A dramatic policy switch to eliminate exposure to Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) must be the main focus of the EU’s EDC strategy (1) currently being reviewed in order to address the shocking levels of breast cancer caused by work. The Alliance for Cancer Prevention demands a refocus of the EDC strategy in the wake of new research which shows working in certain jobs can elevate women’s breast cancer risk. The international case control study (2), led by the University of Stirling’s Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety Research Group (OEHRG) found that women working for 10 years in jobs classified as highly exposed increased their breast cancer risk by 42 per cent.
Study authors Dr James Brophy and Dr Margaret Keith said of the results: “Diverse and concentrated exposures to carcinogens and hormone disrupting chemicals in some workplaces can put workers at an increased risk for developing cancer.”
Risk factors were especially high for those pre-menopausal women working in the automotive plastics and food-canning sectors, with up to five times higher risk than those in the control groups. The study looked at cumulative exposure for women which started before menarche, through first full term pregnancy, onto menopause and post menopause. The occupational sectors studied were farming, plastics, food canning, metal working and bar/casino/racecourses in southern Ontario, Canada. (5)
Professor Andrew Watterson, head of the OEHRG at Stirling University and co-author of the study said: “Many workers face multiple exposures to chemicals, not only from their employment, but from their everyday environment. Many of the women included in the study were exposed to a virtual ‘toxic soup’ of chemicals. Untangling work and wider factors in the possible causes of breast cancer is an important global issue”.
Likely substances forming the ‘toxic soup’ included: pesticides use in farming and food production; plasticisers, flame retardants, phthalates, BPA, styrene, and vinyl chloride used in the automotive plastics industry; second hand tobacco smoke (pre-smoking ban) and shift working in bars and racecourses; and solvents and PAH’s in metal work industries.
Many of these substances are known or suspected carcinogens, mutagens and endocrine disrupting chemicals. (6) Cumulative exposure to EDCs in particular has been implicated in elevated risk for breast and other cancers, reproductive disorders, early puberty, immune system dysfunction, birth defects and neurological effects. EDCs have been shown to act cumulatively, in combination and at extremely low levels.
Helen Lynn, facilitator for the Alliance said: “The situation is no different in Canada than it is in the UK. This is not just an occupational issue, we as consumers are perpetuating the problem. Consigning women to face an increasing breast risk by working in environments where they are exposed daily to a cocktail of carcinogenic, mutagenic and endocrine disrupting chemicals to manufacture products for consumption is just not acceptable. Workplace regulations don’t appear to cover for endocrine disruptors. The UK government and cancer establishment is complacent due to its inaction. Ignorance is bliss and efforts to regulate EDCs and mixtures of EDCs are undermined by a focus on regulating risks instead of taking a hazard based approach to these substances, to which there are no safe levels.”
Talking about the research Dr Keith reflected that study could also have wider implications for society as a whole. We may be exposed to many of these same cancer-causing and endocrine-disrupting chemicals on a daily basis, albeit likely at much lower levels. The study also points to the need to re-evaluate occupational and environmental exposure standards, keeping in mind that there may be no determinable safe levels to cancer-causing or hormone-disrupting chemicals.
The Alliance for Cancer Prevention believes a turning point has been reached with this study, and we must heed the warning. Lifestyle or genetic factors alone cannot be blamed for the increasing rise in breast cancer. Other factors are at play such as occupational and environmental exposures and we need to include these as risk factors when strategising ways to prevent this disease. No women should have to deal with ever present risk of breast cancer because of the work she does.
The Alliance for Cancer Prevention demands an urgent refocus of the EDC strategy to eliminate exposure to EDCs. We call on the UK government to support a hazard’s based approach to identification and assessment of EDCs including mixtures of EDCs across all exposures in the workplace and for the public in general.
The Alliance for Cancer Prevention is a multi-stakeholder alliance of trade unions, public health advocates, civil society and environmental NGOs in the UK groups campaigning on cancer prevention with the aim of getting recognition for the environmental and occupational risk factors for cancer. (9)
Notes to Editor:
- EU Commission Strategy for Endocrine Disruptors and Draft report on theProtection of Public Health from Endocrine Disruptors.
- Study available to download from here: Breast cancer risk in relation to occupations with exposure to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors: a Canadian case–control study
- Notation: Brophy, J., Keith, M., Watterson, A., Park, R., Gilbertson, M., Maticka-Tyndale, E., Beck, M., Abu-Zahra, H., Schneider, K., Reinhartz, A., DeMatteo, R., & Luginaah, I. (2012). “Breast cancer risk in relation to occupations with exposure to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors: A Canadian case control study.” Environmental Health. http://www.ehjournal.net
- The case control study, involving 1006 women with breast cancer and 1146 without the disease, revealed that women who worked for 10 years in jobs classified as highly exposed increased their breast cancer risk by 42 per cent.
- The study found several occupational sectors in which there was elevated breast cancer risk details can be found on the Press release from Stirling University
- State of the Art Report of Endocrine Disruptors by Kortenkamp et al. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/endocrine/documents/4_SOTA%20EDC%20Final%20Report%20V3%206%20Feb%2012.pd
- Endocrine disrupting chemicals are substances that alter one or more functions of the endocrine system (the bodies messenger system) and consequently cause adverse health effects in an intact organism, or its progeny, or (sub)populations. (WHO definition).
- A summary of the research findings by the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health.
- Environmental and occupational risk factors are exposures (either occupational or environmental) through air, soil, or water or direct contact with chemicals or substances which contribute to a cancer outcome by nature of their carcinogenicity, mutagenicity or endocrine disrupting abilities and properties.