Hot Plastics in Windsor – Molten chemicals and sick women

Preface to “Hot Plastics”

If you have read the Sarnia stories on this site, you will have met  Drs. Jim Brophy and Margaret Keith, occupational health experts and advocates. They are also the lead authors of a paper that went platinum on the international breast-cancer research network: Breast cancer risk in relation to occupations with exposure to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors: a Canadian case-control study, published in Environmental Health (November 2012). Their research involved over 2100 women and demonstrated how Ontario automotive workers and those working in food canning plants were five times more likely to have breast cancer before menopause than other women living similar lives. This research into occupational exposures and breast cancer was co-winner of the American Public Health Association (APHA) Scientific Award in the Occupational Health category. Read the full study here

If you’d like to meet some of the women who worked with them in the Windsor area automotive plastics plants and helped them with their study; if you want to get a full understanding of the horrendous working conditions and health impacts these workers must face – cancer, but more than breast cancer, and many other serious diseases too; if you want to meet three women of intelligence, humour, courage and indominatable spirit read on.

Because in March of 2014, at the Unifor headquarters in Windsor Ontario, we were privileged to spend an afternoon with three such women. They gave us an education for which we were very grateful, but that also that shook us badly. The conditions they described, the damage that was being done to their health and that of and their fellow workers, the criminal indifference of government, the obstacles to improving all this seemed to us … well, see for yourself.

I present their accounts to you in the form of a sketch, factually based on what we learned that afternoon, that I developed for the novel I have been working on. So while, for reasons of privacy, the three women featured are not exactly the women with whom we spoke, they are inspired by them. In this story (according to the larger narrative of the novel) I have placed them at a conference that takes place during a future federal election campaign, where they get the opportunity to educate the leaders of Canada’s main political parties—a situation I would dearly love to see take place one day. This situation is fictional, so far at least. But what you will read about hot plastics in Windsor—that is no fiction. At the end, you’ll find a very brief update on the Supreme Court of Canada case that finally affirmed breast cancer as a workplace illness.

IN the pale morning light of a mid-March day on Sandwich Street in the south end of Windsor, Mackenzie Hall, two tall storeys of limestone and pale yellow brick constructed in the late-nineteenth century classic revival style, opens its doors to a gathering crowd. Sandwich is the southward continuation of Windsor’s Riverside Drive, the main drag along the Detroit River that leads north through downtown, then up into the well-to-do suburbs. Appropriately to the theme of today’s campaign meeting—health, environment and economy and why national political leadership is needed to deal with these issues even at local levels, including right here in industrialized southwestern Ontario—this location sits right across the river from the heavily polluted area known as Southwest Detroit, about mid-way between Detroit’s Rosa Parks Boulevard and the Rouge River, in other words, across from Detroit’s infamous 48217 zip code. This is actually the point at which Windsor receives the very worst of the toxic plumes from the whole gamut of polluting installations on the U.S. side: a huge refinery, a steel mill, a massive, antiquated industrial and residential sewage plant, and even the blowback from the 10,000 goods-bearing trucks that cross from Windsor to the U.S. every day and drive through Southwest Detroit’s residential streets—all of it comes across right here with the prevailing westerly winds, frequently hurting the lungs and fouling the mouth. Indeed, there are days when Windsor smells worse than Sarnia, and that is saying a lot.

Today, a cold northerly wind is blowing a few wisps of grey and white cloud across an otherwise blue sky, and the air does not smell like a refinery, for which the people at this conference are grateful. In addition to most of the hopeful Green Canada Coalition leaders, heads of national environmental organizations banded together and trying to move the main political parties forward, their party leaders are also here:  the Liberal prime minister, the Conservative head of her majesty’s Official Opposition, the New Democratic Party leader and, with only two seats in parliament but a big presence in this campaign, the leader of the Green Party. Because of the agenda, both the presenters and the by-invitation attendees include a serious contingent of working class activists, as well as the usual complement of middle class experts, academics and civil servants (not many of those), staffers for local non-profits throughout the region, plus board members and town councilors and other engaged citizens from villages, towns and cities throughout the region. Two local members of parliament are also stamping their feet in the brisk air. Conspicuous by their absence are their provincial counterparts. Local media are here too. All of them are thronging the front doors, impatient to get into the warm.

