Workers Health & Safety Centre

Leading U.S. expert questions effectiveness of war on cancer

Time for prevention
In the fight to end cancer much of the effort to date has focused on the wrong enemies and used the wrong weapons, says leading US expert Dr. Devra Lee Davis.
Davis takes direct aim at a war begun 45 years ago by the late U.S. President Richard Nixon with his signing of the National Cancer Act and most recently perpetuated by outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama with significantly increased funding for a cancer research project known as the Cancer Moonshot and aiming to “accelerate progress against cancer.”
Davis, an award winning author and the former Director of the Centre for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, believes far too much cancer research has focused on genetic factors while ignoring “all that we breathe, drink, eat and absorb through our skin.”

Carcinogens – the real enemy in the war on cancer

In an opinion piece recently published in the popular U.S. political news site The Hill, Davis goes on to explain the great majority of cancers occur in people born with healthy genes. Thus the cancers they suffer result from carcinogenic exposures at work, home, and school. That little has been done to limit or eliminate these exposures says Davis is largely because of the political influence exerted by vested interests.
“The list of workplace causes of cancer provides a litany of largely ignored factors,” explains Davis.  “Women who work at night – like nurses or those who work in electronics – have lower levels of melatonin and higher rates of breast cancer. Men who work with chemicals or electromagnetic fields have higher rates of brain cancer and leukemia. Those who work with wood dust and formaldehyde have higher rates of nasal cancer.”
Davis adds, “No matter how efficient we may become at delivering health care, we must reduce the need for treatment by developing policies that avoid known causes of the disease.”
She points out a good place to start are the many physical and chemical agents the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization (IARC) has identified as possible, probable or known human carcinogens.

Regulatory policies key to primary prevention

In terms of exposure prevention policies, the Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) has reported extensively on examples including Europe’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals or REACH program. A recent report analyzing the REACH program cited regulation as a critical driver of chemical substitution. Noted benefits included improved worker safety and worker satisfaction, enhanced brand reputation and decreased regulatory and chemicals management costs.
The State of Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Act (TURA) requires large chemical users to report and carry out toxics reduction planning. A report analyzing 20 years of TURA-reported data from Massachusetts companies demonstrated carcinogen use declined 32 per cent and releases into the environment dropped by 93 per cent.
Here in Ontario, the Toxics Reduction Act requires certain businesses to track and quantify the toxic substances they use and create. They must also develop toxics reduction plans and make summaries of their plans available to the public but implementation of the plans are not mandatory.
Toronto’s Environmental Reporting and Disclosure Bylaw requires certain businesses to annually report their manufacture, use and release of 25 priority chemical substances that are a concern for public health. Toronto’s ChemTRAC program is designed to protect public health and stimulate the greening of local businesses by tracking and reducing toxic chemicals.  
Recently, the Canadian government responded to mounting pressure from labour, health, environment and community groups, along with affected workers and their families, by announcing a plan to ban deadly asbestos and asbestos-containing products.  

Prevention – the effective cure for cancer

Many believe these approaches, based upon primary prevention, could form the foundation for a comprehensive occupational disease prevention strategy for Ontario. Equally important is a shared understanding that delaying preventive action may be a death sentence for workers and others who continue to be exposed to carcinogens at work and in the environment.   
“If we had acted on what has long been known about the industrial and environmental causes of cancer when this national war first began, millions of lives could have been spared — a huge number of casualties for which those who have managed the effort against the disease thus far must answer,” says Davis.
Meantime, many resources are available to help workplaces looking to embrace a more proactive approach to protecting the health of workers. For instance, the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) has designed a single access point to the many chemical substitution tools available on the internet.
The WHSC offers a number of training programs and resources to help workplaces better understand their legal duties and responsibilities related to workplace hazards, including carcinogens and other toxic substances. Many of these same programs offer essential insight into the tools and information needed to identify and control or eliminate harmful workplace toxins.
The WHSC Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) training is one such program and has been updated to reflect legal changes to the way hazardous product information is delivered to workers, including new training obligations implemented in 2016. Here in Ontario and across Canada, WHMIS is the system used to provide workers with information about hazardous products used, stored, handled or disposed of in the workplace.
Want to read more from the WHSC about carcinogens and toxics use reduction?
Regulation an important driver of workplace chemical substitution, report finds
Ontario government proposes changes to laws regarding hazardous exposures
Summary of important occupational cancer symposium released
Canadian government announces asbestos ban
CCO report includes new information on Occupational Cancers in Ontario

To learn more:
Call:    1-888-869-7950 and ask to speak to a training services representative

Want to read Dr. Devra Davis’s opinion piece entitled Cancer is a product of policies on energy, buildings, food, and manufacturing?
Want to know more about Dr. Devra Davis’s current work as founder and president of the Environmental Health Trust?