Study Finds Blue Collar Women More Likely to Develop Breast Cancer
Globe and Mail Newspaper, November 19, 2012
Women in some manufacturing occupations have double the normal risk of developing breast cancer, according to a landmark
The results, published Monday and among the first to extensively look at a number of occupations, could have widespread
implications in forcing governments to review and adopt stricter regulations to safeguard the health of women in these blue-collar
“Most public-health initiatives have overlooked the seemingly invisible cohort of farm and blue-collar women workers,
who are providing us with consumer goods,” said lead author James Brophy, an adjunct professor at the University of
Windsor. “We think that the findings from this study have important implications for women … and point to the
need to rethink our regulatory protections and compensation systems.”
The team of researchers from Canada, the United States and Europe believe that women in these workplaces are exposed to
mammary carcinogens and other chemicals that place them at increased risk of breast cancer. The study involved more than 1,000
women with breast cancer and another 1,147 women without the disease, a control group, in the Windsor and surrounding Essex
and Kent County, areas where there is extensive manufacturing and agriculture. Participants provided detailed occupational
histories as well as information on reproductive risk factors, including pregnancies, history of breastfeeding, alcohol use
The study, published in the journal Environmental Health, found:
Women in food canning production were twice as likely to develop breast cancer, with the authors saying exposure to vapours
from bisphenol A (BPA) can linings and to pesticides from the food being heated, processed and packaged may be playing a role;
Women in the automotive plastics industry may be exposed to a mixture of solvents, glues and other chemicals, and were twice
as likely to develop breast cancer; Females working in casinos and in bars are also twice as likely to develop breast cancer,
which may be linked to second-hand smoke exposure and night work, which has been found to disrupt the endocrine system; Women
in the metalworking industry may be exposed to fumes, solvents, smoke and an array of toxic chemicals, and have a 73-per-cent
increased risk of breast cancer compared to women in the general population; Farm workers may be exposed to chemicals such
as pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, other agricultural chemicals and diesel exhaust from farm equipment, and have a 36-per-cent
increased risk of breast cancer.
Dr. Brophy said he is concerned that Canadian authorities are paying little attention to such a serious issue. Co-author
Margaret Keith, also an adjunct professor at the University of Windsor, said much effort has gone into making sure baby bottles
are free of BPA, but officials have not considered the women and men exposed to the hormone-mimicking chemical.
“We don’t really know what the exposure levels are inside these plants,” Dr. Keith said. “I think
the regulations haven’t taken into account what we now know scientifically.”
A spokeswoman for Health Canada said the government agency is committed to protecting those in the workplace. Health Canada
provides about $600,000 annually to a project aimed at identifying the prevalence of workplace carcinogens, the spokeswoman
said in an e-mail.
The Ontario Ministry of Labour also said it is actively addressing the issue. “We make decisions on the latest science
and we welcome any report that will bring a better understanding of occupational exposures to ensure that workers are protected
from unsafe exposure levels,” a spokesman said.
For breast-cancer patients, like Carol Bristow, change cannot come soon enough. A machine operator at a plastics company,
she breathed in solvents, glues and other chemicals – exposure, Ms. Bristow feels, that led to her breast-cancer diagnosis
two decades ago.
She lost her right breast and ended up having a hysterectomy in order to reduce the hormones that were fuelling the cancer.
Yet, she returned to her job at an auto-parts manufacturing company in Windsor, Ont., despite opposition from those who cared
for her during her illness.
“You lose so much money when you’re sick, and go you back to work because you get benefits, and then you get
sick again,” said Ms. Bristow, 54. “It’s a scary situation.”
Paul Demers, director of the (Cancer Care Ontario) Occupational Cancer Research Centre, urged caution in drawing a link
between chemicals in these industries and the risk in developing breast cancer. Dr. Demers has received a $1-million grant
from the Canadian Cancer Society to study the impact of workplace exposure to 44 known or suspected carcinogens and their
links to different types of cancer. He said Dr. Brophy’s findings are important because this is an understudied area.
“We need more evidence in human studies … that these chemicals are cancer-causing,” Dr. Demers said.