Once inside, on the second floor two hundred people take their seats as the five speakers and four party leaders arrange themselves behind a cloth-draped table on a low platform.  The conference moderator, a well-known environmental leader, takes the podium and introduces himself as one of the main organizers of the Green Canada campaign. Gesturing to the politicians on his right, he says, “I know these folks need no introduction, since they lead the parties in our House of Commons and you all know them well. But to their right are two great friends of working people in this part of the country, the two occupational health researchers who will speak to us this afternoon.” The crowd breaks spontaneously into applause. “And of course,” he turns to the women on his left, “let me say a word about these three speakers, who will address this first session of the day. They are union activists who work in the Windsor area, in automotive plastics factories they’re going to talk to you about today. Though be aware that many of the same type of plants in this region, and in Michigan, across the border, too, are non-union and therefore have no one to speak publicly for them.

“So first, please meet Unifor staffer, Diane Salisbury.” A tall woman, rangy and blonde, in her late forties, in big glasses and bright colours shows with her up-beat wave that she’s right at home in a setting like this. “Next to her is Marina d’Aquino, from Amherstburg,” and a beautiful woman with dark eyes, lovely brows and an olive complexion, elegant in grey and black, lifts a more tentative hand. “Finally,” he gestures to the end of the table, “this is Charlotte Hewson, also from Windsor.” The last woman,  younger by perhaps ten years than the other two, with sandy hair in a cropped bob, wearing a checked shirt, jeans and work boots, lifts her hand as well. Her face is round and pleasant, though her expression is hard to read. After her wave to the audience, she leans over, looks across the moderator and waves again, not to the crowd this time, but to the politicians, provoking a small laugh from the floor.

“Diane,” the moderator says to the first of the women. “Take it away.”

“Thank you, James,” says Diane Salisbury, pulling her microphone close and smiling at the room.  “And thanks to everyone for coming. Well, I started out as a needle-worker in a GM plant in the late 1970s, same plant as my mother, and then I became an electrician and now I’m a union staffer.” Her voice is clear and resonant. “So I never did the same work as Marina and Charlie, exactly, but I did work with a lot of plastics, sewing them, handling them for hours every day, bent close over my machine and those materials, breathing in the fumes they gave off. And let me tell you,“ she says, “they gave off some serious stuff.”

She pauses for a moment to let the audience paint a mental picture and then she continues. “I helped to start a group here in Windsor a few years ago, when breast-cancer clusters in plastics factories were finally confirmed and documented by those two epidemiologists sitting there at the far end of the table,”—she leans over too, and aims a wave at the couple sitting next to the politicians, beaming them a smile—“in their irrefutable studies. Which, naturally, the automotive-parts industry went crazy over and denounced as false, since it was impossible for any cancer to be workplace related in any part of their industry.” She gets knowing nods and a few laughs from the audience and a snort from Charlotte Hewson. “Today, from my union position, I’m helping to organize a continent-wide union campaign with the slogan of, ‘Get breast cancer out of the workplace.’ But it’s a very tough slog, and you’re about to hear why.” That gets a round of applause, and Diane smiles to acknowledge it. “Okay, so that’s me for the time being. At this point, I think Marina and Charlie should take over. I’ll come back at the end.” She pushes the microphone over toward the other two women.

“Thanks, Diane,” Marina D’Aquino says, bending a little to the mic now in front of her, her voice soft and low. “So, I do – or did, since I came down with the kidney cancer – work in a plastics plant. Since I was nineteen I’ve worked in the same place. The whole time, twenty-seven years, one place. My mother worked at the same plant before me. She’d been there for about eight years when I started. I’m not working now, since I’ve had to take time off to deal with the cancer.”

