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Job Environments That Increase a Woman’s Chance of Breast Cancer

breast cancer, BPA, environmental exposure to carcinogens

There is still much unknown about the link between certain environmental exposures and the risk of developing breast cancer. However, a new study published in the journal Environmental Health studied the exposures to certain toxins that women face in the workplace which may indeed increase their risk of developing the disease.

Breast cancer is the most frequent cancer diagnosis among women in industrialized countries with North American rates among the highest in the world. Certain industrial workplaces, such as those in farming and manufacturing, appear to expose employees to specific carcinogens and endocrine disrupters that may potentially lead to cancer, including breast cancer.

Dr. James T. Brophy PhD and colleagues at the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group (OEHRG) at Stirling University in the U.K analyzed data collected in a study from Southern Ontario, Canada which compared 1006 breast cancer cases with 1147 randomly selected community controls. Interviews and surveys provided information about the participants’ occupation and reproductive histories. All jobs were coded for their likelihood of exposure to carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) and endocrine disrupters.

Women working in agriculture, bar/gambling, automotive plastics manufacturing, food canning, and metal-working were at the highest risk of developing premenopausal breast cancer. For those working at least 10 years in “highly exposed” jobs, the risk of getting breast cancer increased by 42%.

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Employees working in the automotive industry, for example, may handle a wide variety of carcinogenic materials such as bisphenol A (BPA), solvents, heavy metals, and flame retardants. In the United States, an estimated 150,000 female workers are employed in the plastics and synthetic rubber industries and are likely exposed to many of the same chemicals as the women in this study, including polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, plastic; acrylonitrile; formaldehyde and styrene.

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, and workers were 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.

“…Studies have shown that breast cancer incidence rose throughout the developed world during in the second half of the 20th Century as women entered industrial workplaces and many new and untested chemicals were being introduced,” Brophy told BBC News. , "Our results highlight the importance of occupational studies in identifying and quantifying environmental risk factors and illustrates the value of taking detailed occupational histories of cancer patients.”

In a written statement, a spokeswoman for the U.S. 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.”

Journal Reference:
James T Brophy, Margaret M Keith, et al. Breast cancer risk in relation to occupations with exposure to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors: a Canadian case--control study. Environmental Health, 2012; 11 (1): 87 DOI: 10.1186/1476-069X-11-87