Union demands protection for workers, after breast cancer linked to auto plastics industry

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WINDSOR, Ontario — When some women walk onto a factory floor, punch their time card at a food processing facility, or start their shift at the foundry, they are literally dying to go to work, union members and health care advocates say.

A study that showed women working in those industries have a higher risk for breast cancer raised calls for protection of those workers.

And after the study’s principal researchers presented the results of their work to about 40 people here Monday, the reaction was anger, rather than fear.

“We have to say enough is enough,” said Terry Weymouth, a skills co-ordinator with the Canadian Auto Workers. “We are not dying because we need jobs.

“It’s time we stand up and say this is not right,” she said. “We should be mad. One in nine women are diagnosed with breast cancer.”

The six-year study, published Monday in the journal Environmental Health, examined the occupational histories of 1,006 women in Essex and Kent counties who had breast cancer, and another 1,146 who did not.

The researchers, who came from Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., took into account factors like smoking, weight, alcohol use and other lifestyle and reproductive factors. The women in the study worked in auto parts plants, casinos, food canning factories, on farms, and in metalworking plants.

The researchers found that women who work in the automotive plastics industry were almost five times as likely to develop breast cancer, prior to menopause, as women in a control group.

Lead researcher James Brophy called the work “a local study that has far-reaching implications.”

Margaret Keith, another of the principal researchers, said the issue of women’s health in industry is “a no-go area,” and said that more work needs to be done to ensure parity with their male counterparts.

The story has prompted concern that the rights of women in some industries are taken less seriously than their male counterparts

Advocates for women working in auto parts plants say this study will have an impact far beyond the science it presents: it will break the silence on an issue that has long been the subject of uneasy whispers.

“There’s the fear of losing your job or the fear of retribution from your employer if issues are raised,” said Sari Sairanen, national health and safety director for the CAW, which represents about 4,000 workers in parts plants, some of which make plastics.

About 91,000 Canadians work in the plastics trade, according to Industry Canada and — with a 37 per cent female workforce — it has the highest proportion of women of any other manufacturing sector.

Sandra Palmaro, the CEO of the Ontario wing of the Ontario Breast Cancer Foundation — a funder of the study — was in Windsor for the presentation and said the next step is for the research community to accept, and endorse, the findings.

The Ontario Ministry of Labour has 430 inspectors who conduct health and safety inspection blitzes and provides an annual update of exposure limits that restrict the amount and duration of a worker’s exposure to approximately 725 chemical and biological agents.

A ministry spokesperson said companies are obliged to do their own monitoring of toxic chemical levels to ensure the levels fall within safety standards.

In some cases, the ministry conducts its own testing to ensure compliance.

But even minuscule amounts of endocrine-disrupting chemicals can be worrisome, said Andrew Watterson, director of the Centre for Public Health and Population Health Research at the University of Stirling in Scotland.

“This research is raising big questions both about what the [workplace] standards are and even about what happens if conditions are very good, with low-level exposures,” he said.

Bob DeMatteo, health and safety director at the Ontario Public Service Employees Union for 30 years, questions whether ministry oversight protects workers from toxic chemicals that can wreak havoc even at low levels in the body.

“You can’t control it with a threshold,” he said. “You have to regulate it like asbestos — either substitute it or completely control and contain it.”

There is also deep dissatisfaction with workplace regulation in the United States where regulation takes place at the federal level.

Adam Finkel, former director of health standards programs for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said the vast majority of exposure limits enforced by the agency in American workplaces are based on scientific data from the 1960s or earlier, even though an estimated 150 workers die each day of work-related diseases.

“It’s a terrible record, and I’m getting more pessimistic as the years go by,” said Finkel, who runs the Penn Program on Regulation, a research center at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Limits for chemicals used in plastics are typically designed to address cancer and acute symptoms, not the sort of hormonal damage that can occur when women of childbearing age receive low-level exposures.

In its statement, OSHA acknowledged, “Many of our current Permissible Exposure Limits are out of date and inadequately protective, and we do not have limits for many other chemicals. OSHA is currently examining ways to strengthen our efforts related to workplace chemical exposures, as well as ways to respond to the identification of new, emerging hazards.”

In both Ontario and the U.S., there are no occupational exposure limits for BPA — the controversial chemical banned by Health Canada for use in baby bottles in 2010. The chemical is seen to have a negligible risk for adults.

A Statistics Canada survey two years ago found that 91 per cent of Canadians had the substance in their bodies.