D’Aquino’s voice grows a little shaky and she takes a moment to gather herself. So does her audience. Kidney cancer is a sobering thing. “Soon after I started,” she says, voice stronger again, “the plant was bought out by a small local company, and they did very well for themselves. Today that company has a new name and they’re global. Just here, they have three or four plants, tool and die as well as plastics. Across the border, they’re in Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas. They’re also in Mexico. Big new plant in Monterey. The autoworkers here call it Little Detroit. As well, related enterprises, as the company likes to call them, they have those in Italy, India, China, Korea. So here, we’re a very small cog in a big, big wheel. A cog maybe nobody’s gonna need anymore if it squeaks too loud. Which is our dilemma in a nutshell, and we face it every single day.”

This new information stills the room. Right. That too.

“So, plastics. Well, there’s more than one, of course. Early on, when I started, we were using more polypropylene and—I can’t even tell you the whole name. It’s called ABS for short.”

“Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene,” Diane offers up.

“That’s it,” Marina says. “I can’t even pronounce it.”   

 “Hey,” Charlotte Hewson calls out. “Neither can your immune system.” This provokes some hoots and uncomfortable laughter from the audience as well as a sardonic smile from Marina.  

“I started as a hands-free painter,” Marina continues. “We used to do decorating. I would mix paint, and toluene was the solvent we used. Then the company said, ‘We found out that’s not good for you.’ The stuff was actually banned. So we were switched to toluol, only to find out later, it’s pretty much exactly the same thing!” For a flash, there is anger and anguish in her eyes and a shadow passes over her face, but again she composes herself and carries on. “Then I went on to the auto plastics as such. Hot, burning plastic—that’s what it’s all about. You were to smell it right now, you’d know it’s bad right off the bat. But I didn’t really think about it then.”

She holds a hand up to her forehead for a moment and takes a breath. “There’s a lot of steps to what we do,” she continues, “and not enough time to explain them all. So let me talk about how we get the whole process going every morning. It’s called purging. Plastic has to be heated up so it can be shaped in the mold. When you first start up a machine, you have to purge what’s in that barrel from the last time. Everything in there has just been sitting, hardening. So it has to be heated up until it’s liquid, and then they shoot it out. That creates fumes and smoke, how much depending on what kind of material it is, but lots, whatever the material.

“When I started out, they would just take this purging, throw it on the ground and let it smoke and smolder until it got cool enough, then they would kick it outside. You’d be standing there breathing all that stuff in, just breathing it in. Today, in my plant anyways, they throw the purging in a barrel of water and close the lid. It does smoke and stuff, but at least it’s inside the barrel.”

 “Don’t forget,” Charlotte Hewson interjects again, “at lots of places, mine included, they’re still purging like they used to at Marina’s. Not everyone has the bucket system. Or robots.”

“That’s very true,” Marina confirms. “And even in ours, there’s still a lot of fumes and smoke. And we don’t wear respirators. They give them to us, yes, but really, forget it. Because most of us would rather get gassed than boil to death, they’re so damn hot. Plus it takes ten seconds to do the operation unmasked but an extra minute to put the respirator on. That may not sound like a lot of time to people who don’t know what it’s like working a fast production line in a place that’s hotter than hell, but it’s way too long. Believe me.”

The expressions of the people in the audience say: we believe you.

“Now, for making the parts, let me show you,” Marina says as she picks up the mic and walks around to the front of the table. “When I first started working, when you were standing at a machine, the extrusion barrel was right here,” she plants both feet on the stage, “and the door where it came off the mold was close by.” She indicates a space of a few feet to her left. “You’d be standing there, opening the door, taking the part out, putting it in, closing the door, and repeating the process. Hot, sweating like mad, and always, of course, breathing!

“Today, in my plant, a robot picks the part up and a conveyor brings it down to you so you’re not standing right there over the super-heated plastic anymore. The robots probably came in, I want to say, eighteen years ago. But even though the robots are picking it up as soon as it’s coming out and they’re throwing it in the barrel, and even though that’s a big improvement, it still stinks when we get it, and that stink is chemicals. You can tell the different materials by how they smell. The acrylic smells different than the nylon. Nylon is the worst. It’s terrible.”

Everyone listening is picturing what it would be like to breathe molten plastic all day long, with fumes and smoke everywhere, laboring on a never-ceasing assembly line, in a place that is as hot as a furnace.

