tracks workplace cancers
New Zealand’s poor track record in identifying
workplace-related cancers is about to improve, thanks in part to a $560,000
research project being undertaken by the Centre for Public Health Research.
The Centre has recently received the funding from the Health Research
Council – with additional funding from the NZ Lottery Grants Board
– to extend an OSH occupational cancer surveillance scheme beyond
the existing review of individual cases.
Centre Research Fellow Dave McLean says the project will establish a series
of occupational cancer case-control studies which, in turn, should provide
the first clear picture of the magnitude of occupational cancer rates
in New Zealand.
Mr McLean says an OSH ‘Cancer Panel’ has been receiving notification
of all cancers reported for individuals aged between 20 and 69. An OSH
Occupational Health Nurse has been gathering personal and demographic
details and information about potential causes, including a complete occupational
The Cancer Panel – which includes Mr McLean and Centre Director
Professor Neil Pearce – has been evaluating the likelihood that
individual cases are attributable to workplace exposures. Categories investigated
so far have included bladder, nasopharyngeal, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
Mr McLean says data collection for the three-year collaborative project
between the CPHR and OSH began in January. “We’re basically
extending the OSH Cancer Panel process – making it more of a research
project,” he says.
“The project has an enhanced exposure assessment process, and in
addition, we’re interviewing a new healthy control group from the
general population, and then we’ll compare the exposures that the
two groups have had.”
The project will:
• Identify and interview 600 people within this general control
• Develop a population-based job exposure matrix to estimate historical
exposures to potential occupational carcinogens in both reported cases
• Analyse each case-control series as a population-based, case-control
• Publish findings and produce estimates for each site of the numbers
and percentages of cancer cases attributable to occupational exposures.
Mr McLean says making comparisons with a healthy control group, where
all the exposure variables are also defined, will provide a much clearer
picture about the number of cases attributable to known causes of occupational
cancer. It should also pick up other, as-yet unidentified causes.
The research follows a recent EU study in which it was discovered 15 percent
of the current workforce is routinely exposed to recognised carcinogens.
The most widely accepted estimate of the proportion of cancer deaths due
to occupational exposures is 4 to 10 percent.
“It’s unlikely that workplace conditions differ markedly,
so even if we use that lower figure of 4 percent, that’s 600 cases
of occupational cancer we might expect each year in New Zealand,”
says Mr McLean.
“Against that, the 40 or 50 people who die each year from accidents
at work pales to insignificance.”