Friday, November 30, 2007

Are graveyard shifts a real hazard?

The latest effort to sell newspapers by creating a false crisis concerns ‘grave yard shifts’ in which workers work overnight. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a section of the United Nations World Health Organization, is expected to add overnight shift work as a ”probable carcinogen”, thus frightening the millions of people doing this kind of work around the world. It is estimated by ‘experts’ that 20% of the working population in developed countries work night shifts.

Overnight shift work will be put in the same category as UV rays, diesel exhaust fumes and asbestos as a cause of cancer, despite a total lack of scientific evidence of any real risk. What is the basis for damning ‘graveyard shifts’; statistical information that higher rates of breast cancer are found among men and women whose workday starts after dark. Some of this same ‘research’ shows men working at night have a comparatively higher rate of prostate cancer too.

Basing conclusions on statistical findings may be permissible with respect to non-health related subjects but to scare people by telling them they are at cancer risk on such flimsy grounds is despicable. Note, I say “are at cancer risk” because that is the reasonable conclusion people working overnight will draw from the research report.

You have to read well down in the news articles, past the scare headlines, to finally learn that the label “probable carcinogen” means that “the link between overnight work and cancer is "merely plausible”. Even the ‘researchers’ acknowledge that higher cancer rates don’t prove overnight work causes cancer, or even that such work ‘can cause cancer'; they say that “There may be other factors common among graveyard shift workers that raise their risk of cancer.” For example, night shift workers often take substances to help them stay awake at night and there may be other additional common denominators that could further explain the statistical findings, but these are not mentioned. Furthermore, The American Cancer Society notes that carcinogens do not always cause cancer. All these things could make the workers involved feel a bit better about their situation but they are not included in the risk assessment articles. No, overnight workers are just left to to a frightening possibility of cancer due to their need to earn a living.

How did this cancer scare start? Well, a professor, Richard Stevens, at the University of Connecticut was trying to find out why breast cancer shot up starting in the 1930’s. Stevens concluded that since nighttime work was considered a hallmark of progress in industrial societies in those years, higher cancer rates must be due to overnight work. It took a while but ultimately the brains at the United Nations concluded that Stevens was right and issued a confirming report, also based on no scientific evidence, which was picked up by the incompetent news media.

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