“So,” Marina draws another deep breath. “Health.” She makes her way back to her seat in a room where you could hear a pin drop. “When I got the job, I told myself it would be worse working with steel, making the cars. At least plastic is light. But it turns out that’s not true at all. The big assembly plants are so automated and so clean now, compared to ours, we’re way worse off. We have a whole lot more repetitive strain injuries, bad feet, bad backs, because that’s where a lot of the strain is. And so much arthritis. So many people get crippled up, have to quit working for all those reasons. But yes, despite all the denial by the industry, there is a high incidence of cancer in my plant—all different kinds, breast, pancreatic, liver. So far as I know, I’m the only one with kidney cancer so far. Though not in the plastics industry as such, I know that. Women do seem to be especially at risk, because breast cancer is really big. There’s a couple of people with breast cancer right now in my plant, one of them is a man, and that’s rare, I know that too. Some people worked in the fields, in agriculture, before; they’re even more at risk for breast cancer, turns out. Pesticides, then plastics, oh, it’s a winning combination—the studies proved it. Pesticides are endocrine-disrupting chemicals, like plastics, it turns out. Disrupting is right! Miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies. Those can be fatal. We’ve had quite a few of those. Lot of female troubles. Bad female troubles.”

Diane Salisbury leans over to the microphone. “If this were testicular cancer,” she says in her clear voice, “instead of breast cancer and miscarriages, the whole city would be up in arms.” Which provokes a mixed response. Some people laugh, others shake their heads and frown.

“Bet on it,” Charlotte Hewson calls out. “Women are expendable!”

 “I have to say I agree,” Marina says. “The decision makers are still men, and we, the women workers, we’re expendable. That’s how I feel. Disposable. Some men in Windsor are working in similar conditions in the plastic plants. Recently I overheard one guy in my plant say to another, excuse the language, ‘Pretty soon they’ll be fucking regulating everything and we’ll be out of a job. I’m too old to get another job. Those bitches should shut the fuck up.’ That’s the mentality. Put up with the cancer and the miscarriages and the arthritis, ladies, let us keep our jobs.”

The room is dead silent.

“So what can we do? We need the work, we have families to feed, kids to get through school. Lot of us are single mothers, I am, at this point. So we end up just crossing our fingers and hoping that nothing happens to us. Where we do have a union, since we got the cancer studies, some of us are fighting back because our daughters are now working in the same industry. And we know that a lot of our mothers who worked in the plants, they died young.”

Diane speaks into the mic again: “Two days before she was due to retire, my mom went. Liver cancer.”

“My daughter,” Marina says, “is working in my plant to help pay her university costs. She’s a student. I told her, ‘you’re not making this a career!’ And I have some confidence she won’t. But I started out with the same intentions. Life happens. And death happens. Too often. The wrong kind of death.”

Marina stops for a moment, and for the first time, from where she is standing on the stage she turns and addresses the politicians.

 “So you need to understand some things, you Ottawa people. We want to get these chemical hazards addressed in bargaining but we can’t do it plant by plant. Because we supply the Big Three automakers, also Toyota, Honda, so decisions get made way up the corporate ladder, not in the individual workplace. Even to change the way something is packed with GM takes forever, takes a mountain of paperwork. In the end, it’s all up to Ford, GM, Chrysler or whoever you’re supplying—it’s up to them whether you get to change the material you use. Even the glue. So if the people at the top decided to go with safe materials, problem solved. It’s out of reach for us, but it would be so simple for them.”

“Tell it, sister,” a woman from the audience calls out.

“So don’t expect a whole lot of little people with no power to fight and win against a bunch of bullies, our owners, I mean, who get paid by even bigger bullies, by giant, world-wide corporations, and who, P.S., tell us they’ll move our plant offshore if we make a stink. It’s not even a matter of being willing to fight. It’s impossible to win. It’s much bigger than what we can do here. And it is nearly impossible to get this bargained centrally, there are so many other big issues, huge plants, you name it. I won’t go into all that, but take it from me: we need political action at the top to change what happens all the way down at the bottom. I hope,” she says, throwing the leaders a dark look, “that’s clear. Thank you.”

