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

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Publication Date: 
Tue, 2012-07-17

“We got a very good education through this last study… We came to understand even better what the process is. We now know what a plastics plant looks like, what the machines are like, what they do, whether there’s the potential for exposure to different parts of the plastics components, where the dust and vapors and glues are… it’s been a real eye opener.” Margaret Keith

The workplace can be particularly hazardous in the auto industry and the manufacturing of plastic parts is no exception. Brophy and Keith reviewed industry and government hygiene inspection reports, noting the reliance on air monitoring to prove safety. But air sampling the plant’s work areas does not tell the real story of what workers are being exposed to. In fact, earlier studies indicate through blood and urine samples that the body burden (the total amount of a toxic substance that can be detected in the body at any given time) of workers exposed to chemicals such as acrylonitrile, styrene, phthalates, brominated fire retardants and bisphenol A, all used in the plastic auto parts industry, is far greater than in the general population.

Monitoring air quality does not protect workers. Rather, so-called “safe” levels are set according to what is economically viable for industry. As well, a lack of material safety data sheets (the information sheets that accompany chemical substances) when they are available, are either incomplete or unintelligible, according to workers. Machine malfunction and equipment failure are common and contribute to workplace hazards, as do inadequate safety gear and lack of proper ventilation. For example, according to the forthcoming book, Consuming Chemicals: Law, Science and Policy for Women's Health, an industrial hygiene report of 1990 stated that: “Exposures to volatile organic compounds from spray glue operations are high and workers will require respiratory protection when working in east booth. Currently the exit for the booth exhaust fan is inside the plant and the air is re-circulated.”

Gender and class consciousness

Brophy and Keith suggest that gender bias plays a role in whether women workers are protected from the myriad substances and processes they are exposed to while on the job. In the plastics industry, women tend to dominate the machine operating and decorating divisions while men work primarily in maintenance and skilled trades. According to participants of the NNEWH-funded focus group study, the one plastics plant that had a predominately male workforce also had a state-of-the-art ventilation system. Class discrimination may also play a part—the population of Windsor-Essex County is primarily a blue-collar one, and working class women are seemingly invisible when it comes to safeguarding their health and well-being in high-risk occupations.

“It’s this horrendous social class bias that dominates public health research and policy. We have pesticide bylaws for urban populations, for instance, because of the harm of pesticide exposure, particularly for children, but not a word about the more highly exposed agricultural community. They have far more exposures that we have… Why is this ignored? Because once you start to explore the working environment, you’re ultimately challenging the power relations in our society and vested interests that dominate and control government policy and cancer investigations, and regulations. So the risks in the workplace are kept off the public’s radar.” – Jim Brophy

Despite some union activism, over the decades little has changed for women working in the plastic auto parts industry. But if women and future generations are to be protected, then there must be a concerted and collective effort on the part of government, industry, unions and workers to bring these changes about. Testing protocols need to be improved, regulatory standards and guidelines need to be re-evaluated, and further research on the synergistic effect of chemical mixtures on the human body need to be conducted. According to Brophy and Keith’s research, no plastics worker ever received compensation for developing breast cancer. From a public policy standpoint, they ask: What should we do in the face of scientific uncertainty and incomplete knowledge?

“We’ve got to stop these exposures, put two and two together. We do know that there are carcinogens, and some of them are mammary carcinogens, as well as endocrine disruptors in these workplaces. We know that people are being exposed through these various work processes, that’s very clear. And if you follow the precautionary principle you would say ‘Okay, there is every reason to suspect that these people are at risk from these exposures, so we need to do something to minimize or eliminate these exposures.’ And that’s where you need the public pressure because it isn't going to happen without it.” Margaret Keith

It is the union activists of Windsor-Essex County, as well as its advocacy researchers, who have put the issue of occupational health on the map in Canada. Many factors have shaped and influenced Windsor activists, such as their proximity to industrial Detroit and roots that go back to the first French settlers. There is also a long history of labour and civil rights actions, from the historic Ford Motor Company strike to involvement with the Underground Railway. Brophy says, “It is this group and not the medical or health professionals that has identified the adverse health impacts of workplace exposures and demanded that these conditions be changed.”

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