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University of Stirling Press release on BBC’s File on Four programme, Combating cancer, to be broadcast 20.00 hours, 9 October 2007

Experts at the University of Stirling will be interviewed by BBC Radio Four's File on Four today (Tuesday 9 October) about a report into work place cancers.

The programme will examine issues surrounding the paper Burying the Evidence: How Great Britain is Prolonging the Occupational Cancer Epidemic by Rory O’Neill, Simon Pickvance, Andrew Watterson, Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group, University of Stirling, to be published on Tuesday 9 October in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health (pdf files of the paper are available from the authors).

The experts believe UK authorities are failing to acknowledge or deal effectively with an epidemic of work-related cancers. Their research findings show that the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is underestimating the exposed population, the risks faced as a result of those exposures and the potential for prevention through such tried and tested measures as toxics use reduction policies and practices.

Co-author, Professor Rory O'Neill, said:

" The HSE has ignored work-related risks that have produced work-caused and work-related cancers over several decades and workers are still exposed now to many carcinogens in the workplace. Many of these exposures are not from yesteryear but from yesterday."

"Some of these carcinogens can cause cancers with relatively short exposure times and short latency periods. HSE has neglected whole sections of the workforce, especially women, exposed to many cancer-causing substances and processes.

“The result is that thousands are dying each year without being warned they are at risk from carcinogens, without adequate information about the risks and with inadequate or no help to improve workplace conditions, or gain compensation. Often victims don’t even become official statistics, so we get a cycle of neglect that is likely to guarantee a new generation will be needlessly exposed."

"Even for asbestos cancers, only a small minority receive any compensation. For the dozens of other known work-related cancers affecting thousands of UK workers, just 15 or so compensation claims are submitted each year. That means not only do these workers not get compensation for a condition that will quite frequently kill them, they don’t even get told their work was to blame. This means they don’t even become statistics – and if you don’t count the bodies, the bodies don’t count. If we don’t recognise the cases, we don’t recognise the problem, so another generation will inevitably face exposures that one day will kill them."

"The UK faces at least 20,000 and possibly in excess of 40,000 new cases of work-related cancer every year, leading to thousands of deaths perhaps up to 24,000 deaths a year. The annual cost to the economy is between £29.5bn and £59bn. Preventing just 100 of these cancer deaths would more than offset the entire HSE annual budget."

"Arguments that current deaths are the result of exposures decades ago, because of the long latency of carcinogens do not stand analysis. In key cases like wood dust, nickel, chromium, arsenic, azo compounds and even asbestos, the exposure times for a cancer to develop and latency periods are much shorter and cancers could be the result of very recent exposures. Also the majority of occupational cancer cases will not be due to asbestos although this substance remains a major occupational and public health cancer threat."

Co-author Professor Andrew Watterson said:

"More people now are exposed to more cancer-causing substances, for more years of their working lives and used in higher volumes at work than at any other time in history."

"HSE fails to acknowledge the social inequality in occupational cancer risk, which is concentrated in skilled and unskilled manual workers and lower employment grades, or the greater likelihood these groups will experience multiple exposures to work-related carcinogens at work and in the wider environment. It cannot quantify and continues to neglect the largely uninvestigated and unprioritised risk to women."

"HSE’s approach currently includes neither a requirement nor a strategy for the reduction in the number and volumes of cancer-causing substances, processes and environments at work. Its recommendations for action range from complacent to non-existent."

"Past under-estimates of UK occupational cancers over at least two decades has meant the issue has low priority which means action is nowhere near the priority it should be. Regulators should have an important role to play but occupational health, and particularly cancer, is not on HSEs enforcement programme, its inspectors don’t look, its inspectors don’t find. Evidence shows that decent data combined with active enforcement leads to a substantial reduction in risks. We have neither the data nor the enforcement. Budget cuts at HSE mean the chances of HSE taking effective enforcement action on occupational cancer is becoming vanishingly small."

Latest estimates from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) indicated almost one in 10 cancers worldwide (9.6 per cent) are related to work. ILO says the rates in developed nations are considerably higher. Even the lower world figure is more than twice the Health and Safety Executive’s current estimate of the work contribution to all cancers.

ILO work-related cancer figures

Contact Andrew Watterson or Rory O’Neill, Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group, University of Stirling , Stirling, Scotland FK9 4LA, Mobile 07966 161401. Tel 01786-466283. e-mail: