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Ronnie Sookdheo

Cancer – the hidden killer at work

(January 1984)

From Militant, No. 682, 13 January 1984, p. 7.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In this, the first part of a two-part article, RONNIE SOOKDHEO shows how cancer is almost entirely an ‘environmental disease’. The second part will examine how chemical companies have tried to brush the issues under the carpet, and what the attitude of the labour movement should be.

IF FOUR hundred people were killed each day in Britain as a result of the plague or another infectious disease it would be considered a major epidemic. The government would immediately declare an emergency.

Yet, today cancer – an industrial disease – claims as many lives daily, often in prolonged and agonising pain, and it is claimed that nothing can be done. But irrefutable evidence now exists, from Britain and abroad, identifying the principal causes of this dreaded disease.

It is now established that cancer is almost entirely an occupational disease. Government reports, research findings and trade union studies all conclude that 80-90% of cancers originate from cancer causing agents – carcinogens – which are present in the environment in general and the workplace in particular. Reports have indicated: the lack of safety precautions, absence of industrial hygiene, and inadequate legislation to control the testing, use and emission of toxic chemicals including radioactive substances.

The disease could largely be prevented. Yet cancer is now endemic – killing and disabling on a never increasing scale. One in four people can now expect to contract cancer and one in five will die from it.

It is now the biggest killer in the 5–54 age range and the second biggest overall after heart disease. Certain types of cancer, notably bladder, lung and pancreas, have all shown an explosive increase.

Even more disturbing is the incidence of leukaemia, especially the young. ‘Cancer maps’ now available have identified these cancers with particular industries.

The most notorious is the nuclear power industry. Leukaemia amongst children near the Windscale plant is an incredible ten times the national average. Workers in the dye industry are more susceptible to bladder cancer than workers in heavy metal industry, and asbestos workers are a hundred times more prone to cancer than any other group of workers. Such horrendous statistics represent a searing indictment of the gross misuse of science and technology in capitalist society.

Serious danger

When profit is the ultimate motive for development, risks of serious danger to health and damage to the environment are secondary considerations.

But, for many people today, cancer is an emotive topic because of pessimism about a cure. Diagnosis can mean a death sentence! As a subject, cancer has remained shrouded in mystery, with all kinds of eccentric theories being advanced for its causes.

This has been further compounded by the lack of public debate. Occasionally it makes headline news when a so-called ‘miracle’ cure is announced. The responsibility for this monstrous situation must lie at the door of the scientific establishment.

The information is there but remains locked away behind the corners of medical journals. All the hazards associated with many chemicals have been known for years.

So what is cancer? How is it caused? And how can it be prevented?

With the industrialisation of society, it has been known that many dusts, metals and a wide range of petroleum chemicals can enter the body and interfere with its complex biochemical processes. Chemicals are more dangerous for they can interact with proteins and essential salts.

Some can completely destroy the body’s defence system and other modify vital enzymes which control these processes. The net effect would be a serious malfunction of organs. In cancer, the carcinogenic substances cause gross deformation of the cellular structure of the body.

The human body is composed of millions of cells, each containing an nucleus which determines their precise co-ordination. A normal condition of the cell is that they continually grow and divide, to produce identical cells to replace those damaged or destroyed.

The nucleus is made up in turn from a complex material called DNA, which imparts definite characteristics in the individual. Through a complex code DNA also controls the growth and development of the cell.

Carcinogenic substances can interact with DNA and irreversibly alter its structure. It makes the cell into a mutant. When this happens these cells will stop receiving and responding to signals.

They begin to grow and proliferate without reference to the needs of the body. They will eventually travel to distant sites and grow into tumours or cancers. The faster the rogue cells grow and divide, the more primitive they become and the more malignant the tumour.

Asbestos, certain metals and a wide range of solvents, chemicals used in paints, the dye and rubber industries are all able to induce cancers through this pathway. Moreover, it is now known that certain chemicals previously thought of as harmless, can become carcinogenic through radiation, other chemicals or even the body’s own system. Some affected cells can stay dormant over a long period and then become activated by a variety of factors.

The only dissenting voice to these facts are commercial interests. They want to resist legislation which would enforce the stringent testing of chemicals now in circulation, and if necessary order their withdrawal from the market.

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