousands of retired workers that have already faced some level of risk. For this reason, public health advocates are also arguing for more effective recording of exposures and better recognition of the link between work and health.

“We should be filing compensation cases to get recognition of the links between jobs and cancer and unions should be documenting cases of illness among their members and looking for trends,” says Dr Jim Brophy. “The health service should improve its act too, and should be documenting occupational histories – if they can document a person’s smoking and lifestyle habits, why not the workplace risk factors too?”

The great work cancer con

Sir Richard Doll, who died in July 2005, gained many plaudits for his work as an epidemiologist. But the co-author of the 1981 Doll/Peto report also gained the gratitude and financial support of some of the world’s most hazardous industries.

A 2003 report from the US Cancer Prevention Coalition (39) concluded Doll “emerged as a major defender of corporate industry interests.” It said his industry sympathies went “virtually unrecognised” throughout a long career where Doll “trivialised or dismissed industrial causes of cancer, which he predominantly attributed to faulty lifestyle, particularly smoking.”

The report says as a leading spokesperson for UK cancer charities Doll “insisted that they should focus exclusively on scientific research, and not become involved in prevention research and education.”

In 1982, the year after the Doll/Peto report was published, Doll – a longstanding consultant to Turner & Newall (T&N), then the leading UK asbestos corporation – addressed workers at one of T&N’s largest UK plants to reassure them about possible health risks. Doll told the workers that the new exposure limit would reduce their lifetime risk of dying from occupational cancer to “a pretty outside chance” of 1 in 40 (2.5 per cent), which was infact an extremely high risk. Doll also declined to testify on behalf of dying plaintiffs or their bereaved families in civil litigation against asbestos industries, but did provide evidence in support of T&N in US court cases.

T&N is now owned by the highly profitable US multinational Federal Mogul. The company on 1 October 2001 opted for a business-as-usual bankruptcy to ring fence its assets and jettison much of its asbestos liabilities (40). In October 2005, it was announced that as part of the bankruptcy deal, former T&N workers dying of asbestos cancers would receive just 24 per cent of the compensation to which they were entitled.

In the years following the publication of the Doll/Peto report, Doll became a favourite expert of some of the world’s most hazardous industries. In 1983, in support of US and UK petrochemical companies, he claimed lead in vehicle exhaust was not correlated with increasing blood lead levels and learning disabilities in children. The research was generously funded by General Motors.

In a 1988 review, on behalf of the US Chemical Manufacturers’ Association, Doll claimed that there was no significant evidence relating occupational exposure to vinyl chloride and brain cancer. However, this claim was based on an aggregation of several studies, some of which showed a statistically significant association. In January 2000 depositions, Doll admitted to donations from Dow Chemical to Green College, Oxford, where he had been the presidential “warden”. He also admitted that the largest “charitable” donation (£50,000) came from Turner & Newall (T&N) “in recognition of all the work I had done for them.”

According to the Cancer Prevention Coalition report: “In spite of this explicit record of pro-industry bias, Doll has recently attempted to challenge charges which have ‘impugned my scientific independence.’”

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Industry’s deadly research role

Among HSE’s justifications for sticking with the dangerously outdated Doll/Peto estimate of occupational cancer risks is “the lack of discovery of any major new occupational carcinogens.” This may however have more do with a well-coordinated industry campaign to influence decisions of bodies including the International Agency for Research on Cancer (31) and the World Health Organisation.

And as public funding for independent occupational health research is eroded, industry-funded research is swamping the literature, with occupational and environmental risks going underestimated or undetected as a result. A report in the October-December 2005 issue of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health (IJOEH) (41), examining “business bias” in workplace studies, concludes “in spite of claiming primary prevention as their aim, studies of potential occupational and environmental health hazards that are funded either directly or indirectly by industry are likely to have negative results.”

The authors say “studies of workers in oil refineries conducted with total economic independence have identified possible environmental and health risks associated with exposures to more than 50 substances classified as toxic, mutagenic, and carcinogenic, such as asbestos, arsenic, benzene, chromium, nickel, polycyclic hydrocarbons, and silica. The IARC has therefore evaluated exposures in oil refineries as probably carcinogenic to humans. By contrast, other studies undertaken with the same areas of industrial production, supported by industry and of doubtful independence, do not report the existence of any risks.”

