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Breast cancer prevention – From fundraising to research to workplace action

Written by: Lisa Hallsworth

Published on: 20 January 2021

Breast Cancer Prevention

Fundraising - a personal story

In 1991, after watching one sister-in-law die of breast cancer and another diagnosed, my Mom, Brenda White, decided she needed to do something to raise awareness about the disease. From rural Nova Scotia, as president of the local Catholic Women's League (CWL), she chose to lead with her voice. She invested countless hours preparing a brief that would describe the urgent need for research into the cause and subsequent prevention of breast cancer. The brief proposed a fundraising program that would see each Canadian CWL council raise just $500 annually to be directed to breast cancer research. If accepted the total project would generate $5 million over a 5-year period!

After receiving encouragement from her local council, my Mom presented her brief, on the then taboo topic, to the diocesan council. At first, the reception was silence, but my Mom is not one to back away from a challenge. She pressed her audience to use their collective voices and was rewarded with a resolution to move the brief forward to the provincial level. The brief would eventually make it to the national level where CWL representatives were able to also pressure the federal government for financial support for breast cancer research. In 1992, then Health Minister Benoit Bouchard, announced the establishment of a Breast Cancer Research Fund with the federal government contributing $20 million over a 5-year period.

And in 1994, my Mom received recognition for her efforts from the Nova Scotia division of the Canadian Cancer Society.

Research – the key to determining the cause

Today, thanks to grass roots leaders like my Mom, government funding, the diligent work of cancer researchers and the time needed for proper science, we have a much better idea of what causes breast cancer. And to the surprise of many, the cause appears to be more related to our environment than our genetics!

"environmental factors may contribute in 70 per cent to 90 per cent of breast cancer case, with only five to 10 per cent of cases related to genetics"

Carcinogens, Clusters and Compensation, Canadian Occupational Safety magazine, January/February 2021 edition

A recent article published by Canadian Occupational Safety magazine, entitled Carcinogens, Clusters and Compensation, cites research from the University of Windsor, that suggests 70 to 90 percent of breast cancers are caused by environmental factors and that only 5 to 10 percent are related to genetics! The article goes on to say that according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), workplace risks for breast cancer include exposure to chemicals such as ethylene oxide, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); ionizing radiation and disruption of sleep schedules, through shift work.

Some Background on Chemicals

Let’s talk a bit about workplace hazardous chemicals and the challenges they present. This gets a bit complicated so bear with me!

Hazardous chemicals - the benefits

Many people ask why we use hazardous chemicals in the first place. The answer is simple; because these substances can either be used as tools to accomplish tasks that people cannot or they are used as raw materials to develop products that society depends upon.

A couple of everyday examples are:

Disinfectants - These are mixtures of chemical ingredients designed to kill bacteria and viruses. Without their use, who would want to go to a hospital or even use someone else's washroom?

Refrigerant These are chemicals that are used in our fridges, freezers, and air conditioners. They are made from very hazardous chemicals. Having been part of the effort to produce refrigerants safely, I can tell you that it is enormously challenging and there are many risks. Yet, who would want to go back to managing blocks of ice or sweltering in the heat?

Safer use of hazardous chemicals - the challenges

There are 3 big challenges when it comes to improving chemical safety:

Innovation in chemicals -Growth in the chemical industry is exponential. New chemical substances are being created at a rate of millions per year. At last check, the Chemical Abstract Service had over 175 million chemical substances in its registry. This has increased by 55 million since Rillea Technologies was founded in 2016. These individual substances can be combined in literally an infinite number of ways to build new “tools and solutions” for consumers.

The number of chemical products being used in workplaces - My most eye-popping learning in building Rillea Technologies over the last 5 years is to see how many chemical products are used in different sectors. Municipalities use 300 to 2000, hospitals use 700 to 16,000, colleges and universities use 1000 to 30,000 and even dental offices use 150 to 350. Not all of these products are hazardous, of course, but it is hard work to identify the hazardous products from the non-hazardous ones.

The types of hazards that can be created - To add to this complexity, there are over 70 different types of hazards associated with workplace chemicals. They cover a wide variety of possible harm from “fatal if inhaled” to “may cause cancer” to “causes mild skin irritation”. Our data tells us that on average, hazardous chemicals have 3 distinct hazards each. For example, the same product may have all of the following hazards; “extremely flammable aerosol”, “may cause cancer” and “causes serious eye damage”.

