Many of us are aware that in the grand scheme of things plastics aren’t that great for the human body.
There are tons of little things we can do to minimize our exposure, like switching from plasticware to glassware or using canvas bags for our groceries. However, for the women working in a plastic auto parts factory in Windsor, Ontario, avoiding plastic exposure was a luxury they simply didn’t have. For decades, their jobs required them to endure a work environment filled with dizzying fumes and plastic particles. Now, their health is paying the price.
A six-year study published by Environmental Health in 2012 examined breast cancer risk across a survey of occupations and found that women involved in the manufacture of plastic auto parts were nearly 5 times as likely to develop premenopausal breast cancer as the control group. The findings corroborated what many of the employees had already noticed. For decades, employees of plastic factories have reported troubling symptoms related to their work, including nausea, nosebleeds, loss of consciousness, and a strange prevalence of disease amongst female employees.
One plastics employee, a woman named Carol Bristow, was attracted to the industry for the paycheck - a respectable $22 per hour. Over the course of her employment, she developed breast cancer, endometriosis, and bladder tumors, all of which have been linked to exposure of chemicals found in the processing of plastics. She strongly suspects that her illness is tied to chemical exposure at work, but the poor economy makes it difficult to leave a stable, well-paying job.
What is it about this line of work that makes it so much riskier than others?
There are many harmful chemicals associated with plastic as a finished product, including BPA, a chemical “hardener” that is associated with endocrine disruption in the human body. Plastic workers are exposed to all of these chemicals in large amounts on a constant basis. Additionally, there are many more chemicals and procedures involved with the manufacturing process that pose additional dangers, from grinding machines emitting large amounts of plastic dust to the handling of all the chemical solvents and flame retardants incorporated into the plastics.
The daily exposure and inhalation of toxins definitely adds up.
Unfortunately, plastics are so ubiquitous that it’s unlikely their manufacture will cease anytime soon. So what happens to the employees tasked with handling these toxic chemicals? For many people, getting another job is not a realistic solution. Should the health of our factory workers be the sacrifice we make for living in a modern industrialized society?
The first step is to fight for better workplace regulations.
As more research on occupational health hazards emerges, it will become harder and harder for corporations to justify exposing their workers to such dangerous conditions. Ultimately, though, this is a fight that must be taken to a much larger scale. A 2011 study shows that economic growth has become synonymous with chronic and environmental illness. It’s time that we measure success as a nation by improvements in human health, not just economic progress.
~ This post is based on the article “Study spotlights high breast cancer risk for plastics workers” posted by publicintergrity.org on November 19, 2012. ~