The authors add: “A review of studies of effects of exposures to selected chemicals (alachlor, atrazine, formaldehyde, and perchloroethylene) shows that 60 per cent of such studies conducted by non-industry researchers found these chemicals hazardous, while only 14 per cent of industry-sponsored studies did so…. Such studies have contributed to a harmful delay in the adoption of preventive measures and have downplayed the significance of primary prevention, especially in developing countries.”

The authors of studies critical of industry can find themselves facing a barrage of attacks, both from lawyers and the industry’s own PR machine. A second paper in the October-December issue of IJOEH (42) notes corporations “work with attorneys and public relations professionals, using scientists, science advisory boards, front groups, industry organisations, think tanks, and the media to influence scientific and popular opinion of the risks of their products of processes.

“The strategy, which depends on corrupt science, profits corporations at the expense of public health.”

The paper concludes: “The strategy developed by corporations working in concert with law and PR firms has been successful in limiting both liability and regulation.” It says concerned health professionals and others have to wage their own PR campaign “to protect rather an undermine public health” and “must form more effective linkages with unions and authentic grassroots community organisations.”

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Fighting cancer the union way

Union campaigns have been critical in raising the profile of and challenging occupational cancer risks. But fighting carcinogens one at a time is no substitute for a properly designed and operational cancer strategy.

Canadian auto union CAW has had such a strategy for some years. The CAW “prevent cancer campaign” calls on local activists to become involved. A guide says CAW activists should:

1. Identify carcinogens in their workplaces. This is principally the responsibility of the health and safety activists.

2. Insist that they be removed and substituted with less hazardous substances (or at an absolute minimum that the process be enclosed). Once again this is principally the job of the health and safety activists. Priorities need to be established.

3. Put in workers’ compensation claims for all workers who are found to have cancer that might be related to work. This is the activity of the workers’ compensation activists.

4. Ensure community support by making sure the public knows about air emissions and hazardous waste for workplaces which may cause cancer. This is the activity of the environmental activists.

The prevent cancer campaign must have the support and encouragement of the plant committees and the local union leadership.

The CAW’s ‘Manual for worker investigators’ of occupational cancer risks outlines and short-term response, a long-term strategy and a template for union action.

Short-term response

When an increased risk of cancer is suspected in a particular workplace, a short-term investigation may include:

1. Gathering of death certificates and other basic data by the local union.

2. Computer analysis of the data by the local union.

3. Possible recommendations for medical examinations to detect cancer in its early stages.

4. Special educational programmes.

5. Calling on the government, the company, or universities for more comprehensive studies when needed.

6. Possibility of gaining workers’ compensation.

7. Industrial hygiene inspections.

8. Lastly and most importantly, recommendations for substitution, using less hazardous substances or processes, and for engineering controls.

Long-term strategy

The union also approaches the problem of workplace cancer on an industry-wide basis:

1. Reviewing research in CAW-organised plants, in tandem with government agencies.

2. Analysing results of studies to pick out common elements which deserve more investigation.

3. Pressing for the company to fund and cooperate with the research.

4. Reviewing scientific reports from other industries and other countries on workplace cancer agents which may affect union members.

Local union action

Union reps should:

1. List substances in the plant that are known or suspected hazards. Locations where cancer agents may be found should be noted and workers informed.

2. Arm yourself with accurate information about chemical hazards in your workplace.

3. Make sure the company has fulfilled its obligation to inform workers who are exposed to potential cancer agents and other workplace hazards. It is important to warned exposed workers, even if there is no immediate action taken to control the exposure.

4. Insist on medical programmes for workers who have had exposure to workplace hazards.

5. Press for strict controls even if minimum government standards are being met. Remember, there is no safe exposure to a cancer agent.

6. Remember the basic control techniques: Substitution; process changes; enclosure; local exhaust ventilation; strict housekeeping; and protective equipment.

7. Your workplace health and safety committee is the place to press for these changes.

8. Collective bargaining is another place to press your demands for change (in Canada many workplace rights are negotiated as part of the period contract negotiations, then become fixed rights between contracts).

9. Develop political action to support strong regulations for the control of workplace hazards.

CAW prevent cancer campaign: Devil of a poison [pdf]

CAW cancer and the workplace factsheet

Cancer in Canada, coincidence in UK

Firefighters breathe a cocktail of deadly chemicals as they go about their lifesaving work. There’s an obvious consequence for their health – a higher rate of certain cancers. Across much of Canada this risk is recognised and officially compensated. In the UK, firefighters’ cancers are put down to chance.

