Killer toxins in the workplace

Thousands of Canadian workers die from occupational cancer each year.

Each April 28, Canadians honour workers killed on the job.

Last year, like every year, hundreds of Canadians were killed in accidents at work. And this year, like every year, thousands more died from cancer caused by their work.

According to Health Canada, more than 5,800 Canadians died last year from cancer contracted on the job. While many of those developed the disease through exposure to harmful substances years ago, there is little doubt thousands of workers last year suffered equally fatal exposures, and will be honoured on a future April 28.

There is an erroneous perception that cancer-causing agents in the workplace are disappearing, said Cathy Walker, health and safety director for the Canadian Auto Workers. “We’re certainly not winning any war with cancer.”

Occupational cancer is an enormous problem, said Samuel Epstein, author of the seminal 1978 work The Politics of Cancer. “It is the single most avoidable cause of all cancers.”

But employers are still not doing enough to reduce employee exposure to carcinogens. They haven’t changed their attitude in the slightest, he said.

Epstein favours strict criminal penalties for employers who expose employees to carcinogens at work. Because so much attention focuses on treatment and early detection, people don’t realize how many cases could be avoided in the first place if people weren’t exposed to the agents that cause cancer. “The public doesn’t know about it and they don’t understand what happens in the workplace,” he said.

Epstein sits squarely in the middle of the contentious debate over how best to tackle the cancer problem that shows no sign of abating, and is in fact getting worse. Cancer rates in Canada continue to rise, accounting for close to one in three of all deaths, up from one in four at the start of the ’90s. Health Canada, says nine per cent of all cancer deaths are occupational. There are a number of factors accounting for the high death toll.

Epstein has long blamed what he calls the “cancer establishment” for rising cancer levels. Groups like the Canadian Cancer Society spend too much time, effort and money on treatment and early detection, while a large number of cases could be prevented in the first place. Again the numbers are contested but some experts suggest as much of 50 per cent of all cancers are preventable and others suggest all cancer contracted at work is avoidable.

One of the most popular theories for rising cancer levels attributes the increase to the industrialization of society, as workers are exposed to an ever-increasing number of new chemicals and substances.

A great deal has been learned in recent years about the effects of exposure to such infamous agents as asbestos and benzene, and exposure to these deadly substances does not happen to the extent it used to. But there is little doubt workers are still being exposed to confirmed carcinogens. Ask the unions and they’ll tell you it’s because employers are willing to sacrifice the lives of workers to avoid the cost of eliminating carcinogens in the workplace now.

However, Epstein holds the unions partly responsible for being too preoccupied with wages and benefits to make the elimination of carcinogens an issue when it comes time to go to the bargaining table.

Aside from exposure to known carcinogens, critics of current workplace practices say new chemicals and substances are constantly being introduced into the workplace without adequate testing.

Indeed much of the research on carcinogens is retroactive, studying the origin of cancer after it is already contracted by humans. In other words, substances are deemed carcinogenic once they’ve killed enough people to prove it.

Part of the debate over occupational cancer centres on safe exposure limits to toxins in the workplace. There is a lot of talk and argument about banning certain carcinogens altogether, but sometimes the research shows that there is no harm below a certain level and so there isn’t any need to eliminate the substance entirely, said Yan Lau, who recently chaired a committee to review chemical exposure levels in Alberta.

Occupational exposure limits have not been revised in the province since 1988, even though research in the interim has made most of the limits out of date, and Alberta exposure limits were higher than in other jurisdictions, said Lau.

“We try to cut down the emissions in the workplace as much as possible and as a matter of fact most industries are doing that. But striving for zero is not practical,” said Lau.

But the unions are set to tackle that presumption, adopting an approach more in keeping with Epstein.

All occupational cancers are preventable, said Walker of the CAW. Her union is calling for all known carcinogens to be banned from the workplace.

Asbestos, long since proven to be a carcinogen, is still being used in some manufacturing (the creation of break pads, for example), and remains leftover from the days when it was used as an insulator. Workers continue to come into contact with asbestos and where the CAW used to just call for encapsulation, it now demands it be removed completely.

Tens of thousands of workers — in parts plants to underground mines to the engine rooms of ships and ferries — are still being exposed to carcinogenic metal working fluids, Walker said. “We know for sure that they cause cancer and they cause a whole variety of cancers.”

Wearing protective gear is not enough because the air is saturated with these mists, and it isn’t practical for employees to wear respirators. Rather than try to minimize the contact with the carcinogen, the agent should not to be used in the first place. The CAW has made it a major part of its campaign to have metal working fluids replaced with vegetable oil substitutes.

Many solvents are dangerous to workers, and could easily be replaced in some cases with soap and water, Walker said. Employers could be using aqueous cleaners, or using some versions of dishwashing detergent in order to stop employees from being exposed to suspect solvents.

However, unions also say they are willing to be pragmatic about the elimination of carcinogens from workplaces. They will have to be phased out over time, Walker admits. In the meantime, better precautions have to be taken to minimize the damage.

It might be unrealistic to ask for a complete ban, concedes Jason Foster, director of policy analysis for the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL).

“Calling for an outright elimination would be difficult. There are so many, that it would be difficult to eliminate all of them. The government won’t go for it and the employers won’t go for it,” Foster said.

Part of the challenge in convincing governments and businesses to reduce exposure limits is convincing them of the severity of the problem. Business and government dispute the view, held by the CLC and the AFL, that occupational cancers represents 20 per cent of all cancers, putting the number closer to four per cent, said Foster.

While the ultimate goal would be to eliminate exposures altogether, he said, the AFL is working to lower exposure limits as much as possible — and with varied success.

Benzene is a proven carcinogen and when it came time to participate in the Alberta government’s task force to review limits, the union was pushing for much tighter controls.

The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), one of the leading authorities on safe exposure limits and the source for many regulatory benchmarks, sets new guidelines for exposure limits. From time to time new evidence emerges that shows higher toxicity of certain substances than previously thought and revises safe exposure limits downward. However, Alberta’s task force recommended an exposure level twice that called for by the ACGIH.

They didn’t get the safer ACGIH level, said Foster, because oil and gas is such a powerful industry in Alberta, and benzene is a natural byproduct of natural gas drilling. Tighter limits would have meant spending money and attention on tighter controls and industry doesn’t want to spend the money to do that, he said.

Generating support for efforts to eliminate occupational cancer will always be difficult. Because the deaths are not instant it is hard to demonstrate the importance of changes, said Lau.

“It is not like a worker in sawmill who gets an arm chopped off. (Carcinogens) affect health, but you can’t link it to exposure because people are exposed to so many different things.”

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