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Is your job making you sick?

Canadian study seeks answers

January 17, 2013

studyA new study, funded by the Canadian Cancer Society, will examine the human and economic impact of workplace exposure to 44 known or suspected carcinogens and their links to 27 types of cancer. The study's main goals are to quantify - for the first time - how serious the problem is in Canada by estimating the number of new cancer cases and cancer deaths that can be attributed to workplace factors, and also to weigh the economic impact.

With a $1-million grant from the Canadian Cancer Society, Dr Paul Demers will lead a cross-Canada team of scientists, epidemiologists and health economists.

"This is a unique opportunity for a multi-disciplinary team of experts to work together on cancer prevention," says Demers. "At the end of the study we will have solid data which will ultimately help guide industry leaders and policy makers to decide where to change, strengthen or enforce regulations on workplace exposures in order to help prevent workplace-related cancers."

Demers, director of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC),says the study will also help guide the decisions and practices of employees and employers.

In addition, it will also raise awareness among physicians about the occupational causes of cancer, which could improve early recognition of the disease.

The OCRC is jointly funded by the Canadian Cancer Society, Ontario Division, Cancer Care Ontario, and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. The OCRC is a unique partnership that unites research, healthcare, workplace safety, labour and industry groups.

This is the first Canadian study of its kind. While some other countries, such as Finland, have done similar studies, it's not accurate to compare workplace carcinogens in one country to those in another for a variety of reasons. For example, compared to Finland, Canada has larger agriculture, mining and forestry industries, which lead to different types of exposures to carcinogens.

To conduct the study, researchers will evaluate a list of 44 known or suspected carcinogens, based on data compiled by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Among the exposures, the list includes:

  • industrial chemicals, such as benzene, formaldehyde and 1.3-Butadiene (a widely used industrial chemical in the production of synthetic rubber)
  • metals, such as chromium, nickel and arsenic
  • other types of factors, such as sunlight, asbestos, paint, diesel fumes and shift work

In addition to estimating the number and proportion of cancer cases and deaths attributed to work exposure to carcinogenic agents and factors, the study's experts will:

  • estimate direct costs (e.g. medical care), indirect costs (e.g. lost work time) and quality-of-life costs of work-related cancers
  • estimate the human and economic burden of occupational cancer by province, industry, sector and gender
  • project these estimates into the future to examine potential benefits of prevention activities, such as toxic use reduction

The study, which will take four years to complete, will use historical data collected as part of the CAREX Canada project and the Canadian Workplace Exposure Database funded by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer.