Meeting the Minds – Dr. Jim Brophy

For 35 years, Dr. Jim Brophy has been involved in environmental and occupational health. He was the executive director of the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers in Windsor and Sarnia and has been working with Athabasca University for the past four years. He currently is tutoring Sociology 348 ? Environmental Justice Issues, and responsible for approximately 30 students. He and his partner, Dr. Margaret Keith, were recently awarded this past November with the Scientific Award by the Occupational Health Section of the American Public Health Association. The Award recognized the significance of their breast cancer and work studies that drew international attention.

In the near future, Sociology 331 ? Environmental Influences on Development and Aging Across the Life Course will be coming to AU. The course was authored by Drs. Brophy and Keith in conjunction with Dr. Ella Haley. He expects he’ll also be tutoring students in that course.

Dr. Brophy kindly consented to be interviewed by The Voice Magazine, and here is the gist of what was said:

What brought you to start in your field and tutoring for AU?
I became involved in cancer research while working in for the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers in Windsor. I received my Ph.D from the University of Sterling, in Scotland, looking at work related causes of breast cancer in conjunction with Dr. Margaret Keith.

We also helped to uncover the largest asbestos related disease cohort in Canada among chemical workers employed in what’s known as the Chemical Valley in Sarnia, Ontario. The chemical complex is one of the largest in Canada and it is estimated that approximately 40% of our chemicals are produced there. It is also, as I mentioned, the location of one of our worst occupational health tragedies.

We also started working on pollution related issues with the First Nations, where we helped to document one of the first examples of a human skewed sex ratio in a community. We’d found that over a 5 year period, 35% less boys than anticipated were born.

All of these interests and discoveries have combine to fuel my concern and writings about environmental health issues, and in 2008 I left working for the clinics while completing the study on breast cancer. Margaret and I are part of an international multidisciplinary research team that was studying the possible occupational causes of breast cancer. It was during this period where I was approached by Dr. Ella Haley to see if I might be interested in teaching. As Margaret and I had already written a course designed to be taken long-distance and online for the University of Windsor, it sounded like an interesting opportunity.

What are the common pitfalls you see students running into?
As you know, AU draws from a wide population across country. We have the normal student demographic who get really engaged in the material of Soci 348. We start teaching about the Tar Ponds in Cape Breton, NS, or the computer chip industry in Silicon Valley, and people become interested and even sometimes angry about the tolerated injustices. We also have a lot of older people returning to University. They of course bring a life history and insight to these issues.

Because the students are from across Canada I learn quite a lot from them about their points of view and experiences. It’s very engaging. The quality of the students, and what they write is usually well beyond my expectations. And there’s really such a variety of life experiences that I find so interesting. Maybe it’s something to do with the students who choose to take this course, but I keep finding myself being amazed by them.

What is interesting to you currently in your academic field?
Well, we’ve just finished writing this new course, and have applied through York University to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation for a grant to further our breast cancer studies

Breast cancer remains the most prevalent cancer among Canadian women. Canada has some of the highest rates in the world. It should be treated as a major public health issue especially given that the majority of women diagnosed with the disease don’t have the known or suspected risk factors.

Now in the US there’s been pressure on the government to discuss the effects the environment might be having on the incidence of breast cancer. A recent Presidential report came out stating that environmental causes have been ?grossly underestimated?. There is similar concern in Europe and yet Canada continues to lag behind giving scant attention to the role that the environment plays in cancer causation.

I think that that’s one of the reasons our recently published breast cancer studies received such wide spread media attention. Our findings were quite provocative. For instance we found over 400% higher rates in pre-menopausal women who worked in food canning and automotive plastics factories. The study’s findings have been featured in an investigative reporting series on Global TV, 16×9. Recently we discovered from the journal that published the study?Environmental Health?that there have been over 25000 downloads of the article.

