Fact Sheet: Cancer and the Worker


Occupational Health and Safety

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.

What Can Be Done to Stop the Spread of Industrially-Caused Cancer?
1. 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.
2. Refuse to work with carcinogens if substitutes are available.
3. 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.
4. 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.


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