Athabasca University’s Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences is launching a new Sociology of Aging course beginning in September that will explore how and why workplace and environmental factors can affect individual health.
SOCI 331 “Environmental Influences on Development and Aging Across the Life Course” is a three-credit, intermediate-level course. The class will examine the environmental and workplace impact of chemical exposures on long-term health, while exploring strategies for disease prevention.
The course will be tutored by Dr. James Brophy, who has a professional background in occupational and environmental health. For 18 years he was the executive director for the Occupational and Ontario Workers Health Clinic in Windsor and Sarnia, Ontario.
Brophy’s course will examine factors around various diseases researchers have identified as being associated with workplace exposures—ailments such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes.
Brophy says endocrine-disrupting chemicals like Bisphenol A (BPA) or certain fire retardants can impact reproductive health or provide a causal link to such diseases as breast cancer and prostate cancer. Through the course he’ll explore how certain chemical exposures can contribute to a person’s risk for diabetes or obesity, for example, while highlighting relevant case studies.
“We’re looking at the impact of exposure in the workplace, in the environment, and its impact on your health as you go through your life,” says Brophy, adding these exposures are determined by one’s race, class and gender.
“We’ll identify some of the diseases we’re seeing that are associated with these exposures at certain moments—a whole raft of issues and reports that try to identify these things and try to forecast what we can do to prevent them from escalating.”
The course will also examine various social movements to reduce these exposures.
Brophy says he has an intrinsic passion for this timely issue.
“My life’s work has been in this area; it reflects in my interactions with people,” he notes.
His class will include a case study of mercury poisoning and related neurological diseases from corporate pollution in the First Nations Community of Grassy Narrows in Ontario.
Additionally, students will look at breast cancer and farming workplace exposures—an area he has researched at length.
In the early 1990s when he was the director of the Occupational Health Clinic in Sarnia, Brophy and his wife, Dr. Margaret Keith, who worked in a related field, along with a number of physicians at the clinic, approached the Windsor Regional Cancer Centre with their recent findings related to cancer in the auto industry.
Brophy’s team had found that the many external studies which had previously identified cancer in that industry seemed to emanate from work plants very similar to the ones in Brophy’s research community. As such, Brophy’s research hypothesized these workers were also “bearing an elevated cancer risk.”
His team proposed conducting a research study with Windsor Regional Cancer Centre whereby the former would be allowed to collect the occupational histories of the Centre’s cancer patients, ultimately, pointing toward places where interventions could be useful.
“No provincial cancer agency or cancer treatment centre in Canada, now or then, has collected occupational histories of cancer patients,” Brophy explains.
Assistant Professor, Sociology, Dr. Ella Haley adds: “This ties with the Sociology of Science and the values that determine what topics will be researched, what data will be collected and how it will be analyzed–and whether cancer prevention in the environment and workplace are prioritized.”
And Brophy says a lot of the provincial cancer agencies refuse to collect that information—”which is too bad because occupational exposures are probably one of the significant contributors to the disease. Certainly, it’s one of the contributors in the exposed population,” Brophy notes.
After ironing out some kinks, the two groups developed a joint program which Brophy likens to an ATM “where people could go and put their occupational histories in it and then get a print-out that they could share with their physicians.”
Farming Females: Gender and Cancer Prevention
Four years later, upon examining the collected data, Brophy’s team found a very high rate of breast cancer among women who farmed.
He says the results were surprising.
“We weren’t looking for it; if you’d asked where we thought we were going to find it we thought we’d find elevated cancer among male industrial workers,” Brophy explains.
While they did find certain cancers elevated in men, the bigger finding was the breast cancer among farming women.
Since then, Brophy has performed two more studies on breast cancer, which received international attention. The studies, conducted over a four- and five-year period, involved women in the Windsor area who were diagnosed with breast cancer within a certain period of time. The study ultimately included a sample of 1,000 women with breast cancer and approximately 1,200 community controls.
The finding in the first study was that a woman had a very high risk if she had ever farmed and was under the age of 55. ~ Dr. James Brophy
The second study focused on anybody who’d been diagnosed with breast cancer in a two-year period. Once again, they found this very high risk of breast cancer associated with farming.
“We also found that the women who farmed tend to start working at a very young age. Women are very biologically vulnerable in terms of risk from exposure to chemicals during certain biological moments such as during puberty or during the period from puberty to her first full-term pregnancy,” Brophy explains.
Brophy’s work complements the work of the Environmental Breast Cancer Movement.
He conducted a third study based on findings of the first two studies. Brophy’s group detected this elevated risk among women who farmed, as well as among women who worked in the plastics industry, food canning, restaurants and casinos. They also found the risk related to an area he refers to as “metallurgy” – with respect to workplaces like stamping plants and tool-and-dye shops.
Asbestos: Canada’s Top Cause of Workplace Death
To add even further to his illustrious credentials, Brophy documented “the largest asbestos disease cohort in Canada” which exists in the petrochemical community of Sarnia (See Globe and Mail exposé article on asbestos).
“We had over 1,000 workers with asbestos-related cancer and respiratory diseases. We were working with the patients there that worked and lived next to these big chemical plants,” Brophy says.
“There’s some misconception that we banned it – and we haven’t,” he asserts.
As stated in the Globe and Mail article: “Canada now has an enormous public health tragedy; a disaster on our hands.”
Sociology 331 examines how race, class and gender play a key role in exposures and the crucial role of social movements in prevention of these exposures. In particular, the course focuses on First Nations people, women, and industrial workers.
Says Brophy: “There is a lot of concern about issues related to race and class discrimination. We’ll touch on areas such as First Nations groups bearing disease burdens that could perhaps be prevented.”
Brophy has taught similar courses related to occupational health at the University of Windsor where he is adjunct faculty in the sociology department. He has also worked with the National Network on Environmental Women’s Health at York University in Toronto.
Brophy believes that students will find the course very timely, relevant and engaging.
“Students are very concerned about the environment—they’re very concerned about issues of health and gender equality. For example, are women bearing elevated risk for things that could be prevented?”
Sociology 331 debuts in September. The course is open and students can sign up for it until the 10th of each month to start the following month.