I think I can understand why automotive plastics might be an issue, but why food canning plants?
We think it comes down to two major issues in the food canning plants. When they cook off the food, a lot of steam is generated, steam which may contain pesticide residues. We know the food had pesticides when it comes in, and health testing shows those levels are reduced a lot by the time it goes into the can, so where do they go? Also, there is the issue of the epoxy lining of the cans. That epoxy contains BPA, which is a known endocrine disrupting chemical that has been associated with increased breast cancer risk.

But for the workers, many of whom are women, there is ongoing exposure to a host of toxic chemicals that has been characterized to us by some of the women we interviewed as a ?toxic soup?. Something as simple as ventilation fans in these canning or automotive plastics factories might significantly reduce exposure, but there are no regulations requiring that in Canada.

Yes, you’ve pointed out that other countries are getting quite concerned about these issues, so why don’t you think Canada is?
We have very corporate friendly governments in Canada, corporate friendly or corporate fearing perhaps. We have more focus on making sure employers aren’t challenged because it’s easy for them to move to other more ?corporately friendly? countries, and it’s just as easy for them to build or move a factory to the US as it is to run one here. But the consequences of this “open for business” posture for people who live here and raise their families are pretty onerous. There are consequences to this type of policy. You see it so often in environmental issues.

More needs to be done to stop this exposure, but governments are not responding, and they’re not really taking women’s occupational health concerns seriously. I think that there’s going to be increasing pressure to do something. In the US, the unions and some of the Breast Cancer organizations have launched a campaign called “Putting Breast Cancer Out of Work”, the United Autoworkers (UAW) have joined the campaign, using Rosy the Riveter as their logo. I think that a new consciousness is going to come here, so hopefully we won’t be lagging behind, after all, Canada used to be a leading voice for protecting the environment and health.

Canadians, I believe, want to make environmental health, climate change and other such issues priorities. They take pride in where they live and do care about threats to our ecology, but the people with power don’t necessarily share these values especially if it diminishes their power and wealth.

How about outside the field, what are your interests there?
We do a lot of running. Last year at 66 years of age, I ran the Detroit-Windsor half-marathon with my partner Margaret Keith. We’re just signed up to run the half marathon again this coming October. We got into it because of our kids, we have four of them some of whom run full marathons.

We are also very connected to our family. We camp and hike with them during the summer including some, or all of, our ten grandkids. As you can imagine, between that and research, things are pretty full.

What is your opinion on AU’s move to e-texts so far?
Our course is still lagging behind on all of that. When I started tutoring this course they sent me a box with all the articles, all the books in it. The students lately are looking for this stuff in the reading rooms and, as far as I understand, our stuff isn’t there yet.

How about the shift to a call-centre model?
Unfortunately, in a lot of our institutions, not just education, but health care, social services, etc., are being forced to function as if they are a business.

I think there’s something wrong with that model. Our education system shouldn’t be running on a business model. There’s something really lost here. From what I understand about call centre idea, I think it’ll could lower the quality of the educational experience. What I’m doing in my course means I have a lot of contact from students, I build a relationship with them, and they’re going to get something from me in this area that they won’t get from a random person they’re assigned to if the call centre approach were to be adopted.

But AU’s not alone in this problem. The University of Windsor’s head of the Faculty Association is on contract. Most positions are no longer tenured because it’s cheaper. But a trade-off is being made. We’ve introduced business practices into institutions without thinking about what these changes really mean.

The quality of the human experience should be our real goal. We keep trying to bring down education costs, but maybe education can’t be fixed by cutting services or lowering standards. It’s the same in health care. Somebody pays the price for that.

What do you think of social media use?
There are pros and cons to whole thing. There’s some idea that it’s making us unable to write, but as I said I haven’t found that in the papers submitted for the course. I don’t think you can ignore it, but the biggest problem is for people to have some sort of critical understanding of what you’re reading. I think you have to have some context to understand what’s there.

One thing social media definitely shows us is that science is not monolithic.

What do you think AU needs to do