The Sunday Star-Times (Auckland, New Zealand)
February 3, 2008 Sunday
Thousands dying of work-related cancers
BYLINE: CHISHOLM Donna
Tens of thousands of New Zealanders are in jobs that put them at increased risk of cancer – but neither they nor their doctors know it.
Investigators from Massey University’s Centre for Public Health Research are calling on family GPs and cancer specialists to be better informed about their patients’ occupations – current and past – in the hope of improving diagnosis and treatment.
They say work-related cancers affect between 700 and 1000 people a year and kill 400 – yet fewer than 40 cases a year are notified to the Labour Department.
Their call follows new research highlighting the potential risk of bladder cancer or non-Hodgkins
lymphoma, published by the group in international journals. The research highlights the potential dangers of a wide range of jobs, including:
* Textile workers (including machinists)
* Heavy vehicle drivers
* Market gardeners
* Abattoir workers
* Fruit and vege growers and pickers
* Metal workers
Dyes, petrol fumes, solvents and pesticides are the main culprits and work is under way to establish which agents are most dangerous.
The researchers say around 20% of the workforce is or has been in a job that exposes them to increased risk of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a type of blood cancer which kills 300 New Zealanders a year. It is the sixth most common cancer type.
The National Occupational Health and Safety Advisory Committee estimates the social and economic cost of each occupational cancer death at $3 million a year – so if estimates of 400 deaths a year are correct, the total bill is around $1.2 billion annually.
Massey researcher Professor Neil Pearce said there was widespread ignorance about the risks of job-related cancers.
“It is not just that your hairdresser doesn’t know that hairdressers have a high risk of bladder cancer, but 99.9% of doctors don’t know that either.
“In fact, the vast majority of doctors don’t know what job their patients have now, let alone 20 years ago. In 90% of cases, the connection with occupation is never made.”
The next phase of the research will be into leukaemia, which has been associated with agricultural and freezing work and exposure to low-frequency electromagnetic fields, and lung cancer – linked with jobs including bricklaying, carpentry, machine tool operation, pulp and paper work and meat work.
The work could have important ramifications for the Accident Compensation Corporation, which has made only small payouts in the past 10 years to patients who have proved occupational links to bladder cancer and non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
By far the biggest number of claims relate to lung cancers and asbestosis-related conditions.
The latest findings, showing increased risk of non-Hodgkins lymphoma for crop farmers but not sheep and dairy farmers, are the opposite of what is generally found overseas.
Lead researcher Andrea Mannetje said the findings for fruit and vegetable growers were significant – and peculiar to New Zealand.
Crops farmed here were predominantly perishable and pesticides, especially insecticides and fungicides, were essential. But in the US, for example, grains were the main crops.
The New Zealand findings were also unusual in that the lymphoma risk was much higher for women crop workers (three to four times that of the normal population) but she did not know why.
The increased lymphoma and lung cancer risk for meat workers is thought to be the result of exposure to blood, faeces and urine, as well as disinfectants, suggesting a viral link.
Some studies overseas have also shown an increased risk to women who get their hair dyed regularly.
The Labour Department’s chief adviser on occupational health, Dr Geraint Emrys, said the centre’s research had more precisely pinpointed some of the adverse health effects of workplace cancer risks and would be used in further work with industry groups.
* Have you developed cancer because of your job? Email email@example.com WHAT THE RESEARCH REVEALS Latest findings show:
* Hairdressers at nine times greater risk of bladder
cancer than general population
* Fruit and vege growers at two to three times the
risk of non-Hodgkins lymphoma
* Abattoir workers, heavy truck drivers and cleaners
at twice the risk of non-Hodgkins lymphoma
* Sewing machinists at three times the risk of bladder
* Teachers not found to be at increased risk of
lymphoma (despite a link suggested in overseas
studies) as a result of exposure to viral infections
* While just 3-6% of all cancers are thought to be
linked to the patient’s job, 28% of bladder cases may
be caused by occupation.