News 2017 / March

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Occupational Cancer: Brussels accomplice of industry

Cancer in the workplace

This is an English translation of the first article in a two-part series originally published in Le Monde, Friday, February 24, 2017. Published here with the permission of the author, Stéphane Horel. You can read the second article here.

 

Work until you die. Every year in Europe, 100,000 people die from exposure to toxic products that have caused cancer while they were at work. These are cancers of the lungs, sinuses, bladder, prostate, larynx, lymphatic system, etc. – 100,000 occupational cancers so well documented that they are said to be “preventable”.

To minimise the risks, or even eliminate them entirely, employers are required to adapt the working conditions of their employees according to standards called “exposure limit values”. Yet for this to be effective, these substance-by-substance standards must provide enough protection. But who decides the limit values?

In the European Union (EU), limit values are derived from the recommendations of a largely unknown official Committee, the Scientific Committee on Occupational Exposure Limits (SCOEL). However, the majority of its experts (15 out of 22) have links with industry sectors that are directly affected by the substances which are submitted to their evaluation.

In fact, three of them are directly employed by BASF (chemicals) and Shell (oil and gas). But more importantly, Le Monde’s investigation shows that the European Commission was perfectly aware of these links when the SCOEL experts were chosen to safeguard the physical safety of several million workers.

 

“Workers have the illusion of being protected”

This subject is in the spotlight now because the European Union has started revising its directive on the protection of workers from risks related to exposure to carcinogenic or mutagenic agents at work. The European Parliament will consider its proposals on Tuesday 28 February. They concern around fifteen substances, including vinyl chloride, hexavalent chromium, different types of mineral fibres (insulators that have replaced asbestos but are similarly suspect), wood dust etc. No fewer than 20 million people are exposed to them.

But the exposure limits proposed by the Commission are “much too high”, says Laurent Vogel, a lawyer and researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), a centre for research and training run by the European Confederation of Workers Unions. For example, the proposed value for hexavalent chromium is 25 times greater than that applied in France. More than one million European workers are exposed to this substance, which causes cancer of the lungs.

“Very high limit values lead to disasters,” says Mr Vogel.

“Workers have the illusion of being protected. Yet in practice, those limit values are giving employers a licence to kill.”

These limit values are derived from recommendations made by the SCOEL, the European experts committee. SCOEL consists of twenty members and two “invited members”. The Commission employs none of the experts full-time: they are not EU civil servants, but work mainly as university professors, researchers within institutions, etc. in Berlin, Edinburgh (Scotland) or Utrecht (Netherlands). Several times a year, they attend the SCOEL meetings that are convened by the Commission.

 

Industry-related experts deliberately selected

The Commission chose each expert for a three-year mandate, based on “their proven scientific expertise and experience”, as required by the European legal texts. But, when they submitted their applications, the members had to fill out “declarations of interest” forms. They were asked to report any activity that may put them in a situation of conflict of interest. This means reporting any involvement, during the preceding five years, with bodies “with an interest in the field of activity” of the SCOEL, which covers almost all industrial sectors in Europe.

Since declarations of interest are public documents, Le Monde had the opportunity to review the information that was available to the Commission when making its selection, and found that it has deliberately selected 15 experts engaged more or less in collaborations with industry. Chemicals, metals, mineral fibres and even the automotive industry: most of the sectors “represented” in the SCOEL are also involved in lobbying activities intended to influence their future obligations in the directive on the protection of workers. For manufacturers, having to comply with strict limit values represents a cost.

Obviously, the Commission couldn’t ignore the fact that Robert Landsiedel and Edgar Leibold are employed by the German corporation BASF, and Peter Boogaard, by Shell. The world leader in chemicals and the oil giant must apply limit values that are based on the SCOEL recommendations.

“I am very well aware of the potential (perceived) conflict of interest and professionally very well able to make the appropriate dissociation,” Peter Boogaard wrote in an email to Le Monde.

