During her many years working in a plastics plant in Windsor, Ontario, the factory employee had seen several of her female co-workers developing breast cancer. She needed the paycheck but worried about her health, especially when she had to clean out a plastics machine, called purging -- a filthy job that exposed the worker to clumps of simmering plastic, chemicals and dyes, the woman told a visiting scientist at the plant recently.
"One woman, actually right now, is going through her treatment for breast cancer. . . and we’ve had four within the last ten years I would say," the woman said. "So yeah, it’s always in the background of your mind when they’re purging the machines. . . We’ll yell over at another co-worker and say I wonder what this smell is, if it can affect us?”
Women working in the plastics industry face a "major occupational health hazard" from a brew of toxic substances that far exceeds what the general public is exposed to, say the authors of a new study that focuses on dangerous working conditions in that industry and the workers' fears over their health.
Little attention has been paid to the risks faced by plastics workers even though they are exposed to a wide range of potentially harmful substances, including styrene, acrylonitrile, vinyl chloride, phthalates, bisphenol-A (BPA), brominated flame retardants, heavy metals and solvents, say the authors of the new study, published Thursday in journal New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy.
Previous studies show workers in the plastics industry carry more of these substances in their bodies than consumers in general. And, in a study published last month in Environmental Health, researchers found that breast cancer risk was more than double that of the general population among women working in automotive plastics manufacturing plants for 10 years.
"It's not like we don't have the epidemiological and toxicological evidence to show this. We have evidence in very stark numbers," Dr. James Brophy, adjunct faculty at the University of Windsor in Ontario, and a co-author of the new research, told Take Park. "It's an unethical situation that some peoples' lives are shortened and harmed so that we can enjoy these products."
The potential health threat faced by people working in the plastics industry has escaped the attention of occupational health and safety organizations and employers even though the safety of plastic products has emerged as a major consumer issue. In recent years, studies have raised questions about the dangers of BPAs and other substances in plastic baby bottles, cosmetics and other products from even casual use. But workers in the plastics industry are exposed to heavy doses of these same substances daily for many years, Brophy says.
"Because consumer products pose a threat to literally everyone. . .that has tended to have the public's eye," he says. "Canada has banned BPAs, but there isn't a word about the people who produce these products."
In the past, many of the discoveries of links between substances and cancer have come about by identifying diseases in particular workers, such as lung cancer in miners. But scrutiny of occupational links to disease appears to have faded.
"Who is the most exposed population? We should ask that question, but in the United States and Canada we don't have that automatic trigger that the people who produce these products have exposures that are substantially higher and that it warrants our attention," Brophy says.
Blue-collar jobs held by women may be the most ignored when it comes to health and safety protections, he charges. In the plastics industry, many of the most hazardous jobs are occupied by women, Brophy says, while men -- who can also be harmed by the exposures -- occupy more skilled or supervisory positions. Women are at disproportionate risk for health problems because of the jobs they perform and due to their particular biological vulnerabilities, such as breast-cancer risk and reproductive health problems.
The study found that women working in plastics often perform a variety of tasks and are exposed to many chemicals.
"The truth is in these plants nobody is exposed to just one substance," Brophy says. "One woman mentioned this is a toxic soup."
Some of the chemicals used in plastic manufacturing are known endocrine disruptors, substances that interfere with hormones in the body, such as estrogen, and increase the risk of breast cancer. But researchers found little in the way of safeguards to protect workers. Some plants had no safeguards while others had lax enforcement of controls. Workers expressed a high degree of concern over the hazards they faced but felt mostly powerless, Brophy says.
In the purging operations, workers clean out a machine in order to switch production to a different color or resin. Often the plastic purged from the machine is dumped on the floor. Some plants have taken steps to provide barrels of water to hold the disposed plastic. "That's still very crude," Brophy says.
"The women told us over and over again if they made any demands for any ventilation or protections it could jeopardize their jobs," he says. "These workers are being left to choose between their health and their livelihood."
The paper points to poor oversight by government authorities as well.
"Endocrine disruption is not accounted for in any occupational or industrial standard," he says. "This is denying 20 years of science. It's ludicrous." Moreover, there are no standards in the United States or Canada to account for exposure to mixtures of chemicals or the cumulative effects of exposures.
"I think the plastics, automotive, chemical industry has been extremely effective in resisting any type of controls," Brophy says. "There has been almost no new standards set by OSHA [the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration] for decades."
The new paper describing working conditions "is meant to sound an alarm about a major occupational health hazard that has not received adequate attention from the medical, scientific, and regulatory communities," Brophy and his co-authors concluded. ". . .This situation cries out for swift regulatory review and action. If governments can take measures to protect the public from some of the endocrine-disrupting chemicals in consumer products, surely we should expect similar action to protect plastics workers who are more severely and directly exposed."
Question: Should the government do more to protect workers from endocrine disruptors? Tell us what you think in the comments.
Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California. She is the author of three books on health and science subjects.