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Radiation A Conversation beyond Chernobyl and Fukushima

Radiation A Conversation beyond Chernobyl and Fukushima – The National Day of Mourning, reminded us that despite the progress our society has made towards making many facets of our lives better and safer, more than 850 Canadians a year lose their lives due to workplace injuries and disease. No other number but zero is acceptable, and in that light the current statistic is simply distressing. More than half of lives lost are due to occupational disease. Many experts believe the actual number may be much higher, as causal effects are not always easily established and traced back to the workplace exposure.

This is particularly true of occupational cancers. According to the International Labour Organization an estimated 609,000 work-related cancer deaths occur worldwide each year, it still amounts to one work-related cancer death every 52 seconds. Dramatic incidents such as Chernobyl or Fukushima, understandably, attract immediate public attention. What we want to keep in focus are potential risks posed by radiation in a typical Canadian workplace. Cancers of various types are a potential outcome of occupational overexposure to radiation. Due to the long latency periods, sometimes decades later, the difficulty of connecting individual incidents of cancer to a specific workplace exposure will continue to be a challenge. This makes a proactive approach to workplace radiation exposure that is focused on prevention, not only a safe alternative but a necessity. This is the mandate of the Radiation Safety Institute of Canada and also our passion.

Cancer can be the most devastating diseases for any individual worker and is expensive for the health care system to deal with. According to the Canadian Cancer Society and Statistics Canada, every 5th Canadian will develop some type of cancer in their lifetime. According to recent study published in Health Economics Review early in 2017 titled “Costs of Productivity Loss Due to Occupational Cancer in Canada(..)”, the estimated total cost of occupational cancer to the Workers’ Compensation System in Canada, due to productivity losses alone, between 1996 and 2013 was $1.2 billion, with an average annual cost of $68 million. Another recent study published by MBC Cancer in 2016, exploring phase-specific and lifetime costs of cancer care in Ontario, estimates the total cost of cancer care in Canada to be as high as $14.2 billion (1998). With such high costs accompanying cancer treatment and the workplace economic burden, and its overwhelming effect on families, it is easy to see that prevention of just one occupational cancer is worth every effort invested into it.

History is of unforgiving. Over 220 miners in Elliot Lake lost their lives to radon-induced lung cancer contracted in the uranium mines where they toiled daily in 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

“I worked in the uranium mine,” says John Perquin, Assistant to the International Secretary-Treasurer of the United Steelworkers Union. “You can’t see the radiation hazard, so you work day in and day out never really knowing what you are being exposed to unless somebody has taken the time to educate you. The tragedy of the early years at Elliot Lake was before my time, but I know the story well. We saw members die and there was no reason for it.”

“Here at the Institute we believe that proper education and awareness are the cornerstones of safety. Because radiation is a silent hazard, the only way to protect workers and prevent loss of life due to excessive occupational exposure is through equipping workers and their employers with knowledge necessary to manage these risks effectively”, says Steve Horvath, President and CEO of the RSIC. “On this solemn day we join fellow Canadian in remembering those we lost and share the grief of that loss with their families and loved ones. We also want to honor them by committing to a continued fight against occupational cancers and doing all we possibly can to make Canadian workplaces safer” says Steve.

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