The machines disgorge "pretty toxic stuff—either carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting chemicals," said Robert DeMatteo, a retired health and safety director for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union and lead author of an article on the plastics industry scheduled for publication early next year in the journal New Solutions. "All you're going to do with general ventilation is just dilute it."
Carol Bristow got into the industry in 1989, having grown impatient with a dead-end cashier's job at the A&P. "I never felt working in a factory would be my calling," Bristow said. "The first six months I would come home in tears and in pain, almost praying to God that I wouldn't get my seniority because it seemed like the wrong place to be. But the money kept coming in, and you just adjusted."
In 1992, when she was 34, Bristow was diagnosed with cancer in her right breast, which was removed along with about 20 lymph nodes. She kept working and developed endometriosis, a painful condition in which cells from the lining of the uterus grow outside the uterine cavity. Some studies have linked endometriosis with exposure to chemicals such as dioxin, a byproduct of PVC incineration and chlorine production. Bristow underwent a hysterectomy in 2001.
As all of this was going on, Bristow was being tormented by bladder infections. Benign tumors were removed from her bladder in 2010 and again in August of this year. "I'll have to be scoped every three months for the rest of my life," she said, referring to a procedure called cystoscopy, in which a tube-like viewing device is inserted through the urethra into the bladder. One study found that women who had worked in the plastics industry had a more than threefold risk of developing bladder cancer.
"I think the findings, although they're clearly based on Canadian groups, go well beyond Canada. 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."
Why does Bristow stay?
The pay, she explained, is a respectable $22 an hour, with benefits, in a tough economy. "Who's going to hire me?" she asked.
The owner of Bristow's factory, which bought the facility in 2001, says it is unaware of any worker health concerns and has a "consistently strong track record—recognized by workers and regulators – of protecting its employees' health and safety."
James Brophy and his partner, Margaret Keith, both Ph.D.s with backgrounds in occupational health, began studying Ontario plastics workers in the late 1970s.
"It wasn't something we chose to be interested in," Keith said. "We had people come to us"—notably, a union official from a Windsor plant concerned about what seemed to be an abundance of disease among female workers.
Keith, Brophy, and a physician put together a health questionnaire, which was circulated at five plants. Reports of nosebleeds, headaches, and nausea came back. Some operators said the fumes had made them pass out at their machines. "The level of symptoms was pretty horrifying," Brophy said.
In 1981, the CBC broadcast a documentary, Dying for Work, which highlighted conditions in the Windsor plants. "We thought that would really start the ball rolling" toward better ventilation and other improvements, Keith said. "Absolutely nothing happened."
Keith and Brophy lost contact with the plastics workers for more than a decade, until several turned up at their occupational health clinic in 1993 to report that they had had miscarriages or difficulty conceiving. Keith, Brophy and clinic staff developed a second questionnaire for circulation in the plants. "We found a lot of acute symptoms as well as reproductive problems and some cancers," Keith said.
Around the same time, Keith and Brophy convinced officials at the Windsor Regional Cancer Center to begin collecting work histories of cancer patients. This led to an initial study, completed in 1999, which found an increased risk of breast cancer among women who farmed. A subsequent study, finished in 2002, looked at the work histories of 564 women with breast cancer and 599 who didn't have the disease. Again, a strong association between farming and breast cancer was noted; an even stronger link was found among women who'd farmed and then gone to work in the auto industry.
The new study, funded by groups including the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation-Ontario Region, examined a population twice as large and featured a more detailed questionnaire. Workers in the plastics industry, it found, are exposed to a brew of carcinogenic and estrogenic chemicals, also known as endocrine disruptors, which interfere with the hormone system and can cause tumors, birth defects, and developmental disorders. This complex mixture, Brophy said, may be more dangerous than any one compound.
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. The highest risk for pre-menopausal women—nearly six times that of the controls—was found in canning, an industry in which workers may be exposed to BPA in epoxy can linings and pesticides released from food during cooking.
The primary risk factor associated with agriculture is pesticide exposure, the study found. Women who work at bars, casinos, and racetracks are exposed to tobacco smoke, it noted, and also subjected to "disruption of circadian rhythms and decreased melatonin production resulting from night work," which other research has shown to be associated with breast cancer.
In general, breast cancer is an older woman's disease; a 60-year-old has a greater chance of developing the disease than does a 30-year-old. Many of the victims in the Windsor plastics factories are in their 30s, 40s and 50s, say six current and former workers, from multiple plants, interviewed by the Center for Public Integrity.
"We're sitting here after three decades, and you see the weight of the evidence that these substances pose serious health problems, yet there's nary a mention of the risk that blue-collar workers bear, particularly women," Brophy said. "They're just not on the radar. Had we paid more attention to them, the harm these substances cause would have been seen much sooner and we might have prevented them from becoming so ubiquitous in the environment."
The President's Cancer Panel, an advisory committee in the United States attached to the National Cancer Institute, reported in 2010 that "the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated." The panel singled out BPA as one of the chemicals that may be causing "grievous harm."