Submissions to the 2012 Review of the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme - Cancer Council Australia

The Discussion Paper: Review of the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS)–June 2012was released on 1 June 2012. Submissions were received betweeen 1 June and 27 July 2012. The comments received from this consultation process will be used to inform the government of stakeholder views.

Page last updated: 20 September 2012

PDF printable version of Cancer Council Australia submission (PDF 373 KB)

NICNAS review—Cancer Council Australia response to discussion paper July 2012

Cancer Council Australia is the nation’s largest nongovernment cancer organisation and represents the federal interests of its eight state and territory member organisations.

This submission was prepared by Cancer Council Australia’s Occupational and Environmental Cancer Committee, which comprises leading occupational and environmental epidemiologists, physicians and other independent experts in the field of cancer causation.

Responsibility for content: Chief Executive Officer, Professor Ian Olver AM.
Contact: Paul Grogan (02) 8063 4155


Cancer Council Australia welcomes the opportunity to comment on the current review of the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme.

NICNAS undertakes evidence‐based assessments of risk to public health, occupation health and safety and the environment of certain industrial chemicals. We commend NICNAS for this important contribution over recent years to reducing the risk of occupational and environmental cancer in Australia caused by chemicals.

We are deeply concerned about any moves that could diminish the capacity for NICNAS to undertake its vital public health work in Australia.

A 2006 study of occupational cancer burden in Australia concluded that 6.5% of cancer cases in Australia in 2005 could be attributed to workplace exposures (10.8% in men, 2.2% in women)1. The majority of these cases are linked to carcinogens such as silica, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, wood dust, diesel exhaust, unspecified organic solvents and vaporised metal emissions (e.g. from smelting, working with paint etc.).

Emissions are critical in this context. While their impact on cancer is significant, their presence is not regulated by NICNAS, which can only control the acquired materials, not how they are used in the workplace and the subsequent emissions. We highlight this point to emphasise the need for improved coordination; environmental contamination contributes to cancer risk, particularly as a consequence of air pollution.2

As emphasised throughout this submission, a diminution of NICNAS’s work, coupled with a fragmented national framework, could see Australia go backward, rather than forward, in reducing workplace cancer risk.Top of page

Why we are concerned

History has taught us that extreme caution is essential to public policy in relation to potential cancer-causing agents used in the workplace.

The epidemiology of occupational carcinogens is complex. For example, a direct causal relationship can be difficult to isolate from other causes, such as smoking. That does not, however, necessarily make a potentially harmful chemical any safer. It makes it more difficult to dismiss a potential cause of harm.

In addition, the often lengthy time lag between exposure and the development of cancer can result in the true extent of causation becoming evident long after the harm caused by negligent public policy has been done.

For these reasons, we urge the Government to ensure that the primary aim of any moves to rationalise the work of NICNAS and its partner organisations is to improve efficiency as measured by the level of protection given to Australian workers and members of the wider community who might be exposed to potentially harmful chemicals.

We agree that the current framework requires improved coordination. However, being driven to this end by objectives such as improved “competitiveness” and “streamlining” are alarming if there is a risk that health and safety may be compromised.

Occupational health and safety in relation to chemicals should be improved, not diminished; this review is an opportunity to ensure worker health and safety is better protected through a more robust NICNAS working more efficiently with partner organisations and the nongovernment sector.

We would greatly appreciate the opportunity to engage face-to-face with the review team to talk through some of our concerns in greater detail, particularly where there is ambiguity in the options proposed in the discussion paper.

Responses to options

A1. Cancer Council Australia supports the development of a detailed industrial chemicals risk assessment and management manual, provided there are mandatory requirements to ensure it is maintained and applied.

For such a manual to be useful it must at a minimum have all the components described in the discussion paper; there must be clear processes mandated for its use and continuous improvement. It must also be evidence-based and developed with input from expert independent groups.Top of page

A2. Cancer Council Australia supports the establishment of a cross-portfolio group to consider chemical policy issues for the Australian Government. It is critical that SafeWork Australia be a standing member of any such group and that the group’s agenda be structured to prioritise health and safety over any other member and stakeholder concerns.

Fragmentation of existing administration is widely recognised; while further discussion is required to develop an ideal model for improved coordination, it is critically important that a formal mechanism be established to capture the input of agencies currently involved in the safe use of chemicals in Australia, including those whose core business is independent, evidence-based health policy.

A3. Cancer Council Australia supports a renegotiation of MoUs between NICNAS and related federal and state/territory agencies, provided improved health and safety are identified as the primary objectives in any such agreements.

Any measure aimed at improved efficiency and competitiveness can only be supported if it is shown to also improve protection from potentially harmful chemical exposure.

B1. We accept that 30 separate categories for assessment is considered unwieldy, however it is critical that any step towards rationalisation does not result in a reduction in health and safety protection.

As a general point, irrespective of a rationalisation, Cancer Council Australia supports NICNAS maintaining responsibility for both high- and low-risk chemicals.

B2. Caution must be applied in relation to increasing volume limits and extending the concentration exemption for “non-hazardous” chemicals.

Evidence on the potential harms of industrial chemicals remains largely unclear; it is critical that NICNAS does not allow exemptions on the basis of assumptions, or unproven claims, that a particular chemical carries no risk.

B3. Cancer Council Australia supports a pre-assessment statutory screening process; NICNAS must reserve the right to refuse any listing if there is a significant risk to public health and safety. Consideration must be given to the way risk is measured and defined in this context.

