The Everyday Chemical That Makes Breast Cancer 5 Times More Likely in High Doses
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In the United States, an estimated 150,000 female workers in the plastics and synthetic rubber industries are likely exposed to many of the same chemicals as the women in Windsor, including polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, plastic; acrylonitrile; formaldehyde and styrene.
"I think the findings, although they're clearly based on Canadian groups, go well beyond Canada," said another of the Windsor study's coauthors, Andrew Watterson , director of the Centre for Public Health and Population Health Research at the University of Stirling in Scotland. "They're going to be significant for plastics workers in Europe, India, China, Africa, the United States. The chemicals will have the same toxic effects. The same diseases will develop."
Even minuscule amounts of endocrine-disrupting chemicals like BPA can be worrisome, Watterson said. "This research is raising big questions both about what the [workplace] standards are and even about what happens if conditions are very good, with low-level exposures," he said.
In a written statement, a spokeswoman for the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration , said, "We look forward to reading this paper … and plan to explore how we may use the findings in protecting workers from hazardous exposures."
The American Chemistry Council , the main chemical industry trade association in the United States, questioned the study's conclusions, saying it includes "no actual determination of [worker] exposures." The study's estimates of risk seem to be based on a small sample and are "statistically very uncertain," the council said in its statement.
"The well-established risk factors for breast cancer are not chemical exposures, but rather a combination of lifestyle and genetic factors," the council wrote.
Barry Eisenberg, a spokesman for another US trade group, the Society of the Plastics Industry , declined to comment on the study, saying, "We don't have the expertise." Eisenberg declined to answer general questions about worker and consumer health, although his group has had an Occupational Health and Environmental Issues Committee since 1985.
The Canadian Plastics Industry Association did not respond to requests for comment. The president of the Canadian Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association declined to comment.
Life in the factories
Modern cars and trucks are loaded with plastics: bumpers, door panels, license-plate brackets. Dozens of factories in and around Windsor make these parts from plastic pellets melted and shaped in injection molding machines. The parts are then shipped to auto manufacturers.
The Big Three US automakers expressed varying degrees of concern about conditions in the parts plants.
General Motors said its suppliers are "independent businesses which must meet the Health and Safety legislation in the jurisdictions in which they operate." Ford said it "requires suppliers to ensure that our products—no matter where they are made—are manufactured under conditions that demonstrate respect for the people who make them." And Chrysler said that while its suppliers are "responsible for their own legal compliance," its policies "restrict us from using suppliers who we learn do not comply with our requirements or environmental and health and safety laws."
Conditions in some of the Windsor plants have improved, workers say. In years past, for example, hot plastic would be removed from the molding machines and dumped on the floor, where it might lie for up to an hour. Some companies have altered this process, known as purging, requiring that the reeking muck be put into covered barrels.
Others have relocated grinding machines—bladed devices that chew up scrap plastic and spit out huge quantities of dust—to isolated areas to reduce worker exposures.
Workers say, however, that a lack of local ventilation—vacuums that can suck up fumes and dust straight from the molding and grinding machines and direct them outside—is still the norm at many facilities.