CAREX’s relocation from UBC to SFU last spring was like a homecoming for Anne-Marie Nicol, who earned her undergraduate degree in communication at the university’s Burnaby campus.

Research Matters - Winter 2014

Targeting carcinogens

March 17, 2014

*Health sciences assistant prof and CAREX investigator bucks family’s polluting ways*

“I come from a long line of environmental polluters,” says Anne-Marie Nicol with a smile as she describes how she became passionate about identifying and eliminating cancer-causing agents where Canadians live and work.

“My dad ran a chemical company in Port Moody for many years, my grandfather was in oil and gas and I have family members in logging and mining exploration. I felt like it was my family obligation to go to university and learn more about how environmental impacts and issues can affect people’s health.”

Nicol is an assistant professor in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) and the principal investigator for CAREX Canada, which moved to SFU last spring from the University of British Columbia. CAREX (short for carcinogen exposure) is the country’s only comprehensive resource that maps exposure to cancer-causing agents in workplace and community environments nationwide.

Based on a Finnish model, CAREX aims to give researchers, policy makers and other specialists the data and tools needed to create targeted exposure reduction strategies. Since 2007, it has received funding for its 10-year national surveillance project from the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, with additional funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, WorkSafe BC (which funded the organization’s pilot project in 2003) and others.

The group’s multi-disciplinary team works in collaboration with researchers at UBC, the University of Victoria and other institutions across the country. The team has expertise in epidemiology, occupational hygiene, geographic information systems, and knowledge transfer and exchange.

According to the World Health Organization, almost 20 per cent of all cancers result from workplace or environmental exposures.

In Canada alone, the annual health care costs associated with occupational and environmental cancers are estimated at between $3.6 and $9.1 billion.

“It’s a huge problem,” says Nicol. “But efforts in Canada to set policies and priorities for occupational and environmental carcinogens are often limited by a lack of specific exposure data and by poor communication of the health risks from these exposures. That’s where we come in.”

CAREX Canada generates high-quality estimates of the number of Canadians exposed to substances associated with cancer in the workplace and community environments, making it easier to identify and target high-priority exposure scenarios for exposure reduction.

“We collect existing data on carcinogenic exposures in people’s workplaces and community settings and we integrate and present the data in different ways including maps, tables, estimates of exposure and interactive tools,” says Nicol.

These resources and tools are web-based, searchable and easily tailored for people from a broad range of groups; several tools also allow users to incorporate their own local data into the exposure analysis.

“We strive to communicate and present our data in a user-friendly manner so it’s more accessible and has practical value for end-users working in cancer prevention,” says Nicol.

CAREX’s relocation to SFU was like a homecoming for Nicol, who earned a BA in communication with a focus on environmental communication at the Burnaby campus.

  She followed that with a master’s degree in environmental science at York University and a PhD in epidemiology at UBC, where she later taught risk assessment and toxicology and designed a number of innovative public and occupational health awareness campaigns.

So what’s next for CAREX? “For the first five years of the project we were busy building the database and determining where exposures were taking place across the country, coming up with our list of 72 carcinogens that Canadians are exposed to,” says Nicol.

“Our second funding mandate (is) to get those estimates into the hands of people who can use them—policymakers, practitioners, clinicians.

“Right now, we’re focused on finding out who those people are—at work-safe agencies, health regions and government departments. And then training them on the tools so they can better understand how they can use the estimates to prioritize their work.”

For more information and to access CAREX Canada’s tools, videos and other resources, visit

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