How We Manage Chemical Safety Today

There are four parties active in the goal for better workplace chemical safety: regulators, chemical manufacturers/suppliers, employers and workers.

Regulators – design the regulatory framework

With regards to hazardous chemicals, the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) is federal legislation that has adopted the United Nations Globally Harmonized System for Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, known as GHS. This legislation became law in Canada in 2015 under the Hazardous Products Regulations. These regulations are applied to manufacturers and suppliers of hazardous materials, intended to be sold for use in workplaces. They require manufacturers/suppliers to make available to their customers, a properly prepared WHMIS safety data sheet (SDS) for the products.

At the provincial level, have now adopted the WHMIS legislation as part of their occupational health and safety laws. In Ontario, these laws require employers to: a) have a copy of the SDS accessible to all workers; b) interpret the precautions of the SDS as they may apply to their workplace; c) inform the worker about the hazards identified in the SDS; d) provide chemical-specific training for safe use of the hazardous material.

The Ontario occupational health and safety regulations, as well as many others, go further to identify known hazardous ingredients and require employers to take specific action to protect workers. For example, ethylene oxide (CAS 75-21-8), one of the chemicals named in the magazine's article, is one of the 11 designated substances named under Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act, Regulation 490. This regulation requires that employers using any of the 11 listed substances, to conduct a rigorous review of how the substance is managed and take stringent steps to avoid worker harm and monitor worker health. Asbestos, benzene and lead are other well-known examples of hazardous substances named in this regulation. PCBs and approximately 800 other substances fall under Regulation 833 which again requires diligent attention by employers.

Regulators need a reasonable means to enforce these regulations. This, in my view, is where society’s reliance on regulators does not support the goal of better chemical safety. In Ontario, there are over 100 regulations (~5,000 pages) that deal with managing chemicals. This coupled with the fact that hazardous chemicals are often undetectable by the human body and chemical safety is only one part of an inspector’s job, make enforcement of all these regulations in every workplace an impossible task.

Does that mean the race for safer workplaces is lost? Absolutely not! While regulations are necessary to set societal rules, share best practices and catch and prosecute bad actors, the best way to achieve compliance is through education!

Chemical manufacturers/suppliers – share expertise

That’s where chemical manufacturers and suppliers come in. They are considered the experts for the chemical products they create and/or market. As discussed above, they are obligated to stay on top of changing science and regulations to ensure customers are made aware of hazardous chemicals. This information is communicated through the now very rigorous and consistent format of the WHMIS SDS and the product label.

Done correctly, the WHMIS SDS enables the end user of hazardous products to understand, in plain language, the science of how the product can hurt them - “Danger” "May cause cancer" - and allow people to compare products on an “apples to apples” basis. We do not need to be experts to understand the plain hazard language that is stated in section 2 of the SDS.

WHMIS regulations empower employers to choose safer products or at least to understand the hazards of the products they are purchasing.

Employer action - workplace gatekeepers

In Canada, all jurisdictions clearly identify the employer’s role in managing workplace hazards. The federal government states it this way:

“Preventive measures should consist first of the elimination of hazards, then the reduction of hazards and finally, the provision of personal protective equipment, clothing, devices or materials, all with the goal of ensuring the health and safety of employees.” – Canada Labour Code (R.S.C., 1985, c. L-2) Section 122.2.

As such, the employer is the gatekeeper for workplace safety. Since the employer cannot be an expert in all things, they typically empower advisors to help make decisions. In the case of hazardous chemicals, these advisors are safety officers, engineers, industry experts, members of the joint health and safety team, etc.

The first gate that a hazardous chemical must get through is at the point of purchase – Should we use a product that contains the hazards identified in the SDS? If the answer is yes, the employer is now responsible for managing the stated hazards of the chemical products they purchase.

This evaluation and management process describes a large portion of my work in the chemical industry, spanning almost 3 decades, and I can tell you that it is always cheaper and safer to eliminate the hazard, where possible.

If the employer decides to “manage” the hazards, there are 3 main tools available:

  1. engineering controls ie: ventilation;
  2. administrative controls -ie: protocols like limiting the time that a worker can be exposed to a hazardous chemical;
  3. personal protective equipment (PPE) -ie: requiring workers to wear respirators, gloves, etc.) to protect them from the hazard.

What does this mean for employers? It means that if you choose to purchase harmful chemicals, you must consider the total cost of using that product, which includes installing, maintaining and utilizing engineering controls; maintaining and providing regular training on administrative protocols and providing the correct PPE.

