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Reducing Your Chemical Exposure: In The Workplace

Close to 60 workplace chemicals are listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as known or probable causes of human cancer. Furthermore, at least 100 workplace chemicals are suspected of being possible causes of cancer. Depending on where we work and what we do for a living, our health may be affected.

In this section of the web site, Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation provides you with information about sources of chemical exposure in the workplace and how they may be linked to breast cancer risk. We also share precautionary steps that can help protect workers’ health and safety.

Work And Breast Cancer Risk

Breast cancer is a disease with many established risk factorsRisk factor:
Anything that increases a person’s chance of developing a disease, such as cancer.
, possible causes and a long latencyLatency:
The time from the start of a disease to when its symptoms show. A latent condition is present in the body but does not cause symptoms to show in the person.
period. Connecting the dots between the workplace, health and cancer risk is an important area of research. Most of us have different jobs over our lifetime. Few of us record, or even accurately remember, possible workplace exposures, and health care providers rarely track this kind of information. According to workplace health research, individuals in the following occupations may have an increased risk of breast cancer:

In November 2012, a landmark study funded by Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation was published, linking some workplaces with a significant increase in female workers’ risk of developing breast cancer. The study looked at the work histories of women in southern Ontario. It found that women exposed to carcinogensCarcinogen:
A substance that causes cancer or helps cancer to grow. Tobacco and alcohol (ethanol) are examples of carcinogens.
and hormone-disruptingHormone disruptors:
substances that mimic natural hormones in the body and may disrupt how the endocrine system works. Some pesticides, for example, are thought to be endocrine disruptors. Hormone disruptors are also known as endocrine disruptors.
chemicals in the workplace over a 10-year period had, on average, a 42% higher risk of breast cancer. Women working with automotive plastics and in food canning had a 5 times (500%) higher risk of developing breast cancer before menopauseMenopause:
A natural part of a woman's aging process, when the ovaries start to make less estrogen and progesterone and the menstrual periods stop. This change typically occurs between the late 40s and mid-to-late 50s.

Canadian researchers Dr. James Brophy and Dr. Margaret Keith led an international team that conducted the research. This research was among the first Canadian studies to collect information on occupational histories, workplace exposures, and breast cancer risk. The study adds to a growing body of evidence on this important issue.

More research is needed for a better understanding of these links with the development of breast cancer and how best to protect workers’ health. For a summary of research on environmental risks and breast cancer, see the Breast Cancer Fund’s report State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment.

Precautionary steps for health and safety at work

  • Know your workplace health and safety rights. You have the right to know if you are exposed to workplace hazards, including chemicals.

  • Learn about the health risks of your workplace and how to protect yourself, including how to use protective equipment and clothing properly and at all times of potential exposure. Your employer should provide you with this training.

  • If you have concerns about your health risks or your workplace’s health and safety practices, speak to your supervisor or your Occupational Health and Safety representative.

  • If you feel unable to address your concerns about health and safety with your employer, contact your local ministry of labour office or the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety for information and advice.

  • If you are self-employed or work for a small organization, contact your local ministry of labour office or the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety for more information.

  • Ask your health care provider to keep an occupational history in your medical records and inform them of chemical exposures and health and safety practices in your workplace.

  • If you work with chemicals, you may take them into your home on your shoes or clothing. Help protect the health of others in your household by removing your shoes when you enter the home and washing your work clothes separately.

There is still a lot unknown about occupational exposures and breast cancer risk. This can make it challenging to ensure that effective regulations are created to protect the health and safety of all workers. More research is needed to identify occupational risks and the precautionary steps required by regulators and employers to keep workers safe on the job and reduce the risk of cancer, including breast cancer. 



Brophy, J., Keith, M., Watterson, A., Park, R., Gilbertson, M., Maticka-Tyndale, E., Beck, M., Abu-Zahra, H., Schneider, K., Reinhartz, A., DeMatteo, R., & Luginaah, I. (2012). Breast cancer risk in relation to occupations with exposure to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors: A Canadian case control study. Environmental Health, 11 (87). Accessed June 17, 2014

Brophy, J. T., et al. (2006). Occupation and Breast Cancer. A Canadian Case-Control Study.  Annals of NY Academy of Science, 1076, 765-777.

Gray, J. (Sixth Ed, 2010). State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment. Breast Cancer Fund. Accessed June 17, 2014

Griffin, S. (2009) Environmental Exposure: The CancerSmart Guide to Breast Cancer Prevention. Toxic Free Canada.

Reuben, S. H. for the President’s Cancer Panel. (April 2010). Reducing Environmental Risk. What We Can Do Now. U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute. Accessed June 17, 2014

Straif, K. et al, on behalf of the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer Monograph Working Group. (2007). Carcinogenicity of shift-work, painting and fire-fighting. The Lancet Oncology, 8 (12), 1065-1066.

Tillett T. (2006). Headliners: Breast Cancer: Decreased Melatonin Production Linked to Light Exposure. Environmental Health Perspectives, 114 (2), A99.