Not a flower shop: Exploring breast cancer risk and gender bias

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Publication Date: 
Tue, 2012-07-17

... in the automotive plastic parts industry in Ontario

By Mary-Louise Leidl

“Well I know firsthand when you go and you’re first diagnosed with cancer, they never asked where you worked. They want to know if you smoked, if you had stress in your life, if you drink… they don’t ask me where I live… they never asked me where I worked all those years.”  – National Network on Environments and Women’s Health (NNEWH) focus group participant

The contours of Windsor-Essex County resemble the shape of a tightly closed fist. The most southerly county in Ontario, it lies at the heart of the Great Lakes Basin, almost completely surrounded by water. The Detroit River separates the county’s metropolitan centre, the City of Windsor, from its American cousin, Detroit (a.k.a. Motor City, U.S.A.), Michigan. To the south stretches the vastness of Lake Erie, and to the north, the shallow and much smaller Lake St. Clair, itself a mere 65 kilometres downriver from the industrial city of Sarnia and Ontario’s aptly named “Chemical Valley.”

Windsor-Essex County is a study of contrasts. Known as the “Smog Capital of Canada,” Windsor also has days when its skies show off the deepest blue. Freighters chug up and down the waterways, ensuring a steady exchange of goods between Canada, the United States, and other global markets, while smaller pleasure craft drift with the breeze. Industry hugs the shorelines, yet the flat and fertile county boasts not only the highest concentration of greenhouses on the continent but also the greatest number of tool and die manufacturers in the country—it is both the tomato capital and the automotive capital of Canada.

Jim Brophy and Margaret Keith have studied occupational and environmental health, specifically the links between cancer risk and occupation, for more than three decades. They are the former executive director and former research coordinator, respectively, of the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) of Sarnia-Lambton, and are currently adjunct professors at the University of Windsor. Their research, advocacy and publishing activities are extensive, helping us to better understand how hazardous substances are affecting the health and well-being of women and men working in industrial and other settings.

In 2012, UBC Press will publish Consuming Chemicals: Law, Science and Policy for Women's Health, edited by D.N. Scott. Much of the material used in this article is drawn from the chapter entitled “Plastics Industry Workers and Breast Cancer Risk: Are We Heeding the Warnings?” written by Brophy, Keith, and fellow researchers Robert DeMatteo, Michael Gilbertson, Andrew Watterson and Matthias Beck. As well, Brophy and Keith have teamed up with the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health (NNEWH), a Canadian projects-based research centre, to complete and disseminate their work. Quotations are drawn from a recent interview with Brophy and Keith and their work with a NNEWH-funded focus group study.

Keith and Brophy’s earlier research suggests that women working in the areas of automotive manufacturing, farming and health care are experiencing increased rates of breast cancer—in some cases more than triple the risk. But the scientific and medical communities have shown too little interest to definitively link the disease with occupational hazards, despite these and other earlier studies.

“There has been very, very little research done in this area of occupationally related breast cancer. There have been a few researchers who have written about the fact that women have been excluded from so many occupational health studies. Women are still somehow not considered to be an important workplace population to study, and so we don’t know enough about their risks.” – Margaret Keith

But with their latest findings Brophy and Keith hope to change all that. Engaged activist researchers in the health and safety movement since the late 1970s, the Windsor-based couple continues to listen to and advocate for women who work in some of the unhealthiest occupational environments in the country. Their current research focuses on the links between breast cancer and the working conditions of the blue-collar women who handle one of the most toxic arrays of man-made substances in the world: plastics. Their research takes them to the centre of Canada’s automotive industry, Windsor-Essex County, Ontario.

“We have the life histories of almost 2,200 women that live in Essex County, and it’s an unbelievable story that they have to tell. We need to listen to the populations at risk and not just dismiss their comments. The general public is far ahead of the cancer establishment, which seems to feel perfectly comfortable about the seemingly benign role of the environment, and its effects, while the average person says ‘Of course this is having an impact.’” – Jim Brophy

Car culture

The global auto industry is growing. In 2010, well over 77 million vehicles were built worldwide, a 26 per cent increase over the previous year. Ranking eleventh in the world, Canada’s auto industry produced more than 2,070,000 motor vehicles in 2010, a 39 per cent increase over 2009 levels. Essex County alone is home to over 500 manufacturing plants, directly and indirectly feeding the auto industry.

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