Occupational illnesses and industrial solvents in the spotlight
According to initial figures published by the the National Health Insurance Fund (CNAMTS), the incidence of occupational illnesses is likely to have increased in France in 1999. Meanwhile, the potential dangers associated with the use of ether- and glycol-based solvents were a particularly prominent issue throughout summer 2000.
Initial figures from the the National Health Insurance Fund (Caisse nationale d'assurance maladie, CNAMTS) put the number of cases of occupational illnesses in 1999 at 15,612, down from 16,948 in 1998. However, these figures are likely to be revised upwards as so far unidentified cases come to light.
The greatest percentage of occupational illnesses in 1999 (10,718) were periarticular (joint-related), associated with occupational movement and posture. They include carpal tunnel syndrome (a wrist disorder), pain or stiffness in the shoulders and "tennis elbow". These were followed by disorders associated with exposure to asbestos dust (1,482) representing 9.5% of all occupational illnesses recorded in 1999. Of these, 156 were lung cancers. The CGT trade union confederation contends that these latter figures are grossly underestimated, since most pneumologists (lung specialists) automatically attribute lung cancer to tobacco-smoking, without seeking to investigate further.
However, ether- and glycol-based solvent use is attracting increasing attention. These substances are used in industry and can lead to disorders of the reproductive organs and nervous system as well as facial deformity in children whose mothers come into contact with these solvents in the first months of pregnancy. A workplace health consultancy appointed by US lawyers in a lawsuit against IBM's Fishskill plant in the USA is, with the cooperation of CGT, carrying out an investigation of IBM's plant at Corbeil-Essonnes in France to identify women who have either encountered problems during their pregnancy or whose children are deformed in some way. The study will subsequently be extended to include men, in particular those suffering from testicular cancer. CGT's group within the health and safety committees at the motor manufacturer Renault estimates that between 10,000 and 15,000 Renault workers are exposed to this type of solvent. Renault's management declined to comment on these figures.
The National Research and Safety Institute for the Prevention of Industrial Accidents and Occupational Illnesses (Institut national de recherche et de sécurité pour la prévention des accidents du travail et des maladies professionnelles, INRS), which is a jointly-managed agency responsible for the issues in question, allegedly underestimates the dangers associated with the use of these solvents in industry. A report drafted by the Ministry for Employment and Solidarity's General Social Affairs and Industrial Relations Inspectorate (Inspection générale des affaires sociales, IGAS) in May 1999 criticises the policy of the INRS, which "has dropped all investigation into solvents at a time of continuing questions surrounding their use".
The Ministry for Employment and Solidarity has recently unveiled three decrees - scheduled for October 2000 - aimed at further restricting the use of these substances. Personal use of four of these solvents has been prohibited since 1997, but reportedly, approximately 1 million people are still exposed to them. The Ministry's proposals are primarily designed to make it illegal for pregnant and nursing women to be exposed to these toxic chemicals. The unions, in particular CFDT and CGT, are calling for a more comprehensive ban on the use of glycol ethers in the workplace.