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Study: Women in Manufacturing Face Five-fold Breast Cancer Risk

Workers complained of nosebleeds, headaches for decades

Common Dreams staff

Breast cancer victim Carol Bristow, 54, has worked as a machine operator in a plastic auto parts factory in Windsor, Ontario, for 23 years. She believes on-the-job exposures to toxic fumes and dust played a role in her illness. (Photo via The Center for Public Integrity.)

Women who work in automotive plastics and food-can manufacturing industries show nearly a five-fold increase in the incidence of breast cancer, according to results of a "groundbreaking," peer-reviewed study published Monday in the journal Environmental Health.

Over a six-year period, the workers in Ontario, Canada, handled carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals including bisphenol A (BPA) — now banned in baby bottles in Canada and the US — as well as solvents, heavy metals and flame retardants.

For more than three decades, women in Windsor, Ontario "have complained of pungent fumes and dust that caused nosebleeds, headaches, nausea and dizziness," the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity and the Toronto Star report. "Some spoke of smouldering blobs of plastic dumped directly onto the floor near where they worked."

Plant worker Gina DeSantis said workers got sick, but never made a connection to the chemicals, although they worried about a lack of ventilation in the factories.

Jeanne Rizzo, R.N., president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund, called the study "groundbreaking," and said the existing laws must "urgently" be enforced or overhauled.

She continued, in part:

This study demonstrates what the Breast Cancer Fund has been saying for years. We are all exposed to a cocktail of carcinogens and endocrine disruptors every day that puts us at greater risk for breast cancer, and we need to prioritize and invest in preventing exposures to these toxic chemicals.

No one should have to face a cancer diagnosis because of the work they do. These workers are the canaries in the coal mines—we need to heed the warning of this study and take measures to protect them and all of us from toxic chemical exposures.

Researchers from Canada, the US and the United Kingdom studied occupational histories of 1,006 women from Ontario who had breast cancer and 1,146 who didn't, and took into consideration factors such as smoking, weight, alcohol use and other lifestyle and reproductive factors. Study members worked in auto plants, casinos, other factories and plants.

The Center for Public Integrity reported:

Sandy Knight, who worked at two Windsor plastics plants from 1978 to 1998, had a breast cancer scare in 2000, when she was 41. The cancer was at Stage III — “invasive and fast-growing,” said Knight, 53, who now works at a Ford parts distribution center near Toronto. She had a single mastectomy and, following 10 years of hormonal treatment, is in remission.

Asked if she believed her disease was work-related, Knight said, “I’m suspicious of it because of all the exposures we had.” She remembers the “nauseating kind of odor,” the burning eyes and headaches, all the women with cancer, sterility and miscarriages. She’s upset that little seems to have changed at some plants.

"Why am I speaking to people today, in 2012, who are doing the same processes I did in 1980?” Knight asked. “It just seems like we’re fighting the same battle. A lot of these chemicals should be removed from the workplace.

Plastics manufacturing in Canada is a $21 billion a year industry employing about 91,000 people — 60 to 80 percent of whom are women, according to the study.

Brophy noted the "blue-collar workers ... remain invisible and their cancer risk largely ignored."

Workers stay, they told study authors, because they pay is good — $22 an hour with benefits — and other jobs are scarce.

Robert Park of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the United States, said he was "surprised by how strong the findings were."

But US and Canadian industry officials attributed the increase in cancer to "lifestyle and genetic factors."

Study co-author James Brophy said the chemicals are not present in our air, food, water and other products, and "if we fail to take heed then we are doing so at our own peril."

Andrew Watterson, another of the study's co-authors, said the findings will have implications for plastics workers in Europe, India, China, Africa, the United States, noting, "The chemicals will have the same toxic effects. The same diseases will develop.”

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