Is the HSE keeping women in the dark on shift work breast cancer risk?

Press Release

Alliance for Cancer Prevention

Immediate release 30/5/12

Is the HSE keeping women in the dark on shift work breast cancer risk?

Working night shifts more than twice a week is associated with a 40% increased risk of breast cancer, found a long term study published online on 28 May in Occupational and Environmental Medicine. (1)

Yet the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the cancer establishment leave women in the dark by taking a “wait and see approach” to this occupational risk factor for breast cancer.

The Danish research found that working less than three night shifts a week doesn’t affect your breast cancer risk, but that frequent night shifts for several years may disrupt circadian rhythms and normal sleep patterns, and curb production of the cancer protecting hormone melatonin. Shift work also increases your rate of developing type 2 diabetes and obesity. (2)

In a recent article in Hazards magazine, Simon Pickvance,(3) a researcher based at Sheffield University and founder member of the Alliance for Cancer Prevention, voiced concern about why the HSE presumes to know better than the UN’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.

“Where IARC concluded in 2007 that shiftwork is a ‘probable’ cause of breast cancer in humans, the HSE were sceptical and in a response to Hazards said they were waiting for a more a robust assessment of whether the association can be regarded as an establishment risk”. (4)

Pickvance now feels vindicated, but wants to see the HSE taken preventive action on shift work to prevent future cases: “Shiftworkers, who might have expected early action to reduce a ‘probable’ breast cancer risk, are still waiting”.

But as Professor Andrew Watterson from Stirling University points out:

“Since the IARC listing of shiftwork as a probable human carcinogen several years ago, the majority of follow up-studies on night shiftwork indicate the link between such work and breast cancer in women workers has become stronger and stronger. A public health preventative approach should therefore apply within HSE with greater inspections of night shiftwork and practical solutions developed to reduce the long term risks. It is staggering that the HSE still delay action especially in the light of research that they funded identifying hundreds of breast cancer deaths of women linked to shiftwork and their own assessments of the tens of billions of pounds that current occupational cancer deaths cost”.

Rather than debating whether there is a problem or not, shouldn’t we be arguing about what action we are going to take to address it? As Hilda Palmer from the Hazards Campaign reflects: “Yet again the HSE and UK cancer establishment fly in the face of evaluation by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and call for yet more research, do nothing while having a sly dig at women’s lifestyles as a more probable cause. Yet here we are in 2012 and still no preventive action from the HSE or the cancer establishment. Further studies commissioned by the HSE won’t be completed until Dec 2015 by which time another 1,500 women will have died of breast cancer related to night work. ” (5)

The Director of the Scottish Breast Cancer Campaign, Moira Adams expressed concern that yet another study has suggested a link between shift patterns and breast cancer risk and still there are no clear guidelines for women from the HSE. “Whilst diet and exercise, as a preventative measure, receive a disproportionate amount of publicity from government agencies and cancer charities, women are not being given enough information to make an informed choice in this very important “lifestyle” area”.

The Alliance for Cancer Prevention wants to see action to reduce these cases of occupational breast cancer and calls on the HSE to follow the example set by the Danish Government who offered compensation for those already working up to four nights over several years. (5)

Unions should demand effective risk assessments on shift patterns and ensure the least unhealthy patterns are adopted. Workers need information about the risk from shift work so they can make an informed choice about what they can do to lessen the risk. (10)

Women worried about the risk from shift work for breast cancer should contact their unions for advice.

Contacts details:
Simon Pickvance: s.pickvance@sheffield.ac.uk
Prof Andrew Watterson Stirling Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety Research Group a.e.watterson@stir.ac.uk
T: 01786 466283
Hilda Palmer Hazards Campaign: hilda@gmhazards.org.uk
Moira Adams Scottish Breast Cancer Campaign: moira@scottishbreastcancercampaign.org
Alliance for Cancer Prevention: inof@allianceforcancerprevention.org.uk M: 07960033687

Notes to Editor:

  1. Johnni H, & Lassen, CF. Nested case-control study of night shift work and breast cancer risk among women in the Danish military, OEM, Online First, 28 May 2012, doi 10.1136/oemed-2011-100240
  2. An Pan, Eva S Schernhammer, Qi Sun, Frank B Hu. Rotating night shift work and risk of Type 2 Diabetes: Two prospective cohort studies in women, PLoS Medicine, published online 6 December 2011.
  3. This man knows all about cancer, article from Hazards Magazine Jan-March 2012.
  4. Straif, K et al. Carcinogenicity of shift-work, painting, and fire-fighting. The Lancet Oncology, volume 8, number 12, pages 1065-1066, December 2007. (IARC Monograph)
  5. Hazards Campaign letter to the Guardian on Shift work and breast cancer.  (letter)
  6. Danish Government compensation on shift work – http://www.ask.dk/da/Arbejdsskadestyrelsen/Erhvervssygdomsudvalget/Nyt-fra-Erhvervs-sygdomsudvalget-2010/SporgsmAal-og-svar-om-natarbejde-og-brys.aspx (In Danish)
  7. Buxton, OM et al. Adverse Metabolic Consequences in Humans of Prolonged Sleep Restriction Combined with Circadian Disruption. Sci Transl Med 11 April 2012: Vol. 4, Issue 129, p. 129ra43
  8. Stirling University – Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety Research Group.
  9. Conventionally accepted risk factors only account for 50-70 % of breast cancer cases leaving 30-50 % with no known cause. The ACP thinks environmental and occupational exposures are the missing risk factors for breast cancer.
  10. Hazards Magazine. While you were sleeping (Article)