WINDSOR, Ont. (Canadian OH&S News)
A groundbreaking study has found evidence linking female workers who are exposed to toxic chemicals and a heightened risk of breast cancer.
Based in the heart of the auto industry, Windsor, Ont., the six-year study was published on Nov. 19 in Environmental Health and concluded that workers in the farming and manufacturing sectors — namely the automotive plastics, metalworking, agriculture and food canning industries — faced exposure to carcinogenic chemicals and endocrine disruptors and suggested that women were at an especially high risk.
“Our study contributes to what is becoming a very substantial body of scientific research that is drawing the association between exposure in the workplace and a woman’s cancer risk. Why do essentially healthy women develop this disease?” queried James Brophy, one of the lead authors of the study. “It’s really important to look at the most highly exposed population because they usually are the ones that can indicate potential associations. Generally, historically, that’s been blue collar workers — the ones that can use these chemicals in the process of manufacturing.”
According to the study, women in the industry were exposed to a “toxic soup” of hormone-mimicking chemicals that are known to cause cancer in women, such as solvents, heavy metals and bisphenol A (BPA), which was banned by Canada in 2010 for the manufacturing of baby bottles. Though labour and safety codes standardize restrictions on exposure levels, of particular concern are combined chemicals, suggested Sari Sairanen, the health and safety director at the Canadian Auto Workers union.
“We have exposure limits on single chemicals, but not when they are in unison,” she explained. “How do you control your exposure to these hazards when the threshold limit value tells you that you’re within the norms, but then you have five other chemicals that you’re exposed to and they have synergistic effects. The cumulative effect they would have over the years, that there are no norms or regulations on, that makes it challenging in workplaces.”
However, the Canadian Plastics Industry Association argued that more research needs to be done to draw any definitive conclusions. In a statement, the association said that they agreed with comments from the American Chemistry Council, which stated that its members “support strong enforcement of the standards and laws that protect worker health and safety as we continue to produce materials that enable healthier and more efficient lives. It is concerning that the authors could be over-interpreting their results, and unnecessarily alarm workers.”
“Although this is an important area of research, these findings are inconsistent with other research. This study should not be used to draw any conclusions about the cause of cancer patterns in workers,” the council said in a statement.
Female workers were tight-lipped for fear of reprisals
The women working in Windsor’s auto plastic industry and who participated in the study had gone silent for decades for fear of losing their jobs, while they watched their fellow co-workers get nosebleeds and headaches, and in more extreme cases, cancer.
Sandy Knight, who worked in Windsor in the plastics industry for 20 years, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 and had to have a mastectomy. As the health and safety representative at her factory, she said that though she can never be 100 per cent sure her workplace was the direct cause, she believe it contributed to her cancer.
“Two years ago I started learning and seeing more that these chemicals are carcinogens and how they work in the body,” Knight said, adding that she had no family history of breast cancer and that she was only a social smoker and drinker. “It takes more than a day or two to affect you, it takes years. I went to work healthy at 19, I should have left there healthy.”