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Carcinogens in the Workplace – Something to Consider

Inspire Health Event Calendar April 28, 2016

Posted on October 2nd, 2015

As we learn more and more about the cancer-causing effects of some of the chemicals and substances we can be exposed to, we often focus on the environments seemingly more in our control – our homes, the personal care and cleaning products we choose, or the type of food we put in our mouths. As we’re working towards decreasing all the toxic substances we’re exposed to it’s also important to consider one of the other places we spend a lot of time – the workplace.

According to WorkSafeBC, between 2004-2015 66 persons died in BC of a workplace related cancer. Fifteen of these were lung cancer, related to asbestos exposure. The ill health effects of asbestos continue to rise even though it is no longer used in this country (though it is still mined here and shipped to other countries). As asbestos has a long latency period (i.e. it takes a long time to see the ill affects), and as people are still being exposed through renovating and demolishing older homes, cancers and other asbestos-caused illnesses are continuing to rise.

But it’s not just asbestos that people are exposed to in the workplace. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (US) has a large list of substances it considers to be potential occupational carcinogens. This list includes some gases and liquids that many of us are exposed to walking down the street, like asphalt fumes, diesel exhaust, cigarette smoke, gasoline, vinyl chloride (used to make PVC plastic), and wood dust. We may be able to handle these chemicals in small doses, but what if your 8-12 hour workday involves being constantly exposed to these carcinogens?

Some professions come with a high cancer risk due to their regular exposure to these carcinogenic substances. Who doesn’t know someone in their family or circle of friends that works in iron and steel founding, painting, roofing, vineyards, mining, plumbing, bricklaying, construction, mechanics, welding, boot and shoe manufacturing and repair, furniture making, textiles, laundry and dry cleaning, embalming, or in laboratories? These are some of the professions according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety that have regular exposure to high-risk substances.

What about other professions that are exposed to carcinogens regularly? Exposure to pesticides for farm workers and grocery store employees, bisphenol A (BPA) with cashiers that hand out thermal receipts all day, gasoline fume exposure for gas station employees, radiation exposure from x rays or cell phones, smoke and chemical exposure in firefighting, aromatic amines for cooks that grill, or personal care chemical exposure for nail and hair salon workers? Unfortunately, many of us are exposed to toxins as a regular part of our jobs.

Shift work, which leads to a chronic disruption of our circadian rhythms, was classified in 2007 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, as a ‘probable human carcinogen’. Twenty-five percent of the North American working population work shifts outside the traditional daytime schedule. These can include hospitality and food services, protective services like firefighters, police, and emergency medical technicians, healthcare services, transportation, and industrial plants and mines. Shift work alters one’s day/night cycle (which controls the release of hormones), sleep patterns, melatonin production, and dysregulates genes involved with tumor development.

What a scary and daunting topic! Should we all quit our jobs and move to the forest? As that’s not an option for most of us, focus instead on ways to mitigate these exposures and their effects.

-Become educated on any chemicals, fumes, or substances you regularly come in contact with. Use the appropriate protective gear to reduce your exposure. Let your health and safety committee know if you have concerns about any environment you might be in.
-Keep exposures at work. Change your clothes or shower at work if possible.
-Reduce your exposures in the rest of your day. Reduce toxins in your home, vehicle, food and water supply, personal care and cleaning products. Give your body a break when you can.
-Focus on your sleep patterns and hygiene. Ensure you are getting quality sleep, and try to establish some sort of routine, especially if working shifts.
-Look after your body by eating well and exercising appropriately.
-Learn how to recognize and reduce stress, and prioritize self-care.
-Get some fresh air, sunshine, and clean water daily. Visit nature often.

Angela Wright, BSc, CNP, RNCP, is the Lead Nutritionist at InspireHealth, based out of the Vancouver Centre. She prides herself in putting into practice what she teaches – being conscious of food choices and their effect on the body, making gradual tweaks and upgrades to a healthier way of eating and living, and being kind to yourself while doing so. Before Ange discovered nutrition, she got her bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science, and has much interest and knowledge in the chemicals and toxins that are found in our everyday lives, and more importantly, how to decrease our exposure.