WOMEN in the plastics industry are being exposed to a "complex soup" of chemicals that could increase the risk of breast cancer, new research has claimed.

The study, led by Stirling University, says there is "strong evidence" women employed in the plastics industry are exposed to workplace chemicals that can raise their risk of breast cancer and reproductive abnormalities.

At present, more than 12,800 people are employed at around 430 polymer (plastics and rubber) companies in Scotland. Industry experts estimate around 345 of these deal solely with plastics.

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The study, carried out alongside the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers and the National Network on Environments and Women's Health, reviewed chemicals used in the industry which are known to be carcinogens of the breast or endocrine disruptors – chemicals which interfere with the hormone system – such as acrylonitrile, styrene, BPA and phthalates.

Researchers found exposure to these chemicals during critical times for these women, such as pregnancy or the start of menstruation, could pose health risks and react with chemicals to create a "complex soup" leading to higher cancer risks and risk to unborn foetuses.

The study, published in New Solutions journal, supports recent research led by Stirling University which reported a five-fold increased risk of developing breast cancer in premenopausal women who work in the plastics industry.

Professor Andrew Watterson, from Stirling University, said: "In Europe a number of countries have banned bisphenol A (BPA) and took action to ban baby bottles that were manufactured using the known hormone disruptor.

"But often there are still limited or no effective safeguards in place to protect workers who are directly exposed to BPA (and several other carcinogenic and endocrine disrupting chemicals used as additives in plastics manufacturing) on a daily basis.

"In the UK there are some 200,000 workers in the plastics industry in around 6000 workplaces and well over 90% of the workplaces are in small and medium enterprises. Yet the HSE, the UK enforcement agency, has recently floated proposals to remove active inspection of the plastics industry and only engage in reactive visits.

"Our research indicates the need for more, not less, oversight and investigation of health hazards facing workers in the plastics industry. Endocrine disruptors may also affect men's health in potentially serious ways and merit serious surveillance."

Previously, the university led independent research into the working conditions at the ICL/Stockline Plastics plant in Maryhill, Glasgow, when an explosion in 2004 killed nine workers and left more than 33 injured.

In 2008, the European Commission and representatives of EU member states identified no risk to consumers from products made from materials based on BPA. It is currently reviewing its strategy on endocrine disruptors and will propose criteria for the identification of substances with endocrine disrupting properties.

A spokesman for the British Plastics Federation said: "Many of the chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics have undergone comprehensive EU risk assessments. Following these, exposure to these chemicals at the levels likely to be experienced in the workplace will not pose a danger to employees."