Women who work in the automotive plastics industry were almost five times more likely to develop breast cancer prior to menopause than women in a randomly selected control group, according to the authors of a case-controlled study conducted over six years among women in Canada.
The study, published last month in the journal Environmental Health, examined the occupational and health histories of 1,006 women who had breast cancer, and 1,146 randomly selected community controls. The researchers, who came from Canada, the US, and the UK, took into account factors such as smoking, weight, alcohol use, and other lifestyle and reproductive factors.
A markedly heightened risk for breast cancer was also seen in relation to other occupations that involve exposure to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Women in the study worked in casinos, food canning factories, on farms, and in metalworking plants, as well as the automotive plastics industry.
"Across all sectors, women in jobs with potentially high exposures to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors had elevated breast cancer risk," said lead investigator James T. Brophy, PhD, of Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), Toronto, Canada. He told an audience in Windsor, Ontario, that the findings "have far-reaching implications."
Coauthor Margaret Keith, PhD, said the issue of women's health in the industry has for too long been "a no-go area," and that more work needs to be done to ensure parity with male workers. According to an article posted at the website of The Center for Public Integrity (CPI), "Advocates for women working in auto parts plants say this study will have an impact far beyond the science it presents: It will break the silence on an issue that has long been the subject of uneasy whispers."
"There's the fear of losing your job or the fear of retribution from your employer if issues are raised," said Sari Sairanen, national health and safety director for the Canadian Auto Workers union, which represents about 4,000 workers in parts plants (including some which make plastics). The CPI article notes that 37 percent of the 91,000 Canadians who work in the plastics trade are women -- the highest proportion of women of any manufacturing sector.
Sandra Palmaro, of the Ontario Breast Cancer Foundation, which provided funding for the study, said the next step is for the research community to accept and endorse the findings.
"We have to say enough is enough," said Terry Weymouth, a skills coordinator with the CAW. "We are not dying because we need jobs. It's time we stand up and say this is not right. We should be mad: One in nine women is diagnosed with breast cancer."
The Ontario Ministry of Labour has 430 inspectors who conduct health and safety inspections and provides an annual update of exposure limits intended to restrict the amount and duration of a worker's exposure to more than 700 chemical and biological agents. Companies, however, are expected to do their own monitoring of toxic chemical levels to ensure that levels fall within safety standards, while the ministry sometimes conducts its own tests to check on compliance.
That is not enough, said Andrew Watterson, director of the Centre for Public Health and Population Health Research at the University of Stirling in Scotland, and coauthor of the study. "This research is raising big questions both about what the [workplace] standards are and even about what happens if conditions are very good, with low-level exposures," he observed.
Protecting women from breast cancer risk in the workplace has now become an important issue for the CAW, the largest private sector union in Canada, thanks in part to the findings of this study. One hopes the effects will be as "far-reaching" as Canada's neighbor to the south.
- The Center for Public Integrity. Study spotlights high breast cancer risk for plastics workers. Published November 19, 2012. Available at http://www.publicintegrity.org/2012/11/19/11806/study-spotlights-high-breast-cancer-risk-plastics-workers.
- Brophy JT, Keith MM, Watterson A, Park R, Gilbertson M, et al. Breast cancer risk in relation to occupations with exposure to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors: a Canadian case--control study. Environ Health. 2012 Nov 19;11(1):87. [Epub ahead of print]