Scientists sound warning over plastic exposure in the workplace for women

WATCH ABOVE: Jim Brophy, a scientist who studies worker health, says that one of the worst places for a woman to work is a plastic factory.

Premenopausal women who work in the automotive plastics industry are almost five times as likely to get breast cancer as women outside the industry, a study conducted by researchers from Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom indicates.

The 2012 study looked, in part, at the work histories of 1,006 women who had breast cancer in and around the Windsor, Ont., region and 1,146 who didn’t. It compensated for lifestyle and reproductive factors such as smoking, weight, and alcohol intake.

The study published in the journal Environmental Health along with a companion piece in the journal New Solutions raises concerns that chemicals such as vinyl chloride, acrylonitrile, and styrene – shown to cause mammary gland tumors in animals – may also be affecting women who work with these chemicals.

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READ MORE: Women working in some factories have a 400% increased risk of breast cancer, study says

“All of these are the substances these women work with every day …. And when we talk to these women they all refer to the toxic soup that they work in,” said Jim Brophy, a lead author of one of the studies.

The Canadian Plastics Industry Association disputes the findings, saying “the authors could be over-interpreting their results and unnecessarily alarming workers” because the study “included no data showing if there was actual chemical exposure, from what chemicals, at what levels, and over what period of time in any particular workplace.” The trade association cites the American Cancer Association, which says things such as genetics and lifestyle are well established risks rather than chemical exposures.

But there is increasing concern in the scientific community over chemicals in the environment. In 2010 a President’s Cancer Panel report said that “available evidence argues for a precautionary approach” to many of the chemicals found in plastics factories and it said many of the approved American exposure levels – many of which have been adopted in Canada – need improvement. “A thorough new assessment of workplace chemical and other exposures is needed to quantify current health risks. Previous estimates of occupational cancer risk are outdated and should no longer be used by government or industry.”

“What is needed is to take immediate steps to reduce exposures to levels that are as low as technically feasible, while exploring substitution for these compounds,” Brophy said. “I think the prudent thing to do is to act at least to prevent and reduce the exposure of people in these environments.”

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