The disease risk caused by endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) may be significantly underestimated, according to a report recently published by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
In fact the evidence presented in this report entitled, State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals 2012, suggest many endocrine-related diseases and disorders are on the rise.
This report is a follow up to a 2002 report entitled Global Assessment of the State-of-the-Science of Endocrine Disruptors. The authors of the 2012 report wrote in their Summary for Decision-Makers document, "Unlike 10 years ago, it is now better understood that humans and wildlife are exposed to far more EDCs than just persistent organic pollutants."
Endocrine disrupting chemicals are used in many workplaces and found in a wide range of products including pesticides, metals, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, construction material and plastics.
Once EDCs are released into the environment they can be inhaled, ingested or absorbed. Once in the body they can mimic hormones and, even at low doses, can increase the risk of cancer, reproductive disorders and other serious health effects. Specific examples discussed in the WHO/UNEP report and increasingly linked with EDCs include: low semen quality; preterm birth and low birth weight; breast, ovarian, prostate, testicular and thyroid cancer; type 2 diabetes and obesity; heart disease; asthma; as well as behavioural and learning problems.
The WHO/UNEP report also highlights the continued lack of preventive action. "Worldwide, there has been a failure to adequately address the underlying environmental causes of trends in endocrine diseases and disorders." The report goes on to explain "The benefits that can be reaped by adopting primary prevention measures for dealing with these diseases and disorders have remained largely unrealized."
Canadian study finds possible link between EDC and breast cancer
Closer to home, a recent Canadian study found an increased incidence of breast cancer among workers in certain occupations, suggesting a possible link to workplace exposures including EDCs.
The multi-year study, entitled "Breast cancer risk in relation to occupations with exposure to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors: A Canadian case control study", explored workplace environmental risk factors that might affect breast cancer development. Canadian researchers, Dr. James Brophy and Dr. Margaret Keith, led a team of researchers from Canada, the U.S. and Europe. The research was based in southwestern Ontario's Essex and Kent counties, home to both heavy manufacturing and agriculture sectors.
Some 2,000 women participated in the case control study, half of whom had a breast cancer diagnosis and half who did not. Along with personal and reproductive risk factors, the women provided occupational histories on possible exposures to cancer-causing substances and endocrine disruptors.
The study found an overall 42 per cent increased risk of breast cancer for those women working for ten years in environments with high exposures to carcinogens and hormone disrupting chemicals. In certain occupations, women experienced an elevated risk of developing breast cancer:
Automotive plastics and food canning: women who worked in these industries had a two-fold increased breast cancer risk. This rose to five times the risk in those who were pre-menopausal.
Tooling, foundries, metal-related manufacturing: women were 73 per cent more at risk of developing breast cancer.
Bars and gambling facilities: women were more than two times at risk of developing breast cancer.
Farming: women were 36 per cent more at risk of developing breast cancer.
The study helps fill gaps in existing knowledge of occupational cancer and workplace exposures and research specific to working women's health.
Efforts to measure the real burden of occupational cancer in Canada got a boost this fall when the Occupational Cancer Research Centre received a $1-million dollar grant from the Canadian Cancer Society to study the impact of 44 known or suspected carcinogens and their links to certain types of cancer.
Others want to see preventive action now. The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) represents tens of thousands of manufacturing workers including many working in auto parts plants, some of whom participated in the study. Sari Sairanen is CAW director or Health, Safety and Environment. "Important studies like this give credence to the glaring trends that we see in our workplaces - it is absolutely urgent that we do not continue to wait until overwhelming evidence piles up before we take action," said Sairanen.
Health and safety advocates are calling on governments to review and adopt stricter regulations now to protect workers from harmful occupational exposures, including EDCs.
Want to read a copy of WHO/UNEP Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals 2012?
Want to read a summary of the Canadian EDC and cancer study's research findings?
Want to review resources from a recent webinar on endocrine disruptors in the workplace?
Want to read a guide to protecting women in the automotive plastic industry?
Want to read a Workers Health & Safety Centre Resource Line hazard bulletin on endocrine disruptors?
Want to read a Workers Health & Safety Centre Resource Line hazard bulletin on polyvinyl chloride?
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