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March 16, 2009

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Working night shifts linked to suppression of cancer-preventing hormone

Night-shift workers are at an increased risk of developing cancer, an agency of the World Health Organisation has warned.

According to BBC Radio Scotland’s The Investigation, the Danish government has now started paying compensation to women who have developed breast cancer after working night shifts over a long period. The pay-outs were triggered by a ruling of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which categorised night shifts as a ‘probable cause of cancer’.

The IARC’s Dr Vincent Cogliano said there was evidence to suggest that alterations in sleep patterns could suppress the production of melatonin in the body. He explained: “Melatonin has some beneficial effects in preventing some of the steps leading to cancer. The level of evidence is really no different than it might be for an industrial chemical.”

So far almost 40 Danish women have won damages — but women who had a family history of breast cancer were among those who had their claims rejected.

In the UK, unions estimate about 20 per cent of the national workforce is involved in night shifts, and the HSE has commissioned its own research into the risks, which will be completed in 2011. Chief medical officer, Dr John Osmond, said: “The HSE has been very on the ball in this area, and has commissioned a very eminent epidemiologist to examine the risk of working at night, and whether there is any link to breast cancer.”

But Professor Andrew Watterson, an occupational-health specialist at Stirling University, believes the UK is lagging behind Scandinavia in recognising the dangers. He said there could be risks “in terms of low birth-weight babies and longer pregnancies for women”.

The Scottish TUC’s assistant general secretary, Ian Tasker, agreed that there is a need for greater awareness of the dangers of night shifts.

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