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Report slams official complacency on UK work cancer epidemic [25 June 2007]

Work-related cancers will claim thousands of lives each year for a further working generation as a result of the “shocking complacency” of the government’s health and safety watchdog, a new report is warning. ‘Burying the evidence’ says the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has neither the resources nor the strategy to tackle the workplace carcinogen exposures killing at least 12,000 people each year.

The report, by Professors Andrew Watterson and Rory O’Neill of Stirling University’s Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group, says HSE’s action plan – unveiled at a London seminar on 25-26 June - omits a range of occupational cancers, grossly under-estimates the risks of others and excludes entirely some of the most high risk groups of workers.

“HSE’s recommendations for action range from complacent to non-existent,” says Professor Watterson. “Its evaluations on cancer causing substances including benzene, cadmium, diesel exhaust and wood dust are error-ridden, inadequate and outdated, whole categories of workers known to be at high risk are ignored, and HSE cannot quantify and continues to neglect the risk to women.”

Breast cancer, the major occupational and environmental cancer risk for women, “is entirely off HSE’s radar,” Professor Watterson says. “The net result of this shocking complacency will be needless exposures and avoidable deaths.”

The report puts the cost to the UK of occupational cancer deaths at between £29.5bn and £59bn a year. Preventing just 100 of these deaths a year would more than offset the entire annual HSE budget.

Report co-author Professor Rory O’Neill says: “HSE’s approach will do little or nothing to reduce either the volumes or the numbers of cancer-causing substances used in Britain’s workplaces. This guarantees a new working generation will face a preventable cancer risk.

“Asbestos still kills thousands every year and the epidemic has yet to peak. We are already seeing evidence of cancers in microelectronic workers, an industry just one working generation old, and it is anybody’s guess how work in the nanotech industry will impact on health.” Only a small proportion of industrial chemicals have been tested thoroughly for chronic health effects, he adds.

The report was prepared for the Cancer Prevention Coalition, an alliance of academics, trades unions and environmental and occupational cancer campaigners. Hilda Palmer of the Hazards Campaign, a member of the coalition, says: “Occupational cancer is not a disease of the boardroom – almost all the risk is borne by just one-fifth of the workforce. They are not told they are at risk, they are not provided health surveillance and they don’t get the early diagnosis that can be the difference between living and dying. They are not dying of ignorance; they are dying of neglect.”

‘Burying the evidence’ calls for “sunsetting” to phase out where possible many common workplace carcinogens, and a “Toxics Use Reduction” policy to help wean companies on to safer alternative substances and processes. These approaches have worked well elsewhere, and have been supported by both workplace and environmental health advocates and industry. The coalition says the UK government should recognise work-related cancers as a major public health priority.

Notes to editors

1. Burying the evidence: How the UK is prolonging the occupational cancer epidemic, by Professors Andrew Watterson and Rory O’Neill of Stirling University, can be viewed online at:

2. The Cancer Prevention Coalition is an alliance of safety campaign groups including the national Hazards Campaign, academics, unions and cancer and occupational disease support groups. It has produced an online Work Cancer Prevention Kit as part of a global “Occupational cancer/Zero cancer” campaign.

3. The Health and Safety Executive’s occupational cancer seminar is on 25-26 June 2007 at the Kensington Close Hotel, Wrights Lane, London W8 5SP

Media enquiries

Professor Rory O’Neill
Monday 25 June: 07813 779501
Tuesday 26 June: 01535 210462

Professor Andrew Watterson
M: 07966 161401

Hilda Palmer
Monday 25 June: 07869 379722
Tuesday 26 June: 0161 636 7557