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Ronnie Sookdheo

Stop the killer cancers

(January 1984)

From Militant, No. 683, 20 January 1984, p. 7.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

IN THIS final part of a two-part article on cancer RONNIE SOOKDHEO looks at how the chemical companies get round the current legislation and what the response of the labour movement should be.

MANY COMPANIES, notably in asbestos, have already moved onto the offensive by challenging the research evidence to date and substituting their own.

The much publicised cases involving the herbicide 245T, asbestos, lead, and radiation highlights the absurd inadequacy of present legislation. Regulations and procedures, which are really required to test and regulate dangerous processes and products, are subordinated to the narrow commercial interests of the chemical companies.

A company has the right, for instance, to withhold, even from the government, vital scientific and medical information on the grounds that it may be of ‘commercial importance’.

This ‘let-out’ clause, is intended to safeguard profitability. Yet it can always be invoked to avoid revealing information which would be crucial for assessing the risk a substance poses to the health of the workforce or the population at large.


Chemical companies can also use ambiguous legislation to avoid paying compensation for injuries caused by toxic chemicals. The Factories Act requires companies to notify the Health and Safety Executive about the prevalence of occupational disease amongst their workforce.

Using the criteria demanded from the HSE, companies have so far only classified 18 diseases as attributable to toxic materials and as such liable for compensation. Most diseases not known to be caused by carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substances are simply referred to as ulceration or poisoning.

The term cancer is never used in respect to any of these substances. Asbestosis is not even classed as an occupational disease. Also, if a company manufactures less than one ton of chemical a year, it is under no obligation to perform the necessary screening tests for toxicity before manufacturing the product.

245T ‘cleared’

On this basis, 245T, used as a defoliant in Vietnam and known to cause genetic deformation, has been given a clean bill of health! Although trade unions have called for it to be banned, 245T is still used as a herbicide in Britain.

Indeed, under the 1976 Health and Safety at Work Act, only new chemicals need to be tested. And it is not mandatory to carry out all the toxicological tests, especially the more long and expensive tests, derived from animal experiments!

The same anomalous situation exists regarding the recognition of drugs and chemicals by the internationally agreed system of naming and labelling. This would be an important development as it would facilitate the early recognition of symptoms and prevention.

Chemicals are still openly sold under a variety of trade names, codes and even numbers. This makes them unidentifiable even to scientists and doubly so for a trade union representative seeking information about it.


Even more controversial is the use of the so-called threshold on ‘safe’ levels of harmful substances in the workplace. These levels have been the target of enormous criticism by the trade union because they are based on an ‘average healthy male, working eight hours a day under sterile conditions’! The unions claim that in addition the levels are not standard internationally, are assessed on very little information, improperly derived and only relate to certain organs in the body.

All available evidence suggests there is no safe level of exposure. Since cancer and other diseases tend to develop very slowly, the effects of a toxic chemical cannot be known until it is too late.

The only way to avoid long term poisoning is for the labour and trade union movement to initiate a campaign. Such a campaign must immediately outlaw asbestos, lead in petrol and 245T.

The campaign must demand the full revelation of all results of all relevant tests, whether from the government or company sources, together with a thorough medical examination of all workers who have worked with hazardous chemicals. Trade unions must insist that comprehensive medical records are kept and made available to the public.


The dangers of toxic substances pose more fundamental questions. The labour movement must challenge the bug business myth that these substances are crucial for the continued development of society. They claim for instance that herbicides and pesticides, known to cause genetic deformities, are essential to provide the food we need. But there are potentially many more effective methods that could be used – with much less harmful results to the environment and the consumers – such as the planned rotation of crops, growing on smaller areas and the planned management of insect populations.

Safety checks

The horrendous effects now emerging about certain chemicals, make it imperative that safety checks be introduced long before chemicals reach the production stage. The trade union movement must be satisfied on safety before production is started. They should also be satisfied that the processes for the manufacture of the chemicals are also safe for the workers immediately involved and the surrounding community and environment.


There will always be a fundamental contradiction in capitalist society between the development of science and technology, which demands a rational and rounded out approach, and application of the results of science by business enterprises. Their primary concern is to maximise their profits. At every stage their operations are conditioned by the anarchy of the market and competition with their rivals.

If anyone doubts the attitude of the chemical companies then look at their record in the Third World. There they continue to use drugs which have been banned in the West.

3rd World

They have dumped anabolic steroids in countries such as Bangladesh to overcome stunting in children, when “all” that is needed is proper nutrition. In Paraguay and Tunisia they have distributed millions of contraceptives banned in the USA.

Even more horrendous is the use of children in Egypt to test the effect of pesticides. They just assemble the children in fields whilst an aircraft circles overhead spraying them with chemicals. Can anyone seriously doubt how imperative it is that science and technology are taken out of the hands of such capitalist gangsters and run for the benefit of all.

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