UN health agency calls for prevention of cancer through workplace safety
Spotlighting the many preventable deaths caused by exposure to carcinogens, the United Nations health agency marked World Day for Safety and Health at Work with a call for the removal of these dangerous substances from job sites.
Every year, at least 200,000 people die from cancer related to their workplace, WHO said in a message on the occasion, observed every year on 28 April, stressing that “the risks for occupational cancer are preventable.”
Lung cancer, mesothelioma and bladder cancer are among the most common types of occupational cancers, according to WHO. Currently about 125 million people around the world are exposed to asbestos at work, and at least 90,000 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases. Thousands more die from leukemia caused by exposure to benzene, an organic solvent widely used by workers, including in the chemical and diamond industries.
“The tragedy of occupational cancer resulting from asbestos, benzene and other carcinogens is that it takes so long for science to be translated into protective action,” said Maria Neira, WHO Director of Public Health and Environment.
“Known and preventable exposures are clearly responsible for hundreds of thousands of excess cancer cases each year. In the interests of protecting our health, we must adopt an approach rooted in primary prevention – that is to make workplaces free from carcinogenic risks,” Dr. Neira said.
Most cancer deaths caused by occupational risk factors occur in the developed world, WHO said, blaming the wide use of different carcinogenic substances such as blue asbestos, 2-naphthylamine and benzene 20 to 30 years ago. But it warned that if the current unregulated use of carcinogens in the developing world continues, a significant increase in occupational cancer can be expected there in the coming decades.
“The control of carcinogens in the workplace should be a key component of every national cancer control programme,” said Dr. Andreas Ullrich, WHO Medical Officer for cancer control. “To achieve this, WHO supports countries in developing comprehensive national cancer prevention and control plans, which are essential to prevent millions of cancer deaths each year.”
The agency urged governments and industry to ensure that workplaces are equipped with adequate measures to meet health and safety standards and that they are free from dangerous pollutants. It called for stopping the use of asbestos, introducing benzene-free organic solvents and technologies that convert the carcinogenic chromium into a non-carcinogenic form, banning tobacco use at the workplace, and providing protective clothes for people working in the sun.