On 31 October 2005, the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC) followed other provinces and recognised leukaemia, brain cancer and five other kinds of cancer as occupational hazards for long-time firefighters. The changes to the BC Workers Compensation Act will put the province among the leaders in recognising the increased cancer risks faced by professional firefighters, BC government minister Mike de Jong said. The new law recognises primary site brain cancer, primary site bladder cancer, primary site kidney cancer, primary non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, primary site ureter cancer, primary site colorectal cancer and primary leukaemia as occupational diseases associated with long-time work as a firefighter.

This change to the Workers Compensation Act creates a “rebuttable presumption” which means the onus will be on compensation authorities or the employer to bring forward proof to establish why a worker should not be eligible for compensation rather than placing the burden of proof on a sick firefighter. Similar presumptions have been enacted for firefighters in the provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia. None of these cancers are recognised by the UK government as eligible for industrial injuries benefits payouts.

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• Occupational cancer prevention should be recognised by the government as a major public health priority and should be allocated resources accordingly.

• A national occupational cancer and carcinogens awareness campaign should be launched as a matter of urgency.

• The Health and Safety Executive should convene a tripartite working party, including representatives of unions, health and safety campaign organisations and occupational disease victims’ and advocacy organisations, to review its occupational cancer strategy.

• Wherever possible, IARC Group 1 and Group 2A carcinogens should be targeted for “sunsetting”, a phase out within a designated timeframe, to be replaced by safer alternatives.

• Toxics Use Reduction legislation, already used successful in some US jurisdictions, should be introduced to encourage the use of the safest suitable substances and processes. The precautionary principle should be applied to substances suspected of causing cancer in humans.

• A national system of occupational health records should be developed to ensure adequate recording of workplace exposures and other occupational cancer risk factors. Employers must have a duty to inform any workers of their exposures to known or suspected workplace cancer risks and carcinogens.

• A National Exposure Database should be created.

• The Health and Safety Executive should provide resources for training of union safety reps in “lay epidemiology”, techniques for the early recognition of work-related diseases, including cancer.

• The UK should implement properly the European Union law requiring workers to have access to occupational health services.

• The government Industrial Injuries Benefit Scheme should be revised and extended to include a wider range of occupational cancers in it scope. There should be a consideration of the introduction of a “rebuttal presumption” of work-causation for cancers with an established association with work.


Living with mesothelioma

Colin Dyal worked for over 30 years for Goodyear in the West Midlands. As an instrument technician, most of his working life was spent in the boiler house, providing power to the large tyre plant.

He developed a pain in his left shoulder in his early 50s, but put it down to rheumatism. A physio was worried that the shoulder was not improving despite no apparent injury, and told him to see a doctor. Colin was first told he could have mesothelioma in May 2002, and the diagnosis was confirmed in August that year. He was 56.

He won an out-of-court compensation settlement from the company. “The photographic evidence alone was overwhelming. If they had sent in a safety bloke it would have been shutdown. I went in 12 months ago and it was much the same, but the area was cordoned off and the lads had put up danger signs.” In 30 years at Goodyear, he doesn’t remember ever seeing an inspector from the Health and Safety Executive.

According to Colin, the boiler house was full of asbestos, layered on the boilers and on the miles of 18 inch pipes running throughout the plant. “It’s pretty much the same now as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1980s they started a removal programme, but there was so much and removal was expensive so this faded away. Around this time the firm also sent us for regular x-rays, but this also stopped after a while. They did start giving us masks and proper overalls in the late 1980s, but they never said why they were needed.

"I didn’t realise asbestos was dangerous because I’d been around it all my life. No-one ever told us the risks we were facing. Now I’m very angry. At the time I knew nothing about the risks, didn’t even think about it. Even in the late 1980s, if you needed to get to a valve that had been covered with asbestos lagging, you’d just knock it off and pick the pieces up off the floor and put them in the bin. Any remnants were just swept up later. Because I was conscientious, if something needed doing I’d just get on and do it.” This lagging contained magnesia cement and other substances, but the main ingredient was loose, friable asbestos fibres.

“You could see it in the atmosphere – the building was 60 feet high and half a mile long. There was a massive problem with pigeons which were knocking the lagging down all the time.” Colin has copies of safety committee minutes recording the problem. “If it was something to do with tyres, they’d get it fixed, anything else, nothing, it would be postponed to the next meeting.”