B4. We support the objective of streamlining assessment processes, but only if the primary outcome of greater efficiency is improved health and safety.

Regarding Productivity Commission recommendation 4.1:
  • the Australian Government should impose a statutory obligation on NICNAS to ensure that:
        • the costs of chemical assessments are commensurate with the risks posed by the chemicals concerned; and
        • its assessment priorities are directed to the most efficient management of the aggregate risk of all industrial chemicals.
While the general thrust of these recommendations is understandable, it must be noted that 1) the risks posed by chemicals may not be easily quantified, particularly before their assessment in relation to a particular application; and 2) “efficient management” should primarily be defined by its potential to protect health and safety. “Aggregate risk” is a problematic concept in relation to a diverse range of chemicals.Top of page

Cancer Council Australia supports NICNAS’s mandate to refuse an assessment certificate if there is any consideration of an “unacceptable” risk. It is critical that clarity on “unacceptability” be defined in this context to mean any potential risk to health and safety. We are concerned that merely requiring “risk management strategies”, as described in point two under B4, does not provide sufficient rigour to protect health and safety after any chemical that imposes “unacceptable risk” is certified.

Point 3 under B4 requires clarification. We are concerned that the current wording poses a risk that some elements of work safety could fall into cracks between the various agencies involved in chemical assessments and monitoring.

B5. Cancer Council Australia supports as a general rule NICNAS not entering any chemicals on the AICS unless recommended risk management measures are in place.

We also support a greater level of post-assessment monitoring—beyond the summary proposals in the consultation paper. Post-assessment monitoring requires further consideration and consultation.

For chemicals that have been listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1) or probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), the focus should be on phasing out where practicable, not on risk management.

B6. Cancer Council Australia urges caution in any moves to change statutory timeframes. The key driver of process should be a rigorous adherence to safety measures, not seeking to meet a designated timeframe, particularly in relation to pre-market assessments.

Chemical assessment can be a complex, time-consuming process and should not be expedited pre-market solely in the interest of perceived efficiencies or competitiveness.

However, chemicals that are currently in use without having first been appropriate assessed should be urgently reviewed. Consideration should be given to a process for prioritising assessments and expediting those that pose the highest likely risk to health and safety.Top of page

C1. Cancer Council Australia would only support moves to remove “unnecessary prescriptive detail” about priority existing chemicals if this is clearly defined and determined on a case-by-case basis.

C2. We support the publication of assessment processes for non-PECs in the interests of transparency, but we remain concerned about simplifying the process to undertake multiple assessments.

C3. Cancer Council Australia supports broadening NICNAS’s mandatory powers to enable it to seek information from industry in relation to C5. Note our recommendation in relation to C5.

C4. We are concerned about any move to remove or limit NICNAS’s general power to impose conditions of use on chemicals after they have been listed on the AICS.

C5. Cancer Council Australia recommends that NICNAS and partner agencies do a one-off clearance from the AICS of all chemicals not used over the past five years, pending reasonable objections from stakeholders.

International criteria should be used on an ongoing basis to assess and monitor all chemicals on the AICS.

C6. We remain deeply concerned about the risks to safety resulting from any legislative change, particularly in the interests of expediting processes, unless further consultation and a more rigorous, published assessment of the risks and benefits occur.

As a general comment, the complexity of options under C illustrates the need for greater coordination and setting a common goal of worker health and safety as the primary priority.Top of page

D1. Please see our concerns in relation to C2.

Note also our general concerns that “streamlining” risk assessment is a fundamentally challenging objective in relation to chemicals, as evidence of harm often only emerges post-market.

D2. Cancer Council Australia supports improved reporting requirements for adverse effects, including mandatory reporting from any entity using chemicals in a commercial or industrial setting.

D3. We support the application of penalties for noncompliance with the act that are commensurate with the potential harms to human health. Civil penalties should apply; the example of asbestos is instructive.

E1, E2. Cancer Council Australia supports amending the Act to provide greater transparency and freedom of information. Normal commercial-in-confidence provisions should not restrict the flow of information about the use of harmful chemicals.

F1. See our response to C5.

F2. Further discussion is required on reviewing the categories and data requirements for exemptions, permits and certificates, including the case for aligning these with international practice.

Referring to respected international data sources as part of an assessment should be best practice, to help ensure an evidence-based position is taken to examining applications. Input should be sought from independent, evidence-based Australian organisations with appropriate expertise, e.g. Cancer Council, to assist in reviewing international data.

G1, G2. Cancer Council Australia supports a clarification of NICNAS’s role in relation to assessing chemicals in articles as part of a broader move to improve clarity and coordination across all agencies involved in assuring the safe use of chemicals in Australia.

The primary driver of any measures to clarify NICNAS’s role must be the potential to improve effectiveness as indicated by its capacity to protect health and safety.

H1. We see no reason to oppose the ACCC assuming enforcement responsibility for the safe use of chemicals in cosmetics; the key will be appropriate integration of the work of all agencies to enhance public health and safety.Top of page

1 Fritschi L. Occupational cancer in Australia. 2006; Australian Safety and Compensation Council, Commonwealth of Australia: Canberra.
2 Stewart BW. Priorities for cancer prevention: lifestyle choices versus unavoidable exposure. Lancet Oncol. 13: e126-e133

A full list of all 2012 submissions can be viewed at June 2012 submissions to the review of NICNAS.