Are auto plastics workers more likely to get breast cancer?

What can be done?

You may have heard the warnings to avoid buying plastic water bottles and food storage containers that contain Bisphenol-A (BPA) -- a plastic hardening compound that helps molded materials retain shape and structure. But it's also dangerous. If you now avoid BPA-laden plastic products because of the chance they might leach toxins into your water, even with occasional use ... well, be grateful if you (or your mother, sister, wife or daughter) aren't inhaling those very same toxins 40 hours a week.

The Canadian study found that anything that interferes with a woman's estrogen levels can increase risk of breast cancer, and exposure to synthetic chemicals (including those that might be found in an auto factory) interferes with the endocrine system. Women who have irregular hormone levels are already at higher risk, which can be minimized somewhat by eating a healthy diet and getting adequate exercise. But the work environments must also be improved. The research is prompting advocates to take a look at standards for factories around the world, to see what can be done to protect women from this dangerous exposure. Improving ventilation around the factories is just one step. Other factories have recently moved machines that create a lot of dust and changed procedures that allowed molten plastic to sit and leach toxins into employees' immediate workspaces.

Nearly 40,000 people died of breast cancer in the United States in 2011 -- although the issue gets a lot of media attention, the occupational hazard connection has so far been underestimated. Of course, these issues aren't exclusive to North America. As study author James Brophy put it, it's "a local study that has far-reaching implications" [source: Quinn]. The phenomenon is beginning to receive more attention -- more links are being established to specific cancer-causing compounds, and other industries, such as textile manufacturing, are being examined. But while factories are taking nominal steps to improve conditions, it's simply not enough. Auto manufacturers, who actually design and build the cars, overwhelmingly say the responsibility falls to their suppliers, who design and manufacture the cars' individual components [source: Morris]. Then, suppliers claim the study data aren't conclusive enough to be worth completely revamping the factory process. Government agencies in the United States and Canada, charged with ensuring the safety of its citizens in the workforce, often pass the buck to sister agencies, claiming their hands are tied until some other committee officially changes the standards.

Despite the risk, and ongoing cancer studies, there have not been any databases that track the occupations of breast cancer patients. Such a program would help communicate the severity of the issue and lead to more research, and perhaps even prompt some prevention programs [source: Brophy].

Author's Note: Are auto plastics workers more likely to get breast cancer?

Researchers and industry experts noted that there have been positive global implications as a result of the women in Windsor who were confident enough to bring attention to their cause. The women who were interviewed, however, said even after getting sick they couldn't quit, because they had no other job prospects. Without the union, it's doubtful the problem would have ever come to light.

And all of this was in Canada, by the way, where we tend to think that things are generally pretty good. Considering all the problems suffered by countless factory workers (both men and women) around the world, it's not a surprise that this study gets little attention.

Related Articles


  • Breast Cancer Fund. "Vulnerable Populations." (Dec. 3, 2012)
  • Brophy, James, et al. "Occupation and Breast Cancer: A Canadian Case-Control Study." Annals New York Academy of Sciences. 2006. (Dec. 3, 2012)
  • Morris, Jim. "Study spotlights high breast cancer risk for plastics workers." The Center for Public Integrity. Nov. 20, 2012. (Dec. 3, 2012)
  • Quinn, Jennifer. "Union demands protection for workers, after breast cancer linked to auto plastics industry." The Center for Public Integrity. Nov. 20, 2012. (Dec. 3, 2012)

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