Opinion: U.S. policy must move toward carcinogen-free workplaces

 

2012-0308asbestos
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
By Richard Clapp, Molly Jacobs, David Kriebel and Joel Tickner
University of Massachusetts Lowell

March 9, 2012


John Anderson, a former refinery electrician from New Jersey who worked with asbestos, addressed the President's Cancer Panel of experts about the need to strengthen cancer protection for workers. Then he handed the microphone to his wife, Bonnie, who looked gaunt and unsteady. She told the rest of their story – she was suffering from mesothelioma, and it was not because she ever worked with asbestos. She was the one who washed her husband’s dust-covered work clothes.

Today, Bonnie Anderson is still battling her cancer, two years after the panel concluded in its report that reducing toxic exposures “should be the cornerstone of a new national cancer prevention strategy.” Had such a precautionary strategy been in place, the disease that has devastated this woman and her family might have been avoided.

The key to prevention is the ability to act on early warnings. Chemicals should be identified for early action in the workplace, rather than simply becoming candidates for further study. This year, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is responding to the panel’s recommendations by revising its occupational cancer policy. Workplace cancers remain the leading cause of cancer from involuntary exposures. The institute’s policy, if thoughtfully redesigned, could not only prevent cancer among workers, but also protect the health of families and communities by minimizing the downstream impacts of chemicals that begin in the workplace.

The institute asked how it should evaluate the ability of a substance to cause cancer. While they now use available information from animal experiments as well as human studies, we think they should use rapid-screening tests that don’t take years to conduct, and develop new ways of assessing new chemicals that are similar to ones already known to cause cancer. The key to prevention is the ability to act on early warnings. Chemicals which test positive and meet other relevant criteria should be identified for early action in the workplace, rather than simply becoming candidates for further study. This approach is consistent with policies adopted in the European Union in recent years.

2012-0308workplace
HealthyPeople.gov
NIOSH also asked whether regulations should allow one out of every 1,000 workers to possibly die from cancer from workplace exposure – the standard currently used by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. We believe such a target by no means fulfills the obligation to protect workers. Moreover, we think it is unethical for a public health agency like NIOSH to sanction cancer risks to workers that are orders of magnitude greater than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finds acceptable for the general public.

Our government’s policy should encourage companies to transition away from using cancer-causing substances in the first place. Setting regulatory limits may still be necessary, but only when no safer alternative to an occupational carcinogen is available.We urge rethinking this practice of recommending regulatory limits for cancer-causing substances where the science suggests that there is no safe level of exposure. Our government’s policy should encourage companies to transition away from using them in the first place. Setting regulatory limits may still be necessary, but only when no safer alternative to an occupational carcinogen is available. Regulatory limits are not “safe” levels, and the new government policy should make this clear.

Some have suggested that technologically achievable reductions in workplace exposure is all that we can reasonably expect. But no exposure should be deemed “acceptable” when feasible, safer alternatives exist or can be developed to eliminate hazards. Now is the time to engage in a broader conversation about cancer prevention. We urge a new approach that moves us toward a carcinogen-free workplace and a cancer-free economy.
 
Richard Clapp, Adjunct Professor, Department of Work Environment, University of Massachusetts Lowell & Professor Emeritus of Environmental Health, Boston University School of Public Health
Molly Jacobs, Program Manager, Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts
David Kriebel, Professor and Chair, Department of Work Environment, University of Massachusetts Lowell
Joel Tickner, Associate Professor, Department of Community Health & Sustainability, University of Massachusetts Lowell

 

 

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