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The Everyday Chemical That Makes Breast Cancer 5 Times More Likely in High Doses

A new study exposes the high levels of breast cancer in women who work with chemicals that have entered our air and water.

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Bristow, a union member, said that many workers seem unwilling to confront their bosses with health questions. Too often, she said, a woman disappears from the factory floor and her coworkers don't learn until much later that another case of breast cancer has been diagnosed.

The Ontario Ministry of Labor is committed to the prevention of work-related diseases, a spokesman said in a statement. The ministry uses a multifaceted approach that includes health and safety inspection "blitzes" and the updating of exposure limits, the spokesman wrote. "We make decisions on the latest science and we welcome any report that will bring a better understanding of occupational exposures to ensure that workers are protected from unsafe exposure levels."

There is also deep dissatisfaction with workplace regulation in the United States. Adam Finkel, former director of health standards programs for OSHA, said the vast majority of exposure limits enforced by the agency in American workplaces are based on scientific data from the 1960s or earlier, even though an estimated 150 workers die each day of work-related diseases.

Limits for only 16 substances have been updated, a consequence of industry challenges and hesitancy on OSHA's part. There are no limits for BPA. The limits that do exist for chemicals used in plastics—say, vinyl chloride, an ingredient in PVC—were designed to address cancer and acute symptoms, not the sort of hormonal damage that can occur when women of childbearing age receive low-level exposures. Only 18 percent of OSHA inspections last year focused on potential health, as opposed to safety, hazards.

"It's a terrible record, and I'm getting more pessimistic as the years go by," said Finkel, who runs the Penn Program on Regulation, a research center at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

In its statement, OSHA acknowledged, "Many of our current Permissible Exposure Limits are out of date and inadequately protective, and we do not have limits for many other chemicals. OSHA is currently examining ways to strengthen our efforts related to workplace chemical exposures, as well as ways to respond to the identification of new, emerging hazards."

The US Environmental Protection Agency's record on chemicals—like OSHA'—is thin.

Chemicals found in the workplace—among them BPA and phthalates—also may pose health risks to the general public. Of the more than 80,000 chemicals registered for use today, however, the EPA has required only about 2 percent to undergo even basic testing. At the root of the problem is the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which puts the onus on the EPA to prove that a chemical is harmful before it can be banned or its use restricted. This burden is almost insurmountably high; the EPA has banned narrow uses of only five chemicals since the law was passed.

The Obama EPA has begun to disallow claims of "confidential business information" that for decades enabled companies to conceal the identities of chemicals when they submitted health and safety data, even if significant risks had been flagged.

Industry, however, is fighting an attempt by the EPA to extend its anti-secrecy policy to new chemicals; a proposed rule has been under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget for nearly a year.

A proposal to add BPA, phthalates and a certain class of flame retardants to an EPA "chemicals of concern" list has been at the OMB for more than 900 days. The EPA says that these chemicals "may present an unreasonable risk to human health and/or the environment" and wants to use its authority under the law to list them, a step that would, among other things, require producers to notify the EPA when they exported the chemicals, and the EPA to notify the recipient governments.