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Chemical Exposures and Women’s Health

The Women’s Health Strategy declares that, “environmental risks are increasingly significant for women, as they may react differently than men to environmental contaminants.” Almost a decade after releasing the Strategy, research has confirmed the unique and detrimental relationship between environmental chemical exposure risks and women’s health. NNEWH is committed to understanding the conditions and diseases that are unique to and more prevalent in women, affect women differently, and are becoming more common for women.

Studying environmental factors in health specifically and independently in the context of women's health is essential because it cannot be assumed that the environment will affect men and women in the same way. Men and women’s lives, family roles and work can result in significant differences in environmental exposure and, women's lives involve hormonal and metabolic changes that create opportunities for differential effects of similar environments on women as compared to men. Research and policy work on chemical exposures and women’s health specifically, is important because if hazards to women’s health are identified, they are preventable, often through collaborative action including regulation and policy change. NNEWH’s projects focus on both the influence of chemical exposures on women’s health and the regulation and management of chemicals in Canada.

Look out for NNEWH’s interdisciplinary exploration of chemical policy and women’s health at www.womenandchemicals.ca in early 2014.

NNEWH’s completed and ongoing projects:

Nail Salon Workers in the City of Toronto and the GTA: A Seed Project on Chemical Exposures

Following up on work undertaken in recent years on chemical exposures in women working in the plastics sector of the auto industry, and an on-going study of the impact of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) on women’s health, this study is looking at a new population of vulnerable workers. Women who work in nail salons are exposed to EDCs in their daily use of toxic products such as polishes, removers, gels, shellac and adhesives. Work has been done to document the relationship between chemical exposures and asthma in nail salon workers, but much less is known or been acted upon regarding other health issues that toxic exposures in this industry may provoke.

Working with advocates for this group of workers at risk, this project has the goal of laying the groundwork for improved working conditions in this sector. A review of the literature and consultation with experts and advocates in the field will build on the knowledge base regarding toxic exposures and the health of nail salon workers.

Very successful campaigns in partnership with Vietnamese nail salon workers in California have recently brought attention to this issue in the U.S.. The project team will consult with key players from the California initiative, as well as with occupational health and safety, public health and immigrant women’s organizations in Toronto and the GTA. A final report of the work is anticipated for August 2014.


Tell our governments to help make salons safer and to take toxic chemicals off the market.


Show your elected government representative this brochure and direct them to links on the back for more information.

Talk to your city counsellor with any concerns about the safety of your salon. If you live in the City of Toronto, find your counsellor and contact info here:

Talk to your Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) if you have concerns about your workplace. Find your MPP and contact info here:

Talk to your Member of Parliament (MP) about getting toxic chemicals out of consumer products. To find your MP simply input your postal code here:

Download our "Nail Salons, Toxics & Your Health" brochure in English.

Download our "Nail Salons, Toxics & Your Health" brochure in Chinese.

Download our "Nail Salons, Toxics & Your Health" brochure in Vietnamese.

Occupational Chemical Exposures and Breast Cancer Risk

A new Canadian study conducted by co-principal investigators James Brophy and Margaret Keith and an international, multidisciplinary team of co-investigators demonstrates that women working in particular occupations have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. The National Network on Environments and Women's Health (NNEWH) partnered with Brophy and Keith in the study's exposure assessment of automotive plastics workers in the Windsor, Ontario region. The research results are a valuable addition to growing evidence linking breast cancer and other diseases with exposure to toxic chemicals, and in particular, toxins in the workplace.

A Summary of the Research Findings and the full study, tables and references are available below.

NNEWH Summary of the Research Finding - English

NNEWH Summary of the Research Finding - French

Full Manuscript - Breast cancer risk in relation to occupations with exposure to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors: a Canadian case–control study

Women, Plastics Workers and Breast Cancer Risk

A new Canadian study conducted by Robert DeMatteo, in partnership with Margaret Keith, James Brophy, and the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health (NNEWH) supports Brophy and Keith’s recently reported epidemiological findings of a 5-fold elevated breast cancer risk for premenopausal women who work in the plastics industry. Through a review of the toxicology, industrial hygiene, and epidemiology literatures in conjunction with qualitative research, this article explores occupational exposures in producing plastics and health risks to workers, particularly women, who make up a large part of the workforce. The review demonstrates that workers are exposed to chemicals that have been identified as mammary carcinogens and endocrine disrupting chemicals, and that the work environment is heavily contaminated with dust and fumes. Consequently, plastics workers have a body burden that far exceeds that found in the general public. The nature of these exposures in the plastics industry places women at disproportionate risk, underlining the importance of gender. Measures for eliminating these exposures and the need for regulatory action are discussed.

Full Manuscript – Chemical Exposures of Women Workers in the Plastics Industry with Particular Reference to Breast Cancer and Reproductive Hazards

Women and the Automobile Plastic Industry: Information Tool
A quick-fact guide for protecting the health of women workers

Are Women Automotive Plastic Workers at Risk?

Recent studies have given rise to emerging health concerns for women workers in the auto sector, specifically plastics manufacturing. In particular, there are strong reasons to believe that there may be an elevated incidence of breast cancer and reproductive problems in women plastics workers. For the over 25,000 women plastics workers in the auto industry in southwestern Ontario, the stakes are high. Improving understandings and adopting best practices in the workplace is critical.