Colin was originally included in a trial for a new chemo treatment, Alimta, which has been shown in studies to slow the progress of mesothelioma, and which seemed to offer some improvement in his own health. “For six months I felt brilliant”. But when the trial finished he was told his health authority in Shropshire would not provide the drug on the NHS. He now pays for his treatment, which costs thousands of pounds a time. “You have to fight for Alimta, you have to fight for hospital beds for biopsies and you have to fight for appointments.”

He’d had breathlessness and pain since his diagnosis, but had managed to maintain some of his pastimes, including short rounds of golf, walking and holidays. Six months ago, though, at the age of 59, the symptoms started to get much worse and he had to give up “just about everything. “Now when I climb the stairs to go to bed, I have to sit down for five minutes to get my breath before I can lie down.

“I have problems walking any sort of distance. I went to the town centre last week and lasted 20 minutes – and ten minutes of that was resting. I don’t want to sit in front of the fire in a dressing gown waiting for it to happen. I want to try and keep some normality.”

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Asbestos cancer kills 32-year-old

Barry Welch, thought to be one of the youngest people in the UK to contract asbestos-related cancer, died on 27 April 2005. The 32-year-old father of three from Leicester was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2004.

His family believe he was exposed to asbestos fibres as a child in the 1970s when his stepfather Roger Bugby worked for Palmers Scaffolding. It is thought the exposure came from contamination on Mr Bugby’s clothing when he worked as a scaffolder on Kingsnorth Power Station, adjacent to the Isle of Grain. Barry was diagnosed with the cancer in September 2004 and given just six months to live.

In a statement months before he died, he said: “I am an innocent victim. I haven’t really come to terms with the fact that I am going to die and leave behind my wife and three children because of this disease. It just seems so unfair that my life will be cut short, even though I never knowingly came into contact or worked with asbestos.” Solicitors for the Welches are pursuing a claim for compensation against Mr Bugby's former employer.

Barry was not eligible for industrial injuries benefit because his asbestos exposure was not while working. And his family will have difficulty securing common law compensation because they will have to deal with all the normal barriers to a successful compensation claim and will not only have to prove his stepfather was negligently exposed to asbestos, but that Barry's exposure was also a result of the company's negligence.

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Legal first established environmental cancer risk

When June Hancock was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1994, she knew this was a death sentence. Her own mother, Maie, had died of the same disease in 1982.

The only known cause of this incurable cancer of the chest is exposure to asbestos. June had never worked in the asbestos industry. As a child growing up in Armley, Leeds, she had innocently played amongst the deadly dust billowing out of the JW Roberts asbestos factory.

June decided to fight for justice and so instructed a legal team to take the company responsible for her illness to Court. This was the first case brought by a mesothelioma sufferer who had not worked with asbestos.

June secured a landmark victory in 1995, paving the way for others to seek justice. She died on 19 July 1997.

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Widower loses damages for wife’s death

James Maguire, a former shipyard worker whose wife died from an asbestos cancer has been stripped of his £82,000 compensation payout. His wife Teresa, 67, contracted mesothelioma through secondary exposure to asbestos dust on his work clothes.

The Appeal Court ruled in January 2005 that Harland and Wolff, which owned the ship repair yard in Liverpool that employed Mr Maguire as a boilermaker in the 1960s, was not legally liable for Mrs Maguire's death. She died in May 2004, just weeks after the High Court awarded £82,000 damages against the company. The Court of Appeal overturned the decision by a majority of two to one. It said that given the state of knowledge about the risks of secondary exposure to asbestos, the company could not have reasonably foreseen that she would suffer personal injury.

In statements before her death, Mrs Maguire described how she regularly washed her husband’s clothes after his return from work, shaking his overalls out in the backyard of their Liverpool home so that 'clouds of dust' were given off. Mr Maguire said there were no facilities for changing or washing at work, so he was forced to wear the contaminated garments home.

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HSE metalworking fluids guide ducks cancer issue

The omission of occupational cancer from a 2005 Health and Safety Executive online guide on metalworking fluids drew criticism from Dr Frank Mirer, director of health and safety at US autoworkers’ union UAW (Hazards 91).

In a letter to HSE, he said: “I find the omission of a mention of occupational cancer in the new page on metalworking fluids to be a significant gap.”

