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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Alert24 - Safeguard Update

Tip of the iceberg

Tip of the iceberg
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New Zealand

The occupational links to neurological disease are vastly underestimated due to the lack of research into them, according to a visiting professor.

Professor Neil Pearce, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was recently back in Wellington where he had previously held the position of director of the Centre for Public Health Research (CPHR) at Massey University.

Pearce was a keynote speaker at the CPHR's Symposium on Health and the Environment at Work - the Need for Solutions. Pearce admitted his opening address wasn't so much about solutions, which were important, but problems that had not even been studied yet. "They are problems which we should be studying and should be taking more seriously."

Pearce said there was presently a big global emphasis on non-communicable diseases, but not those linked to occupational health. The focus was instead on lifestyle issues like smoking, eating and exercising.

He contrasted the way the differences between public health and occupational health were treated in the UK compared to New Zealand. In New Zealand occupational health had always been a poor relation to public health, he said. But in the UK occupational health had a big profile, in part because of superior occupational medicine training, and the influence of trade unions.

Pearce said the difference in attitudes to occupational health compensation was also striking, noting he had been set the task to find diseases that should be added to the list of those that can attract compensation.

In his presentation Pearce focused on neurological disease - disorders of the brain, spinal cord and nerves. There were more than 600 types with wide-ranging effects including on sleeping, breathing, learning and moods. Outcomes can range from headaches to death.

Pearce said an estimated two million UK residents had a neurological disorder, which equated to about 100,000 New Zealanders. The prevalence would also rise as the population aged. "Neurological disease is important but ignored."

It was a major cost to the health service, there were no cures, and its diagnosis could be devastating - many euthanasia cases involved those burdened by neurological disease.

But Pearce said the magnitude of the problem as it related to occupational health was underestimated because it had not been studied in depth. "The recognised occupational neurological diseases are only the tip of the iceberg."

Even if only a tiny percentage of all Alzheimer's cases had occupational causes, it would still be a huge number of cases, rivalling respiratory occupational diseases, he said.

Pearce noted that while no occupational exposures have been strongly associated with dementia, few had been studied.

Solvents kept cropping up in relation to a number of neurological diseases, and the subclinical effects compromised life quality and workplace production. About 100,000 New Zealand workers were estimated to be exposed to solvents.

Pearce said head injuries were a well established causes of Parkinson's Disease, but it was estimated about 10 percent of cases were caused by exposure to environmental toxins. Exposure to manganese and other metals were implicated, and possibly pesticides, organic solvents and wood preservatives. "There have been no New Zealand studies into any of these, although exposures do occur." An American study had shown an increased risk of Parkinsons for those working in welding-related occupations.

Pearce said only five to ten percent of the "horrible" motor neurone disease cases were familial, and the rest were largely unexplained. "Yet all the funding goes into genetics ... most cases are probably due to some kind of environmental exposure."

There was some overseas evidence of a relationship with agricultural chemicals, but again no New Zealand studies.

People Mentioned:
Neil Pearce
Organisations Mentioned:
Centre for Public Health Research; London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
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From Alert24 - Safeguard Update

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