A DIAGNOSIS of cancer remains one of the most disturbing pieces of news anyone can receive. Each year in the UK around 320,000 hear that news and cancer is the number one killer in the UK with almost 160,000 deaths.
These reasons contribute to this being the number one fear among the British public.
A new report this month shows that around 8,000 cancer deaths, about 5% of the total, are directly attributable to occupational exposure to carcinogens – that there is a direct relationship between work and dying of cancer, with over 13,000 new cases of cancer each year being work-related.
Male construction workers are the group most likely to suffer from fatal work-related cancers, about half of all deaths, with exposure to asbestos, silica and diesel engine exhaust fumes being cited as the most significant cause, asbestos being the single most deadly substance.
Other occupational factors also included a link between nightshift work and breast cancer (1960 cases) and mineral oil exposure in metal industry associated with bladder, lung and skin cancer (1730 cases).
Researchers point out that these figures are a conservative underestimate and the number of asbestos-related cancers is predicted to grow for several years.
Cancer incidence rates have grown by around a third since the mid-1970s, with a significant gender split. While male cancer rates have increased by 20%, incidence of female cancers has increased by 40% over that period, roughly matching the growth of participation in employment by women over the same period.
The fact that people are living longer is a factor in the increasing rate of cancers, more than three in five new diagnoses affect people over 65. However, these diagnoses may still be the result of occupational exposure as many cancers have a long gestation period. In the case of asbestos, for example, it can be 30 or 40 years between exposure and symptoms presenting in a patient.
Increasing awareness of occupational cancer causes is an important measure in preventing exposure and illness, but improving measures to reduce exposure are critical.
A model developed at Imperial College shows halving exposure to a carcinogen like silica could reduce incidences of cancer, but that regulation alone would be of limited value as it is estimated only 30% of employers comply with minimum legal standards.
If regulation and enforcement were improved the impact on occupational cancers would be more dramatic, saving trauma and tragedy for thousands of families as well as saving the health service millions.
:: Kevin Rowan, TUC regional secretary.