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Breast cancer: Occupational exposure research highlights opportunities for prevention

Research findings from Canada lend weight to hypotheses that reducing exposure to chemicals could reduce breast cancer rates in women. The results indicated that women who worked for a longer period of time in jobs classified as highly exposed to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors had a higher risk of breast cancer.

The study published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health provides further evidence that certain occupations pose a higher risk of breast cancer than others, particularly those that expose the worker to potential carcinogens and endocrine disrupters.

The authors found that women who worked for 10 years in jobs classified as highly exposed to carcinogens and endocrine disrupters had a higher risk of breast cancer. Sectors with increased risk included agriculture, bar/gambling, automotive plastics manufacturing, food canning and metal-working.

The risk factor was especially high—five times higher than in the control group—for pre-menopausal women working in the automotive plastics and food-canning sectors. Canning industry exposures could include pesticide residues and exposures specific to canning processes involving coating emissions, likely to include Bisphenol A (BPA).

The findings showed that women who are more exposed to cancer causing substances have a 42% higher risk of getting the disease than those who are not exposed to these kinds of substances. Canadian Jim Brophy, one of the lead researchers said the study suggested that occupation represented a bigger risk factor for the women in these jobs than genetics or life-style choices. "Occupation as a risk factor for these women in these jobs is considerably more significant than many other known or suspected risk factors", he said.

UK research contributor, Andrew Watterson who is director of the Centre for Public Health and Population Health Research at the University of Stirling in Scotland said the findings were applicable in other parts of the world. “The chemicals will have the same toxic effects. The same diseases will develop,” he said.

He pointed out that even minuscule amounts of EDCs like BPA can be worrisome. “This research is raising big questions both about what the [workplace] standards are - and even about what happens if conditions are very good, with low-level exposures,” Watterson told journalists.

In her reaction to the findings, Jeanne Rizzo, president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund focused on prevention: “No one should have to face a cancer diagnosis because of the work they do. These workers are the canaries in the coal mines—we need to heed the warning of this study and take measures to protect them and all of us from toxic chemical exposures.”

Last updated on 12 December 2012

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