The room responds with an unhappy kind of applause. A lot of people are hearing for the first time that working conditions in Canada’s industrial heartland are like something from the nineteenth century or maybe the Third World. The Prime Minister looks abashed, the Conservative leader’s mouth is sent in a frown, the NDP leader is trying to look sympathetic and the woman who leads the Greens is just shaking her head. She raises her fist to Marina, a gesture of solidarity.

CHARLOTTE Hewson is up next, waiting while the building custodian turns on some lights because the clouds are thickening and the room is losing its light.

 “I started working in plastics when I was nineteen, just like Marina,” Charlotte begins.  “I was concerned with the smell, the smoke, the properties of different materials right from the beginning. How could you not? It was overwhelming. We used to work with a lot of nylons, and I got nauseous all the time. One health and safety person told me that nausea meant it was my liver. Now we work with different polymers and I get vertigo. Vertigo has become very common in women in my plant. Over the last four or five years, we’ve had women literally drop like flies, right there on the job. Someone told me vertigo is a sign of neurotoxicity. That’s sure what if feels like. And we have a lot of breast cancer too, same as in Marina’s plant.”

Along with the fading sun, the mood in the room grows darker. On the raised platform behind the table, the political leaders too show increasingly unhappy signs. The PM has clasped his arms around his chest, the opposition leader’s frown has deepened, the NDP leader is looking disgusted. The leader of the Greens has an “I know it,” look on her face, and in her case, it’s true.

Charlotte throws an angry look in their direction. “We workers, we know something’s wrong. But we have no money to gather the proof in the way the employers demand it. It takes years, sometime decades, to document links between a given chemical and a disease the way they insist – just people getting sick and dying isn’t enough. And you have to follow big numbers of people and have those double-blind studies the industry says are the only kind of proof they’ll ever accept. Our owners won’t even allow studies like that to take place in the plant. So forget us being able to get changes made.”

“So what about the government? I hope you’re paying attention Mr. Prime Minister,” she says, leaning over to look right at at him. “The provincial government,” and she puts an extra measure of contempt in that word, “that’s supposed to have standards that protect worker health, that’s led by the same political party that you head, that government has not come in once to check on our working conditions in all the years me and Marina have been working. Do you hear that? Total abandonment, and standards that wouldn’t protect a swamp rat. And if you’re thinking what about workers’ comp, well forget worker’s comp. Once you make a claim, all of a sudden you’re a target, you cost the company too much money and they start trying to get rid of you. And one way or another, they succeed and you’re out in the cold anyways. So whose side is the government on?”

The Liberal leader folds his hands on the table and attempts to assume a sympathetic gaze, but Charlotte Hewson’s face does not soften for a moment. Diane Salisbury puts a hand on Charlie’s arm, leans over and speaks to her. “There’s a case before the courts now about breast cancer in a laboratory, I hope they win,” she says. ”But consider this: until now, there’s never been a worker’s compensation case in Canada for breast cancer. Ever. Breast cancer is such a huge epidemic among all women that if scientists really looked at what was going on there’d be some kind of revolt. But it seems like there’s all these forces hiding what it’s all about, all the environmental and workplace factors. No one’s looking at the women who work with plastics and get it from that, or the women who buy those plastics—in their cars, their Tupperware, their baby toys, whatever—and get it from that.”

“So I have a different solution,” Charlotte Hewson says, repossessing the mic. “Understand that the reason the owners have air conditioning in some plants is for the robots, not for us. If those machines overheat too much, they break down and they are expensive! But we women—there’s an endless supply of us. So my friends here,” she motioned to Diane and Marina, “they say, keep breast cancer out of the workplace. I say put breast cancer in robots!”

A stunned silence follows these words, and then a lot of people, especially the working class people, start to to laugh.

“Seriously, though,” Charlotte says, her young face heavy with distress, “we are so stuck. Because the more they jeopardize our jobs by moving them to some low-wage place—you know, the people in Mexico doing our jobs earn one tenth of what we make!—the more we have unemployment, the more we’ll accept unhealthy conditions without raising hell. Thanks, automation. Thanks globalization. Our two best friends. Which your party”—she points at the Prime Minister—“and yours,” she points at the leader of the opposition—“have encouraged and promoted for twenty-five years. Thanks a lot.”

