Across the United States, roughly 32 million people are exposed to toxic agents regularly in over 3.5 million different workplaces. There are as many as 650,000 harmful substances employees encounter during their job, particularly in industrial settings. At the moment, women make up one-third of the manufacturing industry in the country, where most toxic exposure occurs. There are also occupations stereotypically associated with women where there is toxic exposure, such as hairstylists, maids, housekeepers, and nurses. Furthermore, during the last century, female military members have been heavily exposed to numerous hazardous agents, including asbestos, radiation, burn pits, PFAS, solvents, benzene, and silica dust.

Toxic exposure can lead to the development of numerous terrible diseases specific to women, such as cervical cancer, breast cancer, and ovarian cancer. Women who have had a job with high toxic exposure, such as metalworking, farming, bartending, or food processing, for 10 years were found to have a 42% greater risk of coming to struggle with breast cancer. In contrast, women who have jobs that do not entail contact with hazardous agents have a breast cancer risk of only 13% . Moreover, women with a history of toxic exposure are also at risk of other cancers, such as lung cancer, bladder cancer, liver cancer, and leukemia. While women working in safe environments have a lifetime risk of developing lung cancer of 6% , those who carry out their job on construction sites, for instance, where silica dust is clouding the air, have a considerably higher risk.

Why Are Women More Likely to Develop Cancer from Toxic Exposure?

What places women in industrial workplaces and the military at a considerably higher risk of cancer than those who carry out their work in safe environments are the tasks they are assigned. For instance, women in the power generating industry may have to burn fossil fuel, a task which, if they perform on a regular basis, can greatly endanger their health. Burning fossil fuel increases the risk of lung cancer. Similarly, those who are frequently exposed to coke oven emissions on the job are at great risk of lung cancer and kidney cancer. On the flip side, women who work as cashiers, secretaries, teachers, customer service representatives, waitresses, or receptionists have a nearly non-existent risk of developing cancer because of their occupation.

The impact of toxic exposure is also different based on biological sex characteristics. Medical studies describe the biological differences between women and men, including physiological, chromosomal, and hormonal variations, which create a higher proneness for women to severe toxic exposure. One of the factors related to sex characteristics that increase women’s occupational cancer risk is the fact that they have more fatty tissue in which chemicals that bioaccumulate are stored. Not being able to eliminate toxic chemicals from your body places you at a higher risk of cancer.

Finally, another factor contributing to the higher risk of cancer among women working in industrial settings and the military is the personal protective equipment they have to wear. Unfortunately, the protective gear they need to wear to shield themselves from direct contact with toxic agents was designed for the Western male body. Because the personal protective equipment fits women poorly, it often leads to lower protection against harmful agents. Some women choose not to wear protective gear at all in the workplace or the military solely for this reason, as well as because it gets in the way of performing their work tasks.

How Can Women Minimize Toxic Exposure in the Workplace?

Many workplaces expose women to toxic agents, such as factories, manufacturing facilities, and chemical plants. The military has exposed and still exposes women to hazardous substances, too. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the employer to instruct employees on how to protect themselves against toxic exposure on the job or while on active duty. The following are some practical ways you can minimize toxic exposure in the workplace or military if your job entails handling or being around harmful substances: 

  • read and follow the instructions provided by your employer or ask for safety instructions if they have not provided you with such rules
  • always wear all the protective equipment required when you have to handle or come in contact with chemical fumes, radiation, dust fibers, or biological agents, such as a mask, coveralls, a respirator, eye protection, or gloves
  • shower and change clothes before leaving work to avoid bringing toxic agents to your home if possible
  • if your clothing is contaminated and you do not have the above option, always wash it separately from your other clothes or from the clothes of your family members

About the Author

Jonathan Sharp is Chief Financial Officer at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. The law firm, headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, specializes in toxic exposure. Among the responsibilities of Jonathan Sharp, there are client relations, financial analysis, the collection and distribution of the funds, case evaluation, and management of firm assets.



The information in this article is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease. All material on WE Magazine for Women is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider for specific medical advice and before undertaking any diet, exercise, or other health-related programs including the use of dietary supplements or products.