Sunday, November 27, 2005

Burying the Evidence -- And The Workers

A new report by Hazards, the TUC-backed health and safety magazine, concludes that the there are two to four times as many work-related cancers in the United Kingdom than had been previously estimated. The report, called Burying the Evidence, suggests that 12,000 and 24,000 workers die each year in the United Kingdom from cancers they contracted from on-the-job exposures to such carcinogens as asbestos, benzine, coal tar, second-hand cigarette smoke and other chemicals.

The report criticizes the famous Doll-Peto study, conducted in the 1980's that estimated that only 4% of all cancers were caused by work-related exposures with the vast majority caused by "lifestyle issues" such as smoking and obesity. the end result of such as serious understatement was less attention paid to workplace exposures, and less focus on restricting workers' exposure to cancer causing substances.
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.”
Some of the many problems with the Doll/Peto study was their failure to
  • count any cancer deaths in persons above the age of 65 (despite the long latency period of most cancers, combined with peoples' longer life expectency),
  • take into account cancers by women or African Americans
  • to designate certain common cancers -- such as melanoma and breast cancer -- was work-related
  • To take into account that the risk of getting cancer is often intensified by the interaction of several different exposures. For example, exposure to smoking and asbestos exposure greatly magnifies the chances of getting cancer beyond exposure to each substance alone.
In addition, the Doll/Peto study only included 16 substances or industries thought to be carcinogenic to humans, a small fraction the true number.

Burying the Evidence focuses on cancer in the UK, but the same figures can be applied to the 570,000 cancers deaths each year in the United States. According to Doll/Peto, "only" about 22,800 of those deaths are caused by occupationally related cancer. But using the estimates in Burying The Evidence, the number of workplace cancer-related deaths in the United States may be more like 45,000 - 90,000.

The report also contains a number of recommendations for the workplace, as well as for national policies.