This story was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity.
For more than three decades, workers, most of them women, have complained of dreadful conditions in many of Windsor, Ontario's plastic automotive parts factories: Pungent fumes and dust that caused nosebleeds, headaches, nausea, and dizziness. Blobs of smelly, smoldering plastic dumped directly onto the floor. "It was like hell," says one woman who still works in the industry.
The women fretted, usually in private, about what seemed to be an excess of cancer and other diseases in the factories across the river from Detroit. "People were getting sick, but you never really thought about the plastic itself," said Gina DeSantis, who has worked at a plant near Windsor for 25 years.
Now, workers like DeSantis are the focal point of a new study that appears to strengthen the tie between breast cancer and toxic exposures.
The six-year study, conducted by a team of researchers from Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, examined the occupational histories of 1,006 women from Ontario's Essex and Kent counties who had the disease and 1,146 who didn't. Adjustments were made for smoking, weight, alcohol use, and other lifestyle and reproductive factors.
The results, published online today in the journal Environmental Health, are striking: Women employed in the automotive plastics industry were almost five times as likely to develop breast cancer, prior to menopause, as women in the control group.
These workers may handle an array of carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. They include the hardening agent bisphenol A (BPA)—whose presence in polycarbonate water bottles and other products has unnerved some consumers—plus solvents, heavy metals and flame retardants.
Sandy Knight, who worked at two Windsor plastics plants from 1978 to 1998, had a breast cancer scare in 2000, when she was 41. The cancer was at Stage III—"invasive and fast-growing," said Knight, 53, who now works at a Ford parts distribution center near Toronto. She had a single mastectomy and, following 10 years of hormonal treatment, is in remission.
Asked if she believed her disease was work-related, Knight said, "I'm suspicious of it because of all the exposures we had." She remembers the "nauseating kind of odor," the burning eyes and headaches, all the women with cancer, sterility, and miscarriages. She's upset that little seems to have changed at some plants.
The study found that, in addition to the plastic workers, women who worked in food canning and agriculture and at bars, casinos, and racetracks had elevated breast cancer risks.
"Why am I speaking to people today, in 2012, who are doing the same processes I did in 1980?" Knight asked. "It just seems like we're fighting the same battle. A lot of these chemicals should be removed from the workplace."
The study population included women who had worked at more than 40 plastics factories in the Windsor area. But the implications are broader: Workers in similar plants around the world are exposed to many of the same chemicals. So are members of the public, who encounter the substances—albeit in lower doses—in the course of their daily lives.
"These workplace chemicals are now present in our air, water, food and consumer products," said one of the two principal investigators, James Brophy, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Windsor and a former occupational health clinic director. "If we fail to take heed then we are doing so at our own peril."
Jeanne Rizzo, president of the Breast Cancer Fund, a San Francisco-based group that has pressed for more research into environmental causes of a disease that claimed nearly 40,000 lives in the United States last year, called the Windsor study "a very powerful piece of work. The piece that's really been missing for female breast cancer is occupation."
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.