Workers - the last line of defence

Before GHS was adopted by the federal government, if was very difficult for employers to identify hazards like carcinogens. The old WHMIS system did not convert science on occupational disease to plain language. As a result, though the employer is always responsible, it was not always considered “reasonable” for employers to fully understand the chemical hazards for all workplace products. The legacy of this is that based on our data, collected from over 120 workplaces, 13 to 20 percent of workplace chemical products are WHMIS-stated carcinogens. How do we know this information? Because our software, SDS RiskAssist, is a decision support platform for chemicals management. It is designed to digitally read WHMIS SDSs and summarize the information about the hazards that employers and workers need to know. It also allows us to summarize data across our entire client base to see patterns in chemical use and the associated hazards.

If you don’t know which chemicals are carcinogens in your workplace, the first action you can take is to ask. As a worker, it is your right to ask and receive the proper information.

If your employer doesn’t know, ask for the product WHMIS SDSs for your work area and ensure they are recent (Ontario manufacturers and suppliers had to update their SDSs to the new format by December 2018).

In terms of ethylene oxide, we see it being used in the medical and veterinary sectors as a sterilizing agent as well as in products like salt eliminator, battery cleaners, hydraulic fluid, chemical cleaner, silicone lubricants, surfactants, etching gel and paint preparation products.

Section 2 of a properly prepared SDS will identify whether the product is considered a carcinogen in plain english, section 3 - the composition of hazardous ingredients found in a product and section 11 will identify the toxicity of even trace amounts of hazardous ingredients that may not be declared in section 3.  Once you understand the hazards be sure you have been trained in how to handle the chemicals safely to prevent getting sick.

Breast cancer prevention - technology can help

Like my Mom before me I find myself well positioned to do my part in the race for breast cancer prevention! My experience in chemical safety together with the software tools that Rillea Technologies has built, enable me to help employers translate the knowledge about hazardous workplace chemicals, gained through research, into concrete actions to eliminate or better control workplace environments.

Compiling information on WHMIS SDSs can be a daunting task for employers, that can take years to complete. Workplaces have hundreds if not thousands of chemicals. That's a lot of work to read all the information.

And you can't stop there. While the WHMIS SDS will identify the types of hazards posed by your chemical products, it will not necessarily tell you how to use the product safely in your workplace. Remember that manufacturers and suppliers have no idea how their products will be used in workplaces. Will the products be intentionally or inadvertently mixed? Are the products used in large quantities or small? Will the products be used in a fume hood, outside or in an enclosed space? These are questions that will impact the safe use of the products and can only be answered by you and your safety team.

Yes, identifying your chemical hazards takes effort and resources but, in the end, you will have fewer hazardous chemicals plus chemical-specific training for the ones that remain . And best of all, you will have the peace of mind that you have done your best to protect your workers.

If you need help with this task, contact me. Aside from subscribing to our SDS RiskAssist platform, Rillea Technologies offers audits of WHMIS SDSs. We can identify all your chemical hazards in minutes if your WHMIS SDSs are in electronic format or at most a few weeks if you are still in paper.

For my part, I have lost a grandmother, 2 aunts, and 3 close friends to breast cancer. I witnessed 2 more aunts, and many friends struggle with and win the breast cancer battle. I have felt the mixture of anxiety and thankfulness of those mammogram appointments and the terror of being called back for clarifying tests. If I could help prevent even one women or man (yes breast cancer in men is on the rise) from experiencing breast cancer, that would be amazing!

By working together, we can help to prevent all forms of occupational cancer and other diseases and perhaps even have reason to declare victories in our generation instead of handing this challenge to the next!

Are you with me?


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SDS RiskAssist an Ontario-based company that uses the power of technology to give employers control and understanding over the otherwise pervasive and worrisome use of chemicals. SDS RiskAssist enables workers to know why chemicals are being used, what their benefits and hazards are and how to use them safely! Workers can access this knowledge via mobile or desktop SafetySnaps™, from anywhere in the world. SDS RiskAssist is the winner for 5 years running, of Readers’ Choice Awards by Canadian Occupational Safety Magazine (2018-2022); the 2019 Innovation Guelph Startup of the Year Award; the 2019 Quinte Business Achievement Award (Trailblazer category) and The Ottawa Network’s 2020 Bootstrap Award (SaaS category). We support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, working with our clients to take action for a sustainable planet.