16×9 investigation: Plastic exposure to women in the workplace could lead to health risks

WATCH ABOVE: Plastic peril – the full segment from this week’s edition of 16×9.

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.

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

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.

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.

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Many of these chemicals have been shown to be endocrine disruptors and carcinogens in animals.

Jim Brophy, a retired Executive Director of the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) and lead author of the study is worried 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.

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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.

READ MORE: Scientists sound warning over plastic exposure in the workplace for women

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Leon Genesove, the Ontario Ministry of Labour’s top doctor, 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.

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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.

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.”

BEHIND THE STORY: Producer Gil Shochat discusses a recent study that looked at breast cancer rates of women who worked in the automotive plastics industry. Watch the video below:

Don’t miss an encore presentation of “Plastic Peril” this Saturday at 7pm on 16×9.


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