A first step is opening up the lines of communication between occupational and environmental health advocates, and linking them up with leading researchers studying the incidence and causes of chronic diseases, such as cancer and reproductive problems. The National Network on Environments and Women’s Health (NNEWH), in partnership with the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), started this conversation with a one-day workshop in January 2012.

The primary focus of our workshop was to communicate health research evidence to workers, their advocates, community organizations, health workers, policy makers, and industry stakeholders. Our researchers worked to ensure that there was ongoing, accessible and understandable communication with the women affected and that the workers have an opportunity to participate actively in the interpretation of data, the review of conclusions drawn from research, and the crafting of recommendations for changes to current practices in the workplace.

Click here to watch the presentations:

Plastics and Breast Cancer Q & A

Backgrounder - Defining Endocrine Disruption

Chemical Exposure and Plastics Production: Issues for Women's Health - Review of Literature

Consuming Chemicals: Implications for Women’s Health - Paper Series

NNEWH commissioned 7 papers exploring the relationship between exposures to chemicals and women’s health. These papers explored both the processes that ‘produce’ chemicals and chemical pollution, and ...
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Sex, Gender and Chemicals: Factoring Women into Canada’s Chemical Management Plan

This report, with ideas linked to previous NNEWH projects, calls on the federal government to strengthen the management of chemicals in Canada in order to prevent chronic low-dose exposures to toxic substances that may be having a wide-range of effects on the health of Canadians, and are disproportionately affecting women. It exposes the critical shortcomings of the Chemicals Management Plan (CMP), a federal initiative aimed at improving the degree of protection against toxic substances in Canada.

Being mindful of different vulnerabilities to chemical exposures due to socioeconomic circumstances, gendered practices, and age, for example, this report provides a sex-and-gender-based analysis showing how specific policies and practices may affect women differently than men. Moreover, the "Sex, Gender and Chemicals" report provides recommendations for improving chemicals management in Canada and moving towards a truly precautionary policy stance that would protect everyone. The report explores how and why the CMP is failing Canadian Women, considering critical windows of vulnerability, the social determinants of health, labelling and precautionary consumption, endocrine disruption and contested illnesses.

NNEWH Sex, Gender & Chemicals report

“Modernizing” the Hazardous Products Act

The purpose of the Hazardous Products Act (HPA) is to protect the health and safety of consumers by prohibiting or regulating the sale, advertising or import of hazardous or potentially hazardous consumer products, and to ensure the protection of Canadians from the adverse effects of hazardous materials through the provision of precautionary labeling and material safety data sheets. However, the current HPA is outdated and does not incorporate recent research findings. NNEWH has created a comprehensive policy brief based on Bill C-6 (An Act Respecting the Safety of Consumer Products, 2009) which sets out priorities for action from a gender perspective.

Survey on Chemical Exposures and Women's Health


The National Network on Environments and Women's Health, in collaboration with the Canadian Women's Health Network, is conducting a survey on people's daily exposures to chemicals. We are trying to gather information from as broad a range of people in Canada as possible, with a particular interest in responses from women. The survey will be on line until March 24th. Please fill it in and encourage others to do so as well (it only takes a few minutes). The results from the survey, which we will make known to Health Canada, will be published on our websites some time later in the spring. Here are the links to the surveys in English and French.



CMP Backgrounder
More information on the Government of Canada’s Chemicals Management Plan

Chronic Pollution in Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley”

This on-going project applies gender-based analysis to the problem of chronic pollution, looking in particular at long-term, low dose exposures. The case study focuses on Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley” and its suspected role in the skewed sex ratio on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve.

“Consuming” Chemicals: Engaging Women with Policy Change

This project is designed to involve women much more directly in the decisions being taken under the government’s new Chemicals Management Plan, and in particular to draw attention to the importance of the decisions being made under that scheme to women’s health in the long term. NNEWH will assemble a panel of speakers for a public event that can address the diversity of issues relevant to the chemical substances under consideration in a specific “batch”, such as available epidemiological evidence and its significance for women’s health, the uses of the chemicals and/or products in question and the availability of alternatives. Speakers addressing the political economy of the proposed decisions will also be involved, including information about how different industries (e.g. those manufacturing the substance in question, and those who may manufacture an alternative) will be affected by increased regulation of the chemical. Further, NNEWH is interested in exploring both the human and economic ‘costs’ of continued exposures, in terms of women’s health and quality of life.

The evidence and perspectives generated in the public engagement event will be presented to policy decision-makers through a targeted policy brief on a highlighted substance under consideration for proposed risk management measures.

"Consuming" Chemicals: Implications for Women's Health - Policy Forum

Based on deliberations from the Gender & Envrionmental Health Symposium and federal priorities, NNEWH hosted a closed policy forum in February 2009. This forum emphasized the importance of a gender-based analysis in research, policy and practice in relation to women's chemical exposures. The critical areas discussed included emerging evidence around endocrine disruption, xenoestrogens and breast cancer, food contamination, chemicals and addiction, plastics recycling, and the trend towards “precautionary consumptionism”.