Imagine a killer that strikes more than once every minute. Most of these deaths could be stopped with minimal effort, but preventive measures are being blocked. Well, warns ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow, that killer is occupational cancer and a mixture of toxic marketing and regulatory failure has already condemned another generation to an early grave.
Occupational cancer isn’t a mystery disease. There’s decades of evidence about the causes, and enough early warnings to avoid introducing a new generation of killers. But instead of prevention, we are facing a toxic cocktail of denial and deceit that means more people than at any time in history will develop tumours caused by their job.
The reason is as straightforward as it is shocking. As long as there’s money to be made, industry will retain its fatal attachment to some of the most potent killers in history.
Take asbestos. In May 2015, it is all but certain just enough governments will dance to the asbestos industry’s tune to keep chrysotile asbestos off the toxic exports list included in a United Nations treaty. This is not about a ban, just mandatory warnings that asbestos exports could be bad for you. It is an every day example of an industry protecting its markets. Global asbestos production is not falling, and in some countries, including India, Indonesia and Brazil, consumption has increased.
Like asbestos, we’ve known benzene causes cancer for well over half a century. But that’s not stopped the industry defending its use. The biggest names in petrochemicals - British Petroleum (BP), Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell Chemical – all chipped in to a major study that ran through most of the last decade, designed to head off cancer compensation claims and to protect their valuable product from tighter regulation. It is an industry profit-and-loss calculation where you are the one to lose.
These companies have plenty of allies in government, which means yesterday’s problem is certain to be tomorrow’s too. The European Commission has blocked a revision of the EU rules on cancer-causing and mutagenic exposures at work, in the name of ‘better regulation’, so only three cancer-inducing chemicals have European exposure limits. In the US, official proposals to tighten exposure limits for even the most deadly substances languish in arcane consultative processes industry interests string out for decades.
It exposes a regulatory sensitivity to unsubstantiated business scaremongering partnered with a desperate insensitivity to the substantial human cost and scary – deadly - consequences this regulatory inertia demands.
This is a process of paralysis by analysis. Wherever stricter controls are proposed, industry representatives or their hired guns appear, challenging the science and predicting an economic catastrophe.
It’s a cynical but usually successful ruse, and it means the real catastrophe is usually human. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) puts the resulting occupational cancer toll at in excess of 660,000 lives a year; many believe it is considerable higher. It is an epidemic guaranteed to continue for at least one more generation, as today’s exposures only reveal their cancerous legacy decades down the line.
Whether it is silica ordiesel exhaust, dyes or metals, alternatives are not being used and controls are not being employed or adequately enforced. Instead, new industries make the same old mistakes. Samsung apologised last year after its high tech production lines were found to have cancers of the blood as a side-product. It took until September last year for Apple, the world’s most profitable company, to agree to remove benzene from just some of its production processes.
The official statistics indicate cancer is a largely blue collar, largely male concern. But the statistics, like industry, do not tell the whole truth. For example, endocrine disrupting chemicals have been implicated in the higher breast cancer rates found in women in a range of industries including agriculture, plastics, food packaging, metal manufacture and the bar and gambling industries. The industry response wasn’t to back prevention calls, it was to marshal its favourite scientists to challenge calls for tighter regulation. Prevention is off the agenda, and for now the bodies of those women affected in every sense do not count.
Cancer is not part of the pay packet unions are willing to accept. In 2007, Global Unions launched a Zero Work Cancer campaign. It spurred activities at national and international levels to expose the causes of occupational cancer while creating renewed pressure for better laws and prevention strategies.
In Spain, CC.OO launched its own Zero Cancer at Work campaign. In Australia, the national union federation ACTU did likewise, running an ongoing series of seminars across the country. Unions in Europe pressed for improved laws and new, tighter limits on 50 known carcinogens. It continued a union tradition going back decades, including US union UAW’s declaration of ‘war on cancer’ in 1980 and Unifor’s ‘Devil of a poison’ campaign in Canada. These have seen unions refuse to work with some of the worst offenders and press for safest work practices with the rest.
For unions, this is a matter of substance. Hazardous exposures at work, from infections like Ebola to pesticides and solvents, kill far more than workplace ‘accidents’. ILO estimates around 2.3 million people each year die worldwide as a result of their jobs. Out of that total, 2 million die from occupational diseases, with circulatory disorders, cancers and lung diseases the top workplace killers.
This year on 28 April, the international campaign day when unions pledge to ‘remember the dead, and fight for the living’, the harm caused by workplace toxins is being put under the spotlight.
A new ITUC guide, ‘Toxic work – stop deadly exposures today’, sets out why we want to remove toxic exposures from the workplace and how. At the centre of the union strategy is active, union-supported workforce participation, in finding problems and implementing solutions.
A new ITUC-supported workplace cancer website, www.cancerhazards.org, now provides union representatives with the latest news on occupational cancer, including emerging scientific evidence and union initiatives to combat this workplace scourge. Unions worldwide are running their own campaigns and producing their own additions to the prevention toolbox. 28 April is the start, not the end of the process.
There is nothing inevitable about toxic exposures at work. Over 40 countries, including all those in the European Union, function entirely happily without asbestos. Why shouldn’t workers in India, Brazil or Sri Lanka be afforded the same protection, the same respect for their health? A paper this year in the journal Respirology warned of an ‘Asian tsunami’ of asbestos disease as the industry continues a high-cost, low-ethics sales drive. They won’t be the victims of bad luck, they will be the victims of bad – criminal - corporate behaviour.
Let me put it like this. Some of the world’s most profitable companies are not just defending their toxic products, they are defending weak exposure standards that mean they profit and you pay. It is not ethical, it is not healthy and it is not what we bargained for. We make this pledge - if they expose us, we will expose them.