Women make up nearly half the workforce in the United States. Despite hundreds of studies linking some occupations to breast cancer risk, we do not know enough about specific causes or how to protect women in the workplace.
Stronger policies to limit workplace exposures are needed to sustain a healthy workforce. In the meantime, people can take steps to create safer workplaces.
Some occupations are linked to increased breast cancer risk. Specific on-the-job exposures, such as ionizing radiation, light-at-night or solvents, may increase risk.
There is general consensus in the literature that the following occupations are linked to modest increases in breast cancer risk: professional jobs in management, administration and social services; nursing, work as a radiological technician; educational jobs as teachers and librarians; and work with solvents.
While the research findings on other occupations are less consistent, some studies suggest considerably higher breast cancer risk among food and beverage production workers, hairdressers and cosmetologists, manufacturing and machinery workers, doctors, physicians and other medical workers excluding nurses, dry cleaning and laundry workers. Some studies suggest these occupations have between a 3-5 times higher risk of breast cancer.
Some studies have also looked at exposures in work settings and found the following workplace chemical exposures are linked to increased breast cancer risk: benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), ethylene oxide, pesticides, and tobacco smoke. Studies have also linked workplace exposures to ionizing radiation and night-shift work to increased breast cancer risk.
Should you be concerned about increased risks for breast cancer in the workplace? Jobs across all sectors expose people to hazardous chemicals and radiation at work.
What’s happening in policy
BCPP advocates for laws and regulations that protect people’s health in the workplace. For example, BCPP and the BlueGreen Alliance led the effort to include workers in the Ban Poisonous Additives Act of 2016. In addition, we are working to ensure that the EPA implementation of the new Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) reform law protects workers.
Within the firefighting community, high rates of many cancers have motivated fire departments and their unions to change departmental policies in order to reduce firefighter exposures to carcinogens and other chemicals when they fight, overhaul, and investigate fires.
Every day firefighters are exposed to chemicals on the ground, in the fire station, and in firefighting equipment. BCPP works closely with the Women Firefighters Biomonitoring Collaborative, a study monitoring women firefighters in the San Francisco Bay Area to learn whether this population is being exposed to chemicals that have been linked in scientific studies to breast tumors.
Check out our partners in workplace health.
Blue-Green Alliance, Commonweal, Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, San Francisco Firefighter Cancer Prevention Foundation, Southern California Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, United Fire Service Women, United Steel Workers, University of California Berkeley, University of California San Francisco, Worksafe