A rustle ripples through the crowd, which shares Charlotte’s sentiment, but winces at her tone. She does not care.

“You politicians boast about how Canada is the best place in the world to live. Really?” she says. “For who? For those of us who raise our families in cities like Windsor, who work ourselves to death in toxic plants? We’re always broke and sick, we’re the ones who get dumped by companies who want even cheaper labor and nobody, least of all you, stops the companies from relocating. And when our few weeks of unemployment insurance are over, well, we’re on our own, aren’t we? No job, and maybe sick as a dog. No pension. Dead soon. Great country. Just like our sisters and brothers across that river, right there,” and she points out the window, at Detroit River and Southwest Detroit. “Free trade is very, very, very expensive for us working people.”

Charlotte thrusts a hand through her short hair and grimaces. “I’m just running on at the mouth now, I guess. I’m sorry,” she says. “But we have some fundamental problems that our governments have to fix if we’re going to be able to have healthy families and workable communities. We can’t do it alone from here. Thanks for listening.”

DIANE Salisbury opened the plastics session and now she is going to close it. All big hair and vivid colors, tall and confident, when she takes the microphone back her dynamism enlivens the room.

“Thanks, everyone, for hanging in there,” she says. “Now you’ve heard what our fine working women are facing. And how smart they are. And don’t they have a better grasp of the economics of globalization than the best economists? Aren’t they brilliant?” This earns a hearty round of applause.

“I guess what I want to emphasize,” she says, “is how the owners keep on pushing the same old lies: ‘It’s your lifestyle, it’s what you’ve done to yourself, it’s your fault that you’re sick. It has nothing to do with your work.’ It used to be smoking that gave us all cancer. That was the old line. But now that most of us don’t smoke, the new catch-all is genetics. That cancerous tumour on Marina’s kidney? At first her doctor told her it couldn’t even be cancer because you’d have to be in your seventies to have that type, and she wasn’t even fifty yet. She told me that when the test came back malignant he was dumbfounded. He sent for genetic testing because that was the only other explanation for what she had.”

A few people boo, others cry, “Shame!”

 “Your genetics are responsible, Miss Marina, not your workplace. The chemicals? Never! Meanwhile it’s completely obvious to us plastics workers—and we’re in touch with others all over the States and all over the world—that it’s the chemicals that are killing us. And that means the industry owners have to green up the chemicals and the working conditions. You’d think that’s a no-brainer, right? Well, we just can’t get there. Can’t get close. Because the industry fights off that responsibility and it fights dirty.”

 “Let me tell you a story about a company from Germany that built a plant here a few years ago,” Diane says. “They started putting in good ventilation, all kinds of equipment and features that would make it a healthy workplace, because they have much higher standards in Europe. Then all of a sudden they got the message not to get into that crap here in Canada. And that company actually closed that new plant. They moved it across the street and threw away all that good stuff in the process. Built a toxic site just like the others.” Diane pauses to let that story sink in. “Can you effing believe it?” she says. And judging by how dumbfounded everyone is, not easily.

“In case you’re wondering, I don’t have cancer,” she says into the silence. “But as a power sewer I was exposed to a lot of toxic chemicals. Phthalates, for example, tons of phthalates. They were used to make vinyl soft. I used to like them because it was like sewing through butter. I worked in a paint shop too, with xylene, toluene, phosphorus, and no protection. Last year, I developed severe pancreatitis, so bad it damn near killed me, and may still kill me. I was in the hospital seventy days last year. I had fourteen blood transfusions. I had eight units of iron—eight units—in one day. I came this close to dying.” She holds her thumb and forefinger an inch apart. “They sent me off with Demerol, Oxycontin and enzymes, which they said I’ll be taking the rest of my life. And no one in the health care system, here or in Toronto where I was, called foul. No one gave a damn about what caused the pancreatitis. An environmental health person I met said that in places in the States, they talk about chemical pancreatitis. Well, that would account for it. But did anybody talk to me about that here? Nope.”

