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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 6, April 2006

Health and safety:
Cancer - Prevention is the key

by Mark Keelan

The next time you are in a room with several people, take a minute to mentally count off the people by threes. Examine your groups of three and ponder the fact that statistically, one person in each of those groups will be diagnosed with cancer at some time in her or his lifetime.

Around the world, millions of dollars are raised and spent on trying to find a cure for cancer. At the same time, corporations are making billions of dollars manufacturing products that cause cancer. One advertising campaign used the slogan, "Cancer can be beaten." It is unlikely that cancer will be beaten unless we begin to pay at least as much attention to prevention as we do to finding a cure.

In the 1930s, it is estimated that there were about 6,000 human-made chemicals in existence in the world. Today there are over 100,000 human-made chemicals and they reside in a wide range of products most people use every day. Fewer than 10% of these chemicals have been tested for their long-term effects on humans. It is impossible to believe that it is coincidental that in the 1930s, 1 in 10 Canadians could expect to develop cancer in their lifetime. Today, 1 in 2.4 Canadian men and 1 in 2.7 Canadian women can expect to develop cancer.

Most people are unaware of the prevalence of potentially cancer-causing substances in our society. Did you know that some laundry detergents contain the known human carcinogen trisodium nitrilotriacetate? Or that some abrasive cleaners, metal cleaners, and even plaster of paris contain silica, another carcinogen? Industry spokespersons will argue that the carcinogens are present in small quantities so do not constitute a hazard. But, the cumulative effects are not known. Just as it is impossible to determine how many cigarettes it takes to cause lung cancer, nobody knows how many times a person needs to be exposed to a carpet cleaning solution or to paint strippers before she or he develops cancer. On the other hand, not being exposed at all is a safe alternative. In other words, prevention is the key.

Each BCTF member could consider becoming the driving force behind an effort to prevent cancer. Start at your workplace. Consider implementing some or all of these ideas:

  • Create an inventory at your worksite of products that contain chemicals. Obtain the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for each product. It is your right to have the employer make the MSDS available to you or to any worker who may be exposed to a dangerous substance.
  • Learn how to interpret the MSDS. It is your right to have the employer provide training for dealing with MSDSs.
  • If you determine that a risk to workers exists because dangerous substances are present at your workplace, insist that they be substituted with substances that eliminate, or at least reduce, the risk. Substitution is your right.
  • Create a policy to deal with products that are brought into the school. Insist that all such products be safe. You have the right to participate through the joint health and safety committee or the worker representative in the development of health and safety policies.
  • Learn about commonly used products that contain carcinogens. Teach your students about using alternatives to those products.
  • Get involved in the Students’ Environmental Bill of Rights campaign, a joint project of the BCTF, CUPE, Labour Environmental Alliance Society (LEAS), Vancouver DPAC, and others. See the LEAS web site www.leas.ca for details.

It is a tragic coincidence that as I write this article, which I have had planned for some time, it is less than 24 hours since I learned of the passing of one of the BCTF’s health and safety pioneers. As a small tribute to Stewart Schon, it seems appropriate to end this article with part of the message I sent to local presidents on March 30, 2006.

"It is with deep sadness that I write to inform you that Surrey teacher and long-time health and safety activist Stewart Schon passed away peacefully in his sleep yesterday afternoon after a seven-month battle with cancer. His partner Katherine, his son Kim, and his daughter Tia were with him.

"Stewart was a major architect of the BCTF Health and Safety Program. He has been the chair of the Health and Safety Advisory Committee since its inception. In addition, Stewart trained countless health and safety representatives across the province in his role as a BCTF Health and Safety trainer. He represented BCTF members and other workers on the BC Federation of Labour Health and Safety Standing Committee.

"Stewart’s union activities were not confined to health and safety. Beginning before we had full bargaining rights, not to mention during three rounds of local bargaining, Stewart bargained many important provisions for members. As a member of the Surrey Teachers’ Association executive committee in several roles including president, grievance officer, and health and safety officer, Stewart was a tireless advocate for members. There were few, if any, local committees he had not sat on, including status of women.

"Stewart taught me most of what I know about health and safety. He was a dear friend."

Mark Keelan is the BCTF’s health and safety officer for prevention.

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