Cadmium and cancers

Cadmium and cancers

Most manufacturing industries use, or have used, known or suspected cancer-causing chemicals (carcinogens). The electronics industry is one such, with many toxic substances used.

Toxic substances need to be controlled and carcinogens removed if at all possible. One of the main factors that increase the chances of this being done is the level of trade union organisation, affecting the ability of the workforce to have a say in their working conditions. Toxicity varies according to the amounts and concentration. One bereaved family’s story was told at the Workers Memorial Day 2018 event in Birmingham. At the same time there is a campaign to make working conditions safer for Samsung workers worldwide.

Cadmium in silver solder

Silver solder alloys are widely used in metal fabrication, not just in electronics. At one time, cadmium was one of the most common fillers used in the process. Increasingly, studies show that cadmium and substances containing cadmium can probably cause cancer.

The evidence is strong enough that cadmium is now banned in Europe in a range of materials, but it still is available and allowed to be worked with in certain circumstances. The Health and Safety Executive produces an Engineering Information Sheet number 31 revision 1, on “Exposure to Cadmium and Silver Soldering or Brazing”, downloadable from their website.

This explains both health effects and control measures to take to bring the risks as low as possible. Cadmium stays in the body for many years, so the link with cadmium to instances of cancer years later may not be noticed unless a detailed work history is obtained. This could affect many people across various industries with historical exposure to cadmium, and cadmium-containing substances such as cadmium oxide in fumes and dust. Those working nearby are also at risk.

Cadmium poisoning – Kathy’s story

“My father worked in an electronics factory in what was then the Silicon Valley of Scotland. My Dad soldered components with silver solder, which in those days contained the toxic substance cadmium, and from what he said, working conditions in the factory were very poor.

Today, more studies show that cadmium can cause a number of different cancers, though it’s still treated as a substance suspected of causing cancer, what is called a Category 2 carcinogen. Leukemia is one of those cancers that have been implicated with cadmium, and he died of a particularly rare type of leukemia, which meant, amongst other things, that he became covered in dark, bruise-like, blotches before he died. Cadmium has been found to cause, amongst other things, kidney damage and loss of lung function, which he also had, so his death was quite horrible.

At that time, studies indicated a possible link between cadmium and certain cancers, but this was not enough to prove causation. Such evidence as was available I did provide to my Mum. However, he had stopped paying union dues which seemed like a waste of money to him, working in a factory where the union was not recognised - this explains the poor conditions. I believed that a compensation claim had not been made under the circumstances. I only found out years later, before my mother died, that in fact she had accepted an offer from the company he worked for, based on the information I had provided.

I’ve never stopped feeling angry about what almost certainly turned a fit man into a very sick one long before his time in this world was due to end. The connection was too tenuous at the time for me to make definite claims about my Dad’s death. However, I now want to say that I believe this is what killed him. He suffered; we suffered; and he died before he could enjoy his retirement; he never got to meet our son, his only grandchild, or my new family; and they never got to meet him!’

Clean up Samsung

Cadmium is far from the only toxin (or carcinogen) in the electronics industry – there are many. The story below illustrates this.

On 1st of May 2018 there was an International Day of Action against Samsung, in South Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Europe, and the United States. Over 200,000 signatures on a petition were delivered to Samsung, including some from the UK Midlands, where a call went out on Workers Memorial Day to take part.

A Korean occupational health group called SHARPS says that 118 South Korean Samsung workers have died from work-related diseases since 2007 and hundreds more fell ill. Studies into working conditions in Vietnamese Samsung factories show various problems, including many miscarriages, which are now expected in these conditions.

About half of Samsung’s Galaxy cell phones are made in Vietnam and about 80% of the workforce are young women of child-bearing age. Samsung is an anti-union company which is waging a campaign against workers who have spoken out, and critics who are campaigning for more rights for these workers.

Korean prosecutors raided the company in April and recovered more than 6000 internal documents detailing the company’s anti-union activities. Those campaigners have a list of demands which includes guaranteeing workers’ rights to organise independent trade unions, releasing information about all the toxic substances used, and for Samsung to drop its lawsuit against the South Korean government for issuing a mandate to provide information about worker exposures.

A documentary called Complicit, available online, reveals some of the dangerous working practices by companies in China in the electronics industry. It’s the story of a worker-come-activist with leukemia, caused by working with benzene in the electronics industry. One of those in the film with occupational leukemia killed himself, age 26.

Benzene is banned in the UK and many other countries, as it definitely causes leukemia (it’s a Category 1 carcinogen), but it’s not banned in China. Benzene-free products are available, only slightly more expensive. We can insist that our electronics products are benzene-free.  The Good Electronics network campaigns for this and other safety improvements in the industry. Some companies have made significant moves forward but much more needs to be done.

There are electronics factories in the Midlands, and much wider use of soldering and brazing. Here, as everywhere, the safest factories are likely those with enough level of trade union organisation to protect the workers’ rights to safe jobs. We can’t rely on enforcement and regulation alone, especially as these are being cut back.

Filed under: Cancer