Chemical exposure in plastics industry could increase breast cancer risk, study finds

A group of women plastics workers

A new study published Thursdaypoints to evidence that women employed in the plastics industry are exposed to workplace chemicals that could increase their risk of breast cancer and reproductive abnormalities.

The study spearheaded by Robert DeMatteo, a research associate with the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health (NNEWH) at York University, in partnership with University of Windsor adjunct Professors Margaret Keith and James Brophy, found that the chemicals these workers were exposed to were identified as mammary carcinogens and endocrine disrupting, but exposure controls and government enforcement was virtually non-existent in mA group of women plastics workersany workplaces. The researchers also found that the work environment of these workers was heavily contaminated with dust and fumes.

A group of women plastics workers. Photo by Margaret Keith

The controls to reduce exposure “were totally inadequate or in some cases totally non-existent,” says DeMatteo. “Many of these substances are known neurotoxins, but we also know that they can, at very low levels, affect the endocrine system. These workers were often exposed to complex mixtures of these substances.”

The research, Chemical Exposures of Women Workers in the Plastics Industry with Particular Reference to Breast Cancer and Reproductive Hazards, is published online in New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy. The study consisted of a review of government inspection and industry hygiene reports, epidemiological studies and literature on these substances, as well as focus groups with workers. It supports earlier research by Keith and Brophy, which reported epidemiological findings of a five-fold elevated breast cancer risk for premenopausal women who work in the plastics industry.

“Much of what workers describe about their working conditions was corroborated by our review of various industry and government hygiene reports,” says DeMatteo. “These reports indicate that there was little or no local exhaust ventilation to prevent worker exposures. To make matters worse, very few of the reports we reviewed indicate that inspectors wrote orders for remedial action.”

One worker interviewed for the study described her workplace experience by saying, “I don’t know if it’s from the smoke or if it’s from the fumes. You smell fumes, you taste [it] in your mouth and then you get – it’s like a light-headedness, dizziness.”

The study’s synthesized scientific findings on carcinogens and endocrine disruptors showed “that workers in this industry have high body burdens of hormone disrupting chemicals, such as acrylonitrile, styrene, BPA and phthalates,” says Keith. It is a much higher body burden than what is found in the general public.

The article in New Solutions explores these occupational exposures in producing plastics and health risks to workers – particularly women – who make up a large part of the workforce. It also discusses measures for eliminating these exposures and the need for regulatory action. Despite public health concern about the harmful effects of substances contained in various plastic consumer products, little attention has focused on the more heavily exposed women working in the plastics industry.

While federal regulators declared BPA “toxic” in 2010, and took action to ban baby bottles that were manufactured using the known hormone disruptor, there are still no safeguards in place to protect workers who are directly exposed to BPA (and several other carcinogenic and endocrine disrupting chemicals used as additives in plastics manufacturing) on a daily basis.

“Canadians are entitled to expect that once a substance is declared ‘toxic’ according to federal law, regulators will work together to reduce our exposures to it. This is what adherence to the precautionary principle requires,” said Dayna Nadine Scott, director of NNEWH, which is an initiative of the York Institute of Health Research.

The project was made possible through a financial contribution from Health Canada, and incorporates research and focus groups funded by The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation – Ontario.

For more information, contact the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health at

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