Orange and white hardhats in a line

The Global Problem of Occupational Cancer

At the most recent meeting of the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) in Dublin, some of the world’s foremost minds from the occupational safety and health industry came together to address what has become one of the leading factors of work-related deaths worldwide: occupational cancer. In fact, the statistics presented regarding work-related cancers were palpably shocking, with conservative estimates suggesting that, “27% of all work-related deaths were because of cancer,”[1] resulting in “742,000 [deaths] annually.”[2] Furthermore, the data suggests that “high-income economies have the biggest percentage of deaths from cancer (52%) and the true global figures rise as more is known.”[3] Although not explicitly addressed at the conference, one can easily infer that the reason behind the world’s largest economies leading the way in work-related cancers is exactly because they are the world’s largest economies. Those countries that receive the most global investment capital use, and have used for the better part of a century, the most products, carcinogenic or otherwise, and in-turn have the most exposures resulting in the most occupational cancer deaths. In fact, “Dr. Christa Sedlatschek, director of EU-OSHA, said cancer was the second main cause of death in the EU”[4] and “carcinogens cause the majority of fatal occupational diseases” in the bloc.”[5]

While the primary focus of the conference was to address the “existence of potentially cancer-causing substances in the workplace,”[6] ICOH also addressed the continuing issue of asbestos head-on, carving out a significant portion of the conference to address the deadly carcinogen. And with good reason.

The most recent statistics suggest that “Asbestos is the most significant factor for work-related cancer”[7] with lung cancer accounting for “54–75 percent of all occupational cancer,”[8] and Epidemiological studies suggesting that “Asbestos accounts for 55–85 percent”[9] of those lung cancer diagnoses in addition to various “other cancers and other asbestos-related diseases (ARDs) today.”[10]

However, while the governments of high-income countries have intervened regarding the asbestos issue in most situations, the cancer burden has shifted to many of the world’s low-income countries. For example, “’despite Asia having low occupational cancer rates now, they will rise because many Asian countries are still using asbestos’ and so in 20 to 30 years the rates will be much higher.”[11] We know this with absolute certainly because just as “asbestos was being used extensively 20, 30, 40 years ago in high-income countries such as Australia, North America and the UK,”[12] with resulting “cancer levels in these countries (from exposure to asbestos) …being much higher than anywhere else in the world,”[13] we can certainly expect the same results in Asia. This begs the question: What is to be done not only about asbestos—specifically as a leading driver of workplace cancers—but also about the chemical and biological hazards workers are exposed to?

One of the most promising suggestions to come out of the ICOH was the development of a workplace carcinogen register. This register would exist in the same vein as the Global Harmonization System (GHS), in which chemicals were labeled and identified for their hazards in a globally harmonized manner and would serve to track what chemicals and substances are potentially carcinogenic and could cause work-related cancers. “Dr. Kurt Straif, of [the International Agency for Research on Cancer] IARC, highlighted how little we know about occupational cancer. ‘There are major knowledge gaps in terms of workplace exposure and cancer risks,’ he said,”[14] therefore a workplace carcinogen register would go a long way in aiding in our understanding of the potential work-site threats regularly faced by our workers. Furthermore, because a register would serve to highlight the ever-increasing threat of work-place carcinogens, it could also lead to an increase in governmental and philanthropic investment. Dr. Bill Gunnyeon, chair of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, pointed out that “More people die from occupational cancer than malaria – perhaps we need a Bill Gates for occupational cancer?”[15]

In addition to a global workplace carcinogen register, “Dr. Ivan Ivanov, of the occupational health team at the World Health Organization”[16] suggested that “There was plenty countries could do to prevent exposure to workplace carcinogens”[17] outside of simply agreeing to a global workplace carcinogen register. For example, “A range of ‘core measures’ included; Develop regulatory standards and enforce control of the use of known carcinogens in the workplace, Avoid introducing known carcinogens in the workplace, Include occupational cancer in the national list of occupational diseases, Identify workers, workplaces and worksites with exposure to carcinogens, Develop programs for cancer prevention and control in the workplace…Estimate the national occupational burden of disease from carcinogens…replacement of carcinogenic substances by less dangerous ones, establishment of a list of carcinogens to be prohibited, or made subject to authorization or to control, recording of data concerning exposure and exposed workers, medical surveillance, [and] information and education.

While these suggested measures may appear to be a long shot, especially in low-income countries where the corporate state has control of the levers of power, it is certainly possible to slowly begin implementing safety measures. It was done in the United States throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950’s, with the advent of the labor movement and President Roosevelt’s New Deal Program, despite resistance at the corporate level. Now, armed with empirical medical and safety data, there is no reason the international community cannot begin to implement piecemeal reform in countries throughout the world. Utilizing the power of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank would go a long way in achieving our goals through the restriction of investment without first meeting basic health and safety standards. Despite the overwhelming economic, political, and social obstacles faced, there is no reason we need to make the same mistakes again. We owe it to ourselves as well as to the working men and women of the world.

[1] Walsh, Tim. “The worldwide challenge of occupational cancer.” (accessed July 10, 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Furuya, Sugio; Chimed-Ochir, Odgerel; Takahashi, Ken; David, Annette; Takala, Jukka. 2018. “Global Asbestos Disaster.” Int. J. Environ. Res.   Public Health 15, no. 5: 1000.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Walsh, Tim. “The worldwide challenge of occupational cancer.” (accessed July 10, 2018).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

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