Picture of Kathryn Gilje

Kathryn Gilje

Turns out, women come home from work with breast cancer

A critical and devastating new study confirms a link between certain work — farming and vegetable canning included — and an elevated risk of breast cancer. The research was conducted in southern Ontario, and for me, this news hits close to home.

I was raised in Minnesota, and lived on a small farm just fifteen miles from a vegetable canning factory. When reading this study, I immediately thought of Lily, a young woman diagnosed with breast cancer in her late twenties. She and her mother Lidia spent over a decade working in the vegetable canning factory after coming to Minnesota as migrant farmworkers. I vividly remember the desperation and grief in Lidia's voice when she told me the news of Lily's cancer.

The scientific findings, released in Environmental Health, show an incredible five-fold increase of pre-menopausal breast cancer in women who work in vegetable canning. Why?

1 in 8 is too many

The study is important because women need to know why one in eight of us will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and because so little has been done to research women's workplace exposure to carcinogens or endocrine disruptors, despite the fact that so many women go to work each day surrounded by these very chemicals. The paucity of research is maddening.

Long overdue, this study suggests it's time for us to stop having women be the guinea pigs in a toxic experiment, but rather have the chemical industry prove their products safe before releasing them into our work environment, or elsewhere.

A few more details:

  • The study "showed elevated risk of breast cancer among women who had farmed," highlighting that several pesticides act as mammary carcinogens, and many are endocrine disruptors.
  • Noting that employment on farms "tends to begin earlier than other occupations," the researchers affirm that endocrine disruptors "may impart particular risks for those in prepubescent or pre-parity windows of vulnerability."
  • The process of canning "has been found to significantly reduce levels of residual pesticides through washing, boiling, and peeling, which conceivably expose food processing workers." Workers in canning factories are also particularly susceptible to BPA exposure from heated can liners, primarily through inhalation. The researchers found "elevated breast cancer risk for work in food canning" and "elevated pre-menopausal breast cancer risk for work in food and beverage processing."

Finding the will to follow the science

The science is in — and the question is, will Canadian and U.S. policymakers now respond? And how fast? In the words of Jeanne Rizzo, CEO of The Breast Cancer Fund:

Will they take quick, decisive steps to protect these women? Will they work urgently to enforce existing laws and to overhaul our broken chemicals management system so that workers and all of us are protected?

While that is certainly plausible, it will take incredible political, social and personal will. I'm calling on our leaders to find that will. These women workers deserve nothing less.

Lily included.

Further details and thoughts on the implications of this study can be found in these articles:

For women working in vegetable canning who want more information, contact the Health Promoter Program at Centro Campesino.

Picture of Kathryn Gilje

Kathryn Gilje

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