Breast cancer – Hazards Campaign letter to The Guardian

29 May 2012 – No embargo

Breast cancer – Hazards Campaign letter to The Guardian

Dear Editor,

The article seems to suggest the HSE leaping into action (Breast tumour risk increased 40% among night workers, shows study triggering HSE investigation into impact on HSE workers, 28 May 2012 ) which is the opposite of  its lack of action over the past years on all work-related cancers including  breast cancer.  The cancer establishment aids and abets this by claiming to know better than International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and slyly blames women by emphasising ‘lifestyle’ issue such as diet and exercise over work-related factors.  About 400,000 women in the UK are involved in night work (night work, continental shift and three shift working), and we urgently need more preventative action and research on how to reduce their risk of breast cancer, rather than this paralysis by demanding yet more research on the link with night work.

The most serious health effects related to shift and night work are cancer, heart disease and metabolic diseases such as diabetes.  Five years ago, in 2007 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reported that  “shiftwork involving circadian disruption is probably carcinogenic to humans” and classified shift work as a category 2A carcinogen.  Melatonin production is suppressed by the presence of light at night.  Dr Vincent Cogliano of IARC said this was based on a wide range of studies involving both humans and animals and that there was evidence to support the hypothesis that alterations in sleep patterns, suppressed the production of melatonin in the body.    “Melatonin has some beneficial effects in preventing some of the steps leading too cancer.  The level of evidence is really no different than it might be for industrial chemicals”.  Danish and other studies had begun to link this with the risk of breast cancer for women working prolonged night shifts in the 1990s.

Since 2009, the Danish Government has, paid workers’ compensation to a number of women workers, some of whom worked as flight attendants, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and who had no known risk factors other than working night shifts at least once a week for the past 20 years.  Over recent years Danish scientists and others have been researching evidence-based options for preventative action on night work and breast cancer.  The UK has failed to act.  According to the HSE in its 2003 research report Shift Work and Breast Cancer: a Critical Review of the Epidemiological Evidence “Overall, the evidence for an association of breast cancer risk with shift work is appreciable but not definitive.  Further epidemiological research is needed to clarify the relationship”.  In March 2010, Dr Rushton reported  in her HSE commissioned study on the ‘Burden of Occupational Cancer’, that an estimated  2,000 breast cancer cases, and around 550 breast cancer deaths a year could be attributable to shift work,.  The HSE response was to commission the University of Oxford research, to which your article refers, to undertake an extensive study on the relationship between shift work and chronic disease, with a focus on shift working patterns in relation to cancer and other chronic conditions in men and women.  The study will be completed by December 2015 by which time, according to Rushton’s estimates, over 2,000 more women will have died of breast cancer related to night work.  More avoidable deaths due to a lack of a preventative and precautionary approach to work-related cancers. .

Yours sincerely

Hilda Palmer  Acting Chair of Hazards Campaign

For more information contact:
Hazards Campaign – 0161 636 7557

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