Mirer pointed HSE to a series of studies showing a link between occupational exposure to metalworking fluids and cancer. These include his own 2003 paper in the journal Applied Occupational and Environmental Hygiene which concludes there is 'sufficient evidence' of a cancer risk.

Guidance published by the Canadian autoworkers’ union CAW also makes the link and points to studies at General Motors supported by the company and UAW. It notes: “In the summer of 1992 a major study of General Motors workers in the United States showed excess levels of a number of different kinds of cancers…

“The GM/UAW study of workers exposed to machining fluids and some other studies done in the US and Europe found excess levels of these kinds of cancers: Skin cancer, cancer of the larynx, cancer of the rectum, stomach cancer, cancer of the oesophagus, colon cancer, bladder cancer, sinonasal cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, and cancer of the pancreas.”

The HSE guide only acknowledges non-cancer skin and breathing disorders caused by the fluids. Another 2004 study linked breast cancer in female car workers to metalworking fluid exposure.

Hazards magazine warned of the link between metalworking fluids and cancer in 1991 (Hazards 34).

HSE metalworking fluids webpage.

Franklin Mirer. Updated epidemiology of workers exposed to metalworking fluids provides sufficient evidence for carcinogenicity, Applied Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, volume 18, number 11, pages 902-912, 2003 [abstract]

Deborah Thompson and others. Occupational exposure to metalworking fluids and risk of breast cancer among female autoworkers, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, volume 47, issue 2, pages 153 - 160, 2005 [abstract]

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The breast cancer omission

The 1981 Doll/Peto report, HSE’s preferred source for its work cancer prevalence estimate, excluded breast cancer – the most common cancer in women – from its analysis.

Studies have, however, linked breast cancer both to exposure to substances and to shiftwork (Hazards 62). A September 2005 report, 'State of the evidence 2004: What is the connection between the environment and breast cancer', analysed evidence from 21 studies published since February 2003 and found links between exposure to radiation and common industrial chlorinated chemicals, solvents including ethylene glycol methyl ether and breast cancer risk.

An October 2005 report, 'Breast cancer – an environmental disease: the case for primary prevention,' concluded their was “incontrovertible evidence” that many industrial chemicals and radiation are major contributors to overall breast cancer rates.

A 2005 Harvard University study concluded working regular night shifts increased dramatically the risk of a woman developing breast cancer. The study, published online in the European Cancer Journal “found a significant 48 per cent increase in the risk of breast cancer among shiftworkers.”

Another report, published online on 31 May 2005 in the International Journal of Cancer, concluded exposure to secondhand smoke increased the risk of breast cancer by 70 per cent, and found half of all these cases were linked to workplace exposures.

Stirling University’s Professor Andrew Watterson estimates at least 500 and possibly more than a thousand breast cancer deaths each year are related to occupation. He says the number of new cases each year related to workplace factors is at least 1,500 and could exceed 5,000.

The workplaces that lent themselves to traditional epidemiology – the largest industries with a stable workforce employed for a long period – were by and large the preserve of men. Effective surveillance for occupational cancer risk in women has been relatively lacking. Different methods would be necessary to determine occupational cancer risks with anything like the certainty studies have allowed for traditionally male jobs in heavy industry.

Breast cancer – an environmental disease: the case for primary prevention

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Lowell Center for Sustainable Production

Prevent Cancer Coalition work and cancer webpages

Chemicals Policy Initiative

Canadian Strategy for Cancer Control

Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI)

The Collaborative on Health and the Environment

European Environmental Agency

Women’s Environmental Network

Children’s Environmental Health Network

International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)

International Society of Doctors for the Environment

Cancer Prevention and Education Society


Hazards tools webpage for assessing workplace risks.

Canadian Labour Congress prevent cancer campaign.

- Preventing Cancer: A Campaign for Workers – includes a collective bargaining guide and comprehensive list of occupational carcinogens. [pdf]
Preventing Cancer: A Campaign Guide – a guide investigating cancer risks in your workplace and negotiating improvements. [pdf]

Canadian Autoworkers’ Union CAW
CAW prevent cancer campaign: Devil of a poison. [pdf]

CAW cancer and the workplace factsheet

Bladder Cancer Amicus-GPM information and advice on the links between bladder cancer and printing.

UNISON information sheet on cancer

ETUC research institute HESA

US NIOSH topic page on occupational cancer and NIOSH carcinogens list

Report on Carcinogens, Eleventh Edition. US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences/National Toxicology Programme, 2005.

PARnet – interactive community on action research



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