Workplace cancer focus of research centre

Unique Ontario centre working to identify, prevent and eliminate exposure to carcinogens at work

Workplace cancer is an under-emphasized area that needs a higher profile, according to the incoming director of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC) in Toronto.

“The lack of funding, or lower levels of funding than are needed, are in part due to a perception that workplace cancer isn’t important, which is far from true — it’s really a false perception,” said Paul Demers, who will assume the role of director of the OCRC in September.

The OCRC was created last year to raise awareness of occupational cancer and build up research. Its goal is to bridge the gaps in knowledge of occupation-related cancers and translate these findings into information and programs for employers and workers.

“Although there are various occupational cancer researchers across Canada that belong to various institutions, there’s actually no organization itself that focuses and has a real emphasis just on occupational cancer,” said Demers, a professor and director at the School of Environmental Health at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “In that way, it certainly is pretty unique, not just in Canada but relatively unique in the world.”
What the centre does

The OCRC is working to identify, prevent and ultimately eliminate exposure to cancer-causing substances in the workplace. Its mandate is to support community action, public education, prevention, legislation and policy development. The organization is jointly funded by Cancer Care Ontario, Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and the Canadian Cancer Society, Ontario Division, and was developed in collaboration with the United Steelworkers union.

All of the partners saw the benefits of establishing the new centre right away, he said.
“Certainly there was a recognition… occupational cancer research was an area that needed to be strengthened,” said Demers. “It’s important to have strong partnerships with different organizations. In the context of research, if you’re going to conduct cancer studies, it’s important to have the support of both employers and labour in conducting research.”

The centre’s core team is located at Cancer Care Ontario (where Demers will also be a senior scientist) and a steering committee has been set up to ensure the research program is relevant to local needs and to help translate research findings into provincial policy and professional practice. This committee comprises one member from each of the funding partners, plus representatives from the province’s labour, employer and research communities, and the Ontario Ministry of Labour.

Roland Hosein, vice-president of environment, health and safety at GE Canada in Mississauga, Ont. — and a member of the OCRC steering committee — said it’s important to understand any link between workplaces and cancer and to compensate workers who fall ill accordingly.

“Society needs that, to understand that relationship,” he said.

Multiple hurdles in assessing ­occupational cancers

For this kind of centre to work well, it has to be big and have a long life because, when it comes to health issues, the latency period can be a challenge, he said. To properly assess the effects of asbestos exposure, for example, can take 25 years.

“Sometimes people who do the funding get impatient while they’re waiting for information,” said Hosein.
Smaller governments can be challenged by costs and small populations while larger governments in the United States and Europe have greater success in seeing relationships between populations and exposures. Ontario doesn’t have many large workplaces of more than 1,000 employees, he said.

“That’s what a centre like this has the ability to do, because it can combine populations to get a large population,” he said.

And while funding for the centre “will be a tough haul,” the steering committee can try to help, said Hosein.

“We can point them in the right direction and I’m hoping they’ll have sustained funding. Right now, it’s looking good, because it’s a good centre, a small centre, it has good people,” he said.

If OCRC can get good studies going and show they have the capability to deliver results, the money to keep it operating will be there in the future, he said.

“Key retirements” and a lack of funding over the years have seen some people move to other areas of research that were better funded, said Demers. The OCRC hopes to build its research capacity by attracting new researchers to the area. This will involve raising the profile of the centre at universities, he said.
“We’d like to both attract people back but also bring in a new generation of researchers to lead this area.”

Early projects

The OCRC is conducting a systematic review of literature on workplace cancer research on women and the impact of workplace interventions on reducing cancer risk, said Demers. Research projects are also being started to look at cancer risk associated with pesticides and the risks for uranium miners in the province.

Going national?

A long-term goal is to expand the mandate outside the province but, for now, the partners are Ontario-based, said Demers, and the focus is on building capacity in occupational cancer research within the province.


What exposures, occupations pose risk?

In November 2009, the Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC) held its first annual research day. Several presentations were made — on topics such as future challenges with carcinogens in the workplace, nanomaterials and research priorities and exposure assessment strategies — and the results of a 2009 stakeholder consultation were unveiled. (OCRC posted an online survey that attracted 177 responses from researchers, employers and workers from across Canada and around the world.)

Nearly 100 workplace exposures were identified as a priority issue in occupational cancer research, with the most frequently mentioned ones including shift work, chemicals, asbestos, pesticides and nanotechnology. As for the occupations in greatest need of research, these included health-care practitioners, firefighters, miners, construction workers, farmers and welders, according to the survey. The cancers in greatest need of research were cited as breast, lung, prostate and brain, which correspond to the most prevalent in the overall population.

And there is growing interest around a possible link between shift work and breast cancer. Identifying which specific cancers are occupational is a real challenge, said said Paul Demers, incoming director of the OCRC, so it is looking at a project to estimate the burden of cancer associated with workplace. Also of interest are the more subtle relationships — understanding exposures to known carcinogens at lower levels, said Demers.

The most commonly cited solution to these barriers was to form collaborations, among researchers, employers, workers, policy-makers, labour unions and stakeholders, according to the survey.

Top 10 barriers to occupational cancer research

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