Diane turns her head and shifts her gaze from the audience to the politicians. “To us, there’s a conspiracy of silence about this epidemic of cancer being an industrial health and safety issue. And there’s an even bigger refusal to link it to the plastics we use as consumers. That ‘new car’ smell, the one that practically knocks your socks off when you open your car on a hot summer day? That’s poison, folks, pure poison. We mold it, your babies breathe it. But no-one ever talks about it. Even though one in three of us will get cancer in our lifetimes. Soon one in two. And what the hell are you folks”—pointing to the politicians— “doing about it?”

 “So, finally we get to federal politics. I’m sure I don’t have to draw you a map. For the last twenty-five years we have been losing our right to work and our meaningful right to organize at work, just like we’ve lost so many environmental protections. That’s why we say we’re for good green jobs – not just environmental protection and not just jobs, but good green jobs. If we say no to working with, say, phthalates, our plant gets shut down. When Health Canada says no, and the government puts it in the trade treaties, the owners have to comply. That’s the difference between downstream and upstream. These changes have to happen upstream. And since everyone consumes the materials we work with, it’s truly about all of us. Get it? This whole country needs governments that will bring in faster processes, powerful, effective processes to make all industrial chemicals safe for workers and consumers. It has to be a comprehensive program with teeth.”

Charlotte Hewson reaches for the mic and addresses the politicians too. “We union women,” she says, “we can hardly get a radio interview to bring these issues to public attention, let alone change regulations. But you, you can, if you choose to. And that’s what me and Marina and Diane, and all our co-workers and allies, that’s what we call leadership. We’d like you to show some.”

“I’m with her,” Diane Salisbury says, pointing to Charlotte and giving the room a radiant smile. She waves to the crowd and sits back in her chair. The applause and the foot stomping are long and warm. The only ones whose clapping is restrained are the politicians.





Breast cancer is the most common cancer among Canadian and American women (excluding non-melanoma skin cancers). It is the 2nd leading cause of death from cancer in women in both countries. Breast cancer can also occur in men, but it is not common. For 2017, it was estimated that 26,300 Canadian women and, for 2018, 226,000 American women would be diagnosed with breast cancer, this figure representing 25% of all new cancer cases in women in these years. It was projected that 5,000 Canadian women and 40,920 American women would die from the disease. On average, 72 Canadian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer every day. On average, 14 Canadian women will die from breast cancer every day. 230 Canadian men will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 60 will die from breast cancer. For the United States figures are approximately 10 times greater. Breast cancer is, in a word, a scourge upon women.

But until 2016, in Canada at least, women who developed the disease as a result of their working conditions simply could not win recognition or compensation because the types of linkages between exposures to carcinogens and the incidence of the disease that employers – and compensation boards, along with them – demanded were impossible to get. The story below explains, among many other fascinating things, just why that is so.

But then, at last, a major breakthrough for women as a group and for just occupational health was finally achieved in Canada when, On June 24, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Katrina Hammer, Patricia Schmidt and Anne MacFarlane, laboratory workers who had developed cancer due to chemical exposures in their workplace. Tonie Beharrell, the lawyer representing the three women, expressed her hopes at that time that the implications of the decision would reach far beyond this case: “Hopefully workers who have been hesitant to argue causation,” she said, “will be encouraged to pursue their claims, knowing that they don’t actually need a medical opinion that says ‘your work caused your cancer’. … They can rely on a range of evidence to make those claims.”

Critical to the arguing of the women’s case, was the work of  Jim Brophy and Margaret Keith, and their paper, Breast cancer risk in relation to occupations with exposure to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors: a Canadian case-control study, published in Environmental Health (November 2012). Through this study the women who work with hot plastics in Windsor did not yet get to educate national politicians, but they did make their mark on Canadian jurisprudence on occupational health, and that is a beautiful thing.

The science linking breast cancer and occupational risk factors is growing to the point of undeniability. The American Public Health Association (APHA) has issued an important policy statement calling for making research on breast cancer as an occupational health and safety issue a priority. Read the APHA Policy Statement.

Photo credit: The Daily Beast


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