WATCH ABOVE: Sandy Knight, a former automotive plastics factory worker talks about when she began suspecting a connection between health problems in the plant and chemical fumes from plastics.
Plastics are an increasingly popular component in car construction, used to make vehicles lighter and more fuel efficient. But making these parts can be a messy business which might be making some workers sick.
A study published last year showed that younger women who worked in this industry were much more likely than the general population to get breast cancer.
“If we looked at women under the age of 50, pre-menopausal women,” says Jim Brophy, a retired Executive Director of the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) and lead author of the study, “these women’s risk …took off like a rocket. They were over 400 per cent increased risk.”
To make plastic parts, such as bumpers and dashboards, pellets are heated in huge injection molding machines. These machines sometimes eject sticky plastic that smokes and smoulders and that workers can breathe in.
“Oh yeah, it would smoke. It would smell. Some people would complain of nosebleeds, headaches, so we’d open a door,” says Sandy Knight, who worked in an automotive plastics plant in the 1980s and 90s. Sandy was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000. She believes it may have been related to her work in the plastics industry.
Many of these chemicals have been shown to be endocrine disruptors and carcinogens in animals.
“I mean if you were camping, and you go by a fire and somebody is throwing styrene cups into it,” Brophy says, “everybody runs and holds their nose….Well that’s what’s going on in these plants [where] these things are heated.”
His worry is that the chemicals used to make these plastics could be affecting the health of women who work in the plants and increasing their chance of getting breast cancer. Brophy wants the government to do more to protect workers and worries that the Ministry of Labour is not doing enough to minimize exposure.
“I understand the concerns of Ontario women and their families regarding the issue of breast cancer,” says Leon Genesove, the Ontario Ministry of Labour’s top doctor. But he also says the Ministry is working hard to reduce exposure, and to invest in further research.
WATCH ABOVE: Leon Genesove, Ontario Ministry of Labour’s top doctor says the ministry is investing in research and looking at working conditions. He insists that it is government not the industry that ultimately decides how standards are set.
“In Ontario we have a multi-faceted approach to protecting workers from occupational diseases, with our enforcement strategy, with our blitzes, with our research program, with our new prevention program.”
And Genesove says the Ministry is working with health and safety associations to assist employers “in eliminating hazards in the workplace, substituting with less hazardous chemicals if necessary. Implementing engineering controls, and assisting them with other control measures.”
Genesove cites a workplace safety blitz from October and November of 2012 where inspectors looked at dangerous conditions in the manufacturing sector. “Part of the blitz was looking at chemical exposures. We had over 5,000 compliance orders issued during that blitz. Many of which were related to chemical exposures.”
But of the 5392 orders to fix dangerous conditions inside plants, only 83 were for chemical exposure in plastics and chemical factories….less than 2 per cent. What’s more, no orders were issued under the main law that deals with controlling dangerous airborne chemicals. Critics say that may be because the standards in Canada are so low that it is easy for a plant to pass air quality tests.
Critics also say that permitted chemical exposure levels in Canada are much higher than they are in parts of Europe. In Ontario, workers are allowed to breathe four times the amount of styrene in a 15-minute period than in Denmark and almost double the amount of acrylonitrile than in Sweden. Both are major components in making plastics.
Brophy and others want to see much lower exposure limits and greater controls on the things workers can breathe in. “You know you don’t want to engage in a human experiment. Which is essentially what’s going on in many work places…truthfully…in Ontario. You don’t expose people and then wait 30 years and go woops, oh didn’t know that.”
Don’t miss “Plastic Peril” this Saturday at 7pm on 16×9.
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