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Janet Gray, Ph.D.
Janet Gray, Ph.D.

As author of our 2008 and 2010 State of the Evidence reports, Dr. Gray drives the science behind all our work.

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Workers and Occupation

While more research is needed to understand how occupation and breast cancer risk are linked, we do know that work environment can affect the risk of breast cancer. For example, certain occupations expose workers to high levels of toxic chemicals or radiation.

Women make up nearly half the workforce in the United States, but very little research has explored work-related exposures and breast cancer. Much of the research that has been conducted reports risk by job title rather than by actual environmental exposures, which limits our ability to associate exposures and health outcomes.

Despite these gaps, research does indicate higher risk of breast cancer among women in some occupations (Teitelbaum, 2003; Brophy, 2012). These include women who work with toxic chemicals like organic solvents, including chemists, paper mill workers, textile workers, autoworkers, and microelectronics workers (Thompson, 2005; Bernstein, 2002; Shaham, 2006; Labreche, 2009); workers with plastics or in food canning (Brophy, 2012); and women who work with or around ionizing radiation, including dental hygienists and radiology technicians (Bhatti, 2008; Sigurdson, 2003; Simon, 2006). Other groups disproportionately affected include teachers, librarians, social workers and journalists, although the reasons for these differences are yet to be understood.

In many cases, there are even fewer labeling requirements for products used in the workplace such as industrial cleaners and professional hair products than there are for consumer products, putting workers at greater risk.

Biomonitoring to measure the chemicals in women’s bodies may help to identify work-related exposures that increase breast cancer risk. But even this research may not be able to separate worker exposures in industrial settings from the risk of living near polluting industrial sites (Brody, 2007). And women with different ethnic and racial backgrounds, genetic profiles or life histories may be affected differently by workplace exposures. A recent study on breast cancer incidence in radiology technicians found that genetic variability in how an individual’s body makes and uses estrogen may influence susceptibility to work-related radiation (Sigurdson, 2009).