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WorkSafeBC hopes to reduce mortality rates 

By Tara Carman, Vancouver Sun September 8, 2012


Workers suffering from illnesses caused by on-the-job asbestos exposure will soon be eligible to receive diagnostic CT scans funded by WorkSafeBC in an effort to diagnose lung cancer sooner and reduce mortality from the disease.

Recent research conducted by Dr. Stephen Lam and his team at the BC Cancer Agency found CT scans were more effective than chest X-rays in the early detection of lung cancer, reducing mortality by 20 per cent in heavy smokers between the ages of 55 and 74.

Very little research has been done on lung cancer screening for asbestos-exposed workers, Lam said in an interview Friday.

WorkSafeBC became aware of the results of Lam's work with heavy smokers last year and approached the agency about the possibility of using the scans as a way to screen high-risk claimants, said Kevin Molnar, director of long-term disability at WorkSafeBC.

Those claimants already receive a medical exam, including a chest X-ray, every two years, said Lloyd Hikida, senior manager of occupational disease services at WorkSafeBC.

"For us, (the CT is) just a new medical tool that we would of course jump on and we're very excited to have as something we can use for early detection."

About half of the 142 work-place fatalities in B.C. last year were due to occupational disease and the majority of those were the result of asbestos-related illness, said Work-SafeBC spokeswoman Megan Johnston.

To be eligible to receive the diagnostic CT scans, a worker must first file a WorkSafeBC claim. If the worker is found to have been exposed to asbestos on the job in B.C. and suffers from the scarring of the lungs known as asbestosis, WorkSafeBC would presume they contracted the disease as a result of their employment, Hikida said.

Once the claim is approved, the worker would be eligible to receive an initial diagnostic CT scan and a subsequent one in two years if the initial scan did not detect cancer, said Craig Martin, senior medical adviser at WorkSafeBC.

Workers with asbestosis who are smokers are 59 times more likely to get lung cancer than a non-smoker who hasn't been exposed, Martin said. Work-SafeBC has already identified 200 claimants who meet the criteria, the majority of whom are smokers, he said.

Hikida said he hopes more eligible workers will make claims in the coming months.

B.C. workers exposed to asbestos who have not been diagnosed with a related disease will not be eligible for the CT scans, Martin said.

"If you're thinking of screening the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people who have been exposed to asbestos at some point in their life, you're going to run into an awful lot of problems. That's why you define it to the various high-risk groups."

CT scans are not generally used as a lung cancer diagnosis tool in the public health care system because the research concerning their efficacy is very new, the cancer agency's Lam said.

WorkSafeBC is in the final stages of negotiating the con-tract to do the scans with the BC Cancer Agency, and expect to roll out the program some-time this fall.

The cost of the CT scans will be a maximum of $100,000, but that figure depends on how many eligible claimants choose to have the scans, Martin said.

Herb Daum, who worked at the asbestos mine in the now-abandoned northern B.C. town of Cassiar between 1977 and 1983, said it would be good for exposed workers to be offered diagnostic CT scans, but he would likely choose not to get one, even if he were eligible.

"What would I possibly gain other than 'Well, I'm going to die of this stupid, damn disease,'" he said. "A CT scan may be providing me some early detection ... (it) may extend the quantity of your life, but I want quality over quantity."

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