Anatomy of a cancer cover up

SEMI-HONEST Jim McCourt says HSE's 'bogus' presentation of the findings of a microelectronics cancer study exposes its industry-friendly bias.

The UK’s official workplace health and safety watchdog is helping the microelectronics industry cover up worrying evidence of occupational cancer risks, a campaign group has charged.

Phase Two, which represents workers who believe their health was damaged by exposures at National Semiconductor’s (NSUK) plant in Greenock, Scotland, was speaking out on the 24 August publication of a study into cancer rates at the factory.

The study found excesses of several cancers, but the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) summary and news release instead claimed there is “no increased cancer risk.”

Dr John Osman, a co-author of the report and HSE’s chief medical adviser and head of epidemiology, said: “The research does not establish a link between cancer and employment at NSUK. I hope both present and former employees will find some comfort in these results. They have waited patiently to discover the outcome of this research and I hope this report offers some clarity and reassurance.”

This good news message was reflected in early headlines in the local and national press. But Phase Two says in addition to burying the cancer evidence, HSE also misrepresented the findings of studies at IBM and other plants to reinforce this “bogus” no risk message. The campaign’s concerns have been echoed by cancer experts and unions.

Authors of the IBM-backed studies warned further work was needed to investigate further some possible work cancer links, something accepted by the company.

The HSE-backed report, however, does not acknowledge this. Nor does it make any reference to critical independent, peer-reviewed analyses of the IBM ‘corporate mortality file’, which found wide-ranging cancer concerns.

“HSE plays down the evidence of its own study, which did find real cancer excesses, something it studiously omits from its news release and its study summary,” says Phase Two spokesperson Jim McCourt. “It then plays down the findings of other studies to reach a faux consensus and bogus ‘no cancer risk’ conclusion.”

Phase Two is concerned that the NSUK Cancer Study results as reported by HSE do not represent the study findings. These reveal worrying excesses of cancers, among them:

• female lung cancers (15 compared to 9.6 expected)

• female breast cancer (46 where 37.6 were expected)

• male colorectal cancers (11 compared to 5.9 expected)

• male brain cancers (4 compared to 0 [less than one] expected).

“Any reasonable observer would see this as cause for concern,” says Jim McCourt. He says advice obtained from prominent occupational cancer experts in the US and UK have “reinforced the message that HSE has bent the truth in an attempt to make an occupational cancer headache go away. But the way to do that is to make microelectronics work healthier, not to put a healthy twist on sick statistics.”

He said HSE’s tactic of conflating its National Semiconductor study with the industry-backed IBM studies in one good news story would be seen as a major coup by the microelectronics industry. The HSE press release is included in full on the National Semiconductor website.

Unions are to raise formally their concerns about the HSE ‘no risk’ presentation of the findings. The Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) said it would to write to HSE chair Judith Hackitt “seeking an explanation how the HSE justifies issuing a press release with the heading ‘Research indicates no increased cancer risk at Greenock factory’ when the report quite clearly states that incidences for some types of cancer were higher than they had anticipated.”

An STUC statement said: “From our early study of the findings it is quite clear that there is an increased risk of some types of cancer, including lung cancers in women, yet the HSE in their release and media interviews were running a line that the results were not unexpected given the size of the workforce and the surrounding community.” It added that HSE’s claims the excesses were not significant would not be shared “by those who have contracted cancer, and the families of those who have died, for the rest of their days.”

Giving the company advance sight of the report, but leaving the families to hear about it through the media was “shameful”, STUC added.

“The HSE should accept they need to act to reduce exposures to occupational cancer causing substances whether incidences are statistically significant or not,” the statement concluded. “Given the higher than expected incidences of types of cancers they now need to forget the statistical analysis and adopt the precautionary principle to prevent exposure to carcinogens across the semiconductor industry.”

According to Jim McCourt: “We know from the HSE report this year that the working environment in the sector is conducive to an increased cancer risk, as there is little ‘corporate oversight’ on health issues and widespread law breaking. HSE should stop covering up for a deadly industry and should instead demand and enforce improvements. This means reducing numbers of and exposures to carcinogens by a programme of toxics use reduction, vigorous policing of health and safety standards and rigorous enforcement of the law where breaches are observed.”

HSE has faced recent criticism of its occupational cancer record, and has been accused of an unwillingness to take the necessary preventive action.

Hazards magazine reported that despite HSE now acknowledging occupational cancer “accounts for 10 times more victims in the UK than murder, there will be no new innovative or ambitious HSE preventive measures.”

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