Workers Health & Safety Centre

Summary of important occupational cancer symposium released

Caution: Can your workplace be the cause of cancer?
New research on the magnitude and cost of work-related cancers in Canada fuelled compelling discussions at a recent symposium in Toronto, a summary of which is now available.
The one-day meeting entitled, Preventing the Burden of Occupational Cancer in Canada was hosted by Ontario’s Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC). Close to 120 attended, including representatives from labour, government, the province’s health and safety system, non-governmental organizations and the research community.

Preliminary findings

As the OCRC symposium summary observes, the purpose of the event was to share preliminary results from the Burden of Cancer in Canada Study. The four-year national research collaboration is funded by a team grant from the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute.
The ground-breaking research assesses the burden of 27 different cancers attributed to 44 workplace carcinogens described by sex, province, age group, industry and occupation. The study estimates the number of cancer cases each year caused by exposure to workplace carcinogens and the economic impact of these. Estimating the full economic burden also tells us the estimated number of cancers and related deaths that could be prevented by reducing exposures to carcinogens.
Researchers presented powerful preliminary findings on three well documented occupational carcinogens: diesel engine exhaust, asbestos and radon.
Diesel engine exhaust:
  • cause an estimated 553 work-related lung cancers each year in Canada;
  • $507.7 million—estimated cost of newly diagnosed lung cancers in 2011 related to workplace diesel exhaust exposures;
  • at risk occupations include miners and truck drivers;
  • Canada has no Occupational Exposure Limit for diesel exhaust.
  • estimated to cause 1708 work-related lung cancers and 391 mesotheliomas each year;
  • $1.36 billion and $359.3 million—estimated cost of newly diagnosed lung cancers and mesotheliomas respectively in 2011 associated with workplace asbestos exposure;
  • workers most at risk include those in manufacturing and construction;
  • asbestos containing materials, such as cement pipe, are still legally imported and used in Canada.
  • estimated to cause 26 work-related lung cancers a year at a cost of $30.6 million;
  • Health Canada estimates that 16 per cent of lung cancers are attributable to radon exposure;
  • miners are most at risk but office workers can be exposed indoors as well;
  • The World Health Organization’s exposure level is more protective than Canada’s guideline.

Preventing occupational cancer

By any measure, the burden of occupational cancer in Canada is great. The question then becomes, “What can be done to prevent this burden?” To this end, symposium participants heard from Lesley Rushton, a researcher in the United Kingdom who helped document similar cancer burden findings and in similar ways. In fact, the Canadian study is based on the UK approach. Rushton also detailed another research project which effectively forecast the significant number of cancers that could be avoided by reducing occupational exposure limits, enforcing better compliance with existing limits or implementing a combination of both interventions. Rushton observed however, while the UK research has done much to raise awareness, the country’s political will to prevent occupational cancers has remained unresponsive.
Symposium participants also heard from those in Canadian jurisdictions who are:
  • considering occupational exposure limits (OELs) and enforcement options for diesel exhaust exposures in British Columbia;
  • researching control measures for diesel exhaust emissions in Ontario’s underground mines;
  • implementing a mandatory asbestos registry documenting the location of asbestos in existing public buildings in Saskatchewan;
  • campaigning for a ban on new uses of asbestos across Canada; and
  • working to prevent exposures to radon, including support for an Ontario bill that would among other things require radon testing and remediation in existing buildings, as well as related Building Code changes for all new construction.
Many of the presentations were a source for great optimism. Some on the other hand highlighted significant barriers to prevention. For instance, although electrically-powered vehicles for underground mines are available and research has demonstrated how vehicles retrofitted with diesel particulate filters can virtually eliminate miner exposures, large-scale adoption of either was pronounced to be years and perhaps decades away. In response symposium participant and United Steelworker, local 6500 compensation representative, J.P. Mrochek commented much as Rushton had, “In other words, we have the technology, but not the will.”
Final findings for the ORCR cancer burden study will be released this spring. Meantime, the organization is developing a new research proposal aimed at feasible interventions in Ontario’s construction industry and costs associated with their implementation. Stacked up against the cost of inaction these kinds of analyses are sure to help fuel cancer prevention efforts focused on safeguarding worker health and lives. 
For our part, the Workers Health and Safety Centre assists workplace parties through training programs and information services aimed at raising awareness about hazardous exposures, including those which can contribute to the burden of cancer, and targeting prevention at the workplace level.
To learn more:
Occupational Cancer Research Centre
CAREX Canada
Workers Health &Safety Centre 
Call:   1-888-869-7950