Breast cancer in the workplace

By Jasminee Sahoye

A West Indian woman, who worked for over a decade at a manufacturing plant in Toronto ensuring that the production line is always running in an effort to achieve the company’s target, now wonders whether her dedication to the job has had an effect on her being diagnosed with breast cancer.

“You never hear about people back home getting breast cancer like you would here. I think it has to do with all the chemicals our bodies are exposed to, be it the food we eat or in the workplace,” Marcia said, asking that The Camera only use her first name.

Marcia’s story surfaced after a study released this week found that women working in manufacturing and food processing industries have a higher risk for breast cancer.

Researchers have found that endocrine disrupting chemicals and carcinogens, some of which may not yet have been classified as such, are present in many occupational environments and could increase breast cancer risk.

They also said that prior research has identified associations with breast cancer and work in agricultural and industrial settings.
The research, published in the Journal Environmental Health, Breast cancer risk in relation to occupations with exposure to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors: a Canadian case-control study was to further characterize possible links between breast cancer risk and occupation, particularly in farming and manufacturing, as well as to examine the impacts of early agricultural exposures, and exposure effects that are specific to the endocrine receptor status of tumours.

Researchers from Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. have found that these observations support hypotheses linking breast cancer risk and exposures likely to include carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, and demonstrate the value of detailed work histories in environmental and occupational epidemiology.

This study was conducted with 1,006 women who had breast cancer, and another 1,146 who did not in Essex and Kent counties of Southern Ontario, a region with a stable population and diverse modern agriculture and industry.

“A geographic clustering of excess breast cancer has persisted there over time. In the early1990s staff at the Windsor Regional Cancer Centre (WRCC) and at the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers in the Essex-Kent region of Ontario, raised concerns about the numbers of industrial workers developing cancer.

Two exploratory breast cancer case–control studies were undertaken by a multidisciplinary team of occupational and environmental researchers but had limited statistical power and exposure assessment. The first was a hypothesis-generating multi-cancer case control study; the second study focused exclusively on breast cancer,” the report states.

The researchers 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.”

Ontario’s 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.