Not a flower shop: Exploring breast cancer risk and gender bias

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Publication Date: 
Tue, 2012-07-17

The average automobile today contains from 120 to 150 kilograms of plastic parts. The plastics industry in Canada is also growing, generating almost $21 billion every year and employing over 90,000 workers. Women make up 37 per cent of the plastics workforce, more than in any other manufacturing industry. Of the plastics industry overall, about 18 per cent is devoted to manufacturing auto parts. Despite this, there is a downtrend in plastics auto parts manufacturing in Canada. 

“In the last five to 10 years there has been tremendous de-industrialization going on in Canada, particularly in Ontario, the heartland of manufacturing in this country, where hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs have left. And these workers are left literally in fear. They face the insecurities of precarious employment. They just don’t know from one minute to the next whether their jobs are there or not, and that makes health and safety seem like a luxury that nobody can afford. We don’t agree with that, but we understand that it’s the real experience that they are having.”      – Jim Brophy

In Essex County alone, there are over 20 plastic auto parts plants, most of them small to medium-sized firms. Of its workforce, 60 to 80 per cent are women. These women are part of a skilled labour force; many of them have worked in the plastics industry for years, and hold a wide range of jobs, yet they have little to no union representation. Working conditions reflect this fact—the automotive plastics plants are often described by workers as hot, smelly and smoky, producing a “toxic soup” of chemicals that spew, drift and plume from the various processes required to make the numerous plastic components needed to build a new vehicle.

And women are getting sick: asthma, headaches, nausea, nosebleeds, vertigo, and the list goes on. More distressingly, women are experiencing reproductive disorders, miscarriages and cancer, particularly breast cancer.

Rising “C” rates

Since the late 1960s, the incidence of breast cancer has risen steadily in Canada. Although women are more likely to die from lung cancer or heart disease, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women in this country. According to Statistics Canada, breast cancers account for 30 per cent of all new cases (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer) with the highest rates among women 60 years and older, but it is also now the most common form of cancer diagnosed in young adults and the leading cause of cancer deaths in this population.

About 23,400 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and over 5,000 women will die from it. In Ontario 9,000 women will be diagnosed with this disease and 1,950 will not survive. Canada has the second highest rate of breast cancer in the world, after the United States. It is an epidemic by anyone’s definition.

“I worked in the plastic plant for five years and then developed breast cancer when I was 32. There are six or seven breast cancers that we know of. They are all younger than 50.” –NNEWH-funded focus group participant

The cancer establishment (the current medical, governmental and corporate complex) would have the public believe that the increasing rates of breast cancer are to be blamed on genetics or what are called lifestyle choices: poor diet, the excessive consumption of alcohol, smoking and a lack of exercise. However, U.S. government reports from as early as the late 1970s suggest that at the time up to 40 per cent of cancers could be related to exposure to six substances in the workplace. Yet regulatory agencies, then as now, continue to turn a blind eye while cancer agencies focus on what are called “modifiable lifestyle factors,” placing the onus of prevention on individuals.

I think that the results from our breast cancer studies should add weight to the fact that we can’t wait any longer to regulate and control these exposures. In fact, we should have banned these substances and we need to revisit all government regulations based on their effect to mimic the hormone system. This is going on in Europe.”  – Jim Brophy

The chemical connection

But research on the history of breast cancer’s rise and the rate of women entering the workforce reveals a more compelling picture. Since the 1970s, and for a brief period during the Second World War, women left the confines of the home to find work in the public sphere. As well, many women took on jobs in plants and factories, settings formerly dominated by men. Coinciding with this shift, from the 1940s on, science and industry began introducing thousands of new chemicals into the environment.

Today, more than 90,000 man-made chemicals contaminate the planet’s air, water and soil, our homes and workplaces, and our bodies. The majority of these substances have never been tested. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. organization set up to protect the health of American citizens and the environment, has banned only five chemicals in the last 25 years. A 2007 report compiled by the Massachusetts-based Silent Spring Institute identifies at least 216 chemicals associated with an increase in mammary gland tumours. Meanwhile, breast cancer has doubled in one generation, and the list of chemicals just keeps growing.

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