“Women’s exposure to occupational cancer is underestimated”

La Croix: A priori, we assume that women are less likely to be affected by occupational cancer than men. What is it really?

Heinrich Bastos: Sectors known for their carcinogenic burdens (construction and public works, maintenance, metallurgy, transport and auto repair) are mainly occupied by men. But women are not spared either, and the exhibitions of very feminized professions are probably underestimated in many scientific research works.

Which types of cancer are these for which areas of activity?

HB: At the top are breast and lung cancer. Next come pleural mesothelioma, specific to asbestos exposure, and colon and ovarian cancer. The 2010 Sumer Survey (Medical Monitoring of Worker Exposure to Occupational Risks) showed that hairdressers and beauticians are among the women most exposed to carcinogens. ANSES has shown that out of nearly 700 substances included in the composition of the products it uses, 60 were carcinogenic, mutagenic, toxic to reproduction or endocrine disruptors.

In the nursing sector, nurses, midwives and nursing assistants are most often exposed to at least one carcinogenic nuisance, be it night work, ionizing radiation or chemicals, especially cytostatics, used to treat cancer. Finally, 38,000 maintenance workers, mostly women, are exposed to a carcinogen, mainly due to night work and the use of chemical products.

What contributes to the fact that these occupational cancers are even more invisible in women than in men? With what consequences?

HB: As occupations or sectors dominated by women have long been considered less onerous and less dangerous, scientific research has become less interested in them. This has led to underreporting of women’s exposure, complicating their approaches to recognition and redress.

This lack of recognition increases the invisibility of these pathologies and creates a vicious circle. In the highly exposed cleaning industry, there is a majority of women, usually low-skilled, with a high proportion of part-time employees, whose work is often spread over several locations. The combination of these factors affects the relevance and effectiveness of prevention.

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