|Occupational Health and Safety
Cancer and the Worker
What is Cancer?
"Cancer" is a large group of diseases characterized by the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. If this spread
continues, the victim dies.
What Causes Cancer?
No one known just what triggers the development of cancer, but it appears likely that a number of factors contribute to its
development. Many scientists suspect that there is no cancer without a carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) and it is thought
that there is seldom just one carcinogen. A person's genetic make-up, habits, cultural background and general health status all help
to determine whether or not he or she will develop cancer, and if so, how rapidly it will spread.
Among the factors that seem to influence the development of cancer are enzymes, the body's immune defense system, hormones,
smoking, diet, air pollution, exposure to industrial chemicals, use of medications, infection with viruses or bacteria and age.
We have no control over some of the factors that lead to cancer, such as age or the body's immunity system. Others we can
influence are smoking, air pollution and exposure to industrial chemicals.
Industrial Exposure to Carcinogens
In 1775, cancer of the scrotum was discovered among English chimney sweeps. They had been exposed as children to the by-
products of coal combustion which we now know cause cancer.
There are over 1,500 substances that are known to be associated with neoplasms - that is, tumors or abnormal growths. Some
people, when confronted with statistics such as these, give up. "If even peanut butter can be a carcinogen, what's the use in trying
to prevent exposure to cancer-causing agents?" they ask.
This defeatist attitude is sometimes put forward by companies as an excuse to avoid cleaning up their plants. That is not an excuse
that we workers can accept. The protection of our health and our lives should be a top priority.
What is Being Done to Prevent Exposure to Cancer-Causing Industrial Chemicals?
Unfortunately, the answer is not very much.
- Thousands of coke-oven workers in the steel industry are still inhaling the same kinds of substances that caused cancer
among the chimney sweeps. The result: they are dying of lung cancer at a rate 10 times that of other steelworkers.
- One hundred years ago, miners in Central Europe were found to be dying of lung cancer. Fifty years ago, scientists identified
radioactivity in the mines as the cause of their disease. Yet in 1976, the Royal Commission on the Health and Safety of
Workers in Mines noted that workers in Ontario's uranium mines had lung cancer death rates that were double the normal
- Today, 130 years after scrotal cancer was discovered among copper smelter workers exposed to arsenic, some 1.5 million
North American workers are inhaling the same substance. They are also dying of lymphatic cancer at two to eight times the
What Can Be Done to Stop the Spread of Industrially-Caused Cancer?
- Seventy-five years ago, asbestos was known to cause a fatal lung disease called asbestosis. Asbestos was identified 25
years ago as a potent cause of lung cancer. But very recently, workers in Canadian mines, factories and dozens of asbestos-
related trades were labouring in asbestos dust so thick it blocked the light.
- Find out what we are using and producing in the workplace. If substances are labelled with their proper chemical names, we
have the means to determine whether the substance is a known carcinogen.
- Refuse to work with carcinogens if substitutes are available.
- Handle carcinogens only according to proper procedures, e.g. vacuum asbestos dust, wear protective clothing and
respirators, and attempt to control the substance at its source.
- Lobby for Canadian legislation similar to, but stronger than, the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act, which will give the U.S.
government the authority to require testing of possibly hazardous substances before and after they go on the market.
Source: CAW Health, Safety & Environment Department