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Massey Magazine Issue 13 November 2002

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Dave McLeanStudy 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 history.

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 and leukaemia.

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 group.
• Develop a population-based job exposure matrix to estimate historical exposures to potential occupational carcinogens in both reported cases and controls.
• Analyse each case-control series as a population-based, case-control study.
• 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.”

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