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Open Access Commentary

Attributing the burden of cancer at work: three areas of concern when examining the example of shift-work

Thomas C Erren1* and Peter Morfeld2

Author Affiliations

1 Institute and Policlinic for Occupational Medicine, Environmental Medicine and Prevention Research, University of Cologne, Germany

2 Institute for Occupational Epidemiology and Risk Assessment (IERA), Evonik Industries AG, Germany

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Epidemiologic Perspectives & Innovations 2011, 8:4  doi:10.1186/1742-5573-8-4

Published: 30 September 2011

Abstract

This commentary intends to instigate discussions about epidemiologic estimates and their interpretation of attributable fractions (AFs) and the burden of disease (BOD) of cancers due to factors at workplaces. By examining recent work that aims to estimate the number of cancers attributable to shift-work in Britain, we suggest that (i) causal, (ii) practical and (iii) methodological areas of concern may deter us from attributable caseload estimations of cancers at this point in time. Regarding (i), such calculations may have to be avoided as long as we lack established causality between shift-work and the development of internal cancers. Regarding (ii), such calculations may have to be avoided as long as we can neither abandon shift-work nor identify personnel that may be unaffected by shift-work factors. Regarding (iii), there are at least four methodological pitfalls which are likely to make AF calculations uninterpretable at this stage. The four pitfalls are: (1) The use of Levin's 1953 formula in case of adjusted relative risks; (2) The use of broad definitions of exposure in calculations of AFs; (3) The non-additivity of AFs across different levels of exposure and covariables; (4) The fact that excess mortality counts are misleading due to the fact that a human being dies exactly once - a death may occur earlier or later, but a death cannot occur more than once nor can it be avoided altogether for any given individual. Overall, causal, practical and methodological areas of concern should be diligently considered when performing and interpreting AF or BOD computations which - at least at the present time - may not be defensible.