The clients of Sebastian Hoffmann, who owns a toxicology consultancy, are chemicals manufacturers: they must also apply exposure standards. The Commission nevertheless considered that, as far as conflicts of interest were concerned, Mr Hoffmann had “none”. This very same word features in front of several names in the Commission’s evaluation table of the SCOEL members, in glaring contradiction to their declarations of interest.

 

Frequent omissions

It is also the case for Hermann Bolt and Helmut Greim, who got the same “none” assessment concerning their potential conflict of interests. Retired for many years from their respective academic activities, members of the SCOEL since its creation more than two decades ago, the German toxicologists are now the Committee’s “invited members”, who are present at almost every meeting. However, Mr Bolt has reported being a member of the Research Advisory Board of EUGT, an organisation at the service of the automotive industry and headed by BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen. Mr Greim chairs the very same Advisory Board.

A long-standing expert on various European scientific committees, Mr Greim has distinguished himself in recent years by advocating for a minimalist regulation, by the Commission, of endocrine disruptors, chemicals that interact with the hormonal system. While Mr Greim has indeed indicated that he was a consultant and advisor to some manufacturers of chemicals and mineral fibres, he failed to mention a few collaborations that were documented in detail in recent months by several European media sources, including Le Monde.

Among other things, Mr Greim is a member of an expert group created by Monsanto to defend glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, the firm’s well-known herbicide that is suspected of being carcinogenic. He also serves as a consultant to BASF.

The section provided for “immediate family members” has been left blank in his declaration of interests, although his wife, Heidrun Greim, was second Chief Executive Officer in a toxicology consulting firm until 2016. Such omissions are not rare: five experts have failed to report some of their collaborations. For example, the SCOEL’s chair, Leonard Levy, declared to be a consultant for the metal industry, but omitted a consultancy job he worked on with Greim in 2015 for the mineral fibres industry.

 

“Shameful”

“Whenever industry has asked me for advice I have done it as an independent expert and industry very well knows that they cannot influence my evaluations,” said Mr. Greim. Of all the experts mentioned, only Mr Boogaard and Mr Greim have responded to the questions of Le Monde.

The experts are free to collaborate with whomever they see fit, but the Commission, in compliance with the European legal texts, must ensure that the recommendations of the SCOEL are based “on the ethical principles of excellence, independence, impartiality and transparency”, wrote a European Commission spokesperson to Le Monde. “Mitigation measures to avoid conflicts of interest” have been put in place. “So members who have a link with a certain branch of industry cannot participate in the discussions concerning specific substances.”

“It’s a shame!” commented sociologist Annie Thébaud-Mony, emeritus senior scientist with the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) and a leading figure in occupational health in France.

“I find it difficult to understand that the European Commission, which must work for the greater good, would not seek out effective expertise that is independent from all links with industry.”

 

Conflict of interest

Two specific cases, finally. Experts Ivonne Rietjens and Angelo Moretto both had to resign from scientific panels of another official agency, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), precisely because of their conflicts of interests. An article in the specialised press had revealed that Mrs Rietjens had been remunerated a little bit more than €50,000 in 2014 for her regular attendance to the Supervisory Board of Royal Wessanen, a food company in the Netherlands.

As to Mr Moretto, he had left EFSA’s panel on Pesticides after one of the only two “breach of trust” procedures in the agency’s history was triggered against him in 2011. He had not declared owning 17 per cent of shares in a toxicology consultancy firm that he co-founded, Melete. He was still holding 10 per cent when he was appointed to the SCOEL in May 2015, yet the Commission didn’t consider this an issue.

Half of the 16 collaborations that Mr Moretto declared relate to expert opinions in the context of court cases. In other words, manufacturers have resorted to Mr Moretto’s services to defend themselves in legal cases brought by employees – or more often by their relatives after they died – claiming compensation for illnesses related to asbestos, benzene, cobalt, chromium and more generally exposures to petrochemical product.

“It is essential to rely on experts who have real expertise in the field,” said the Commission spokesperson, justifying the relevance of entrusting the European protection standards against occupational cancer to experts who assist the very companies that produces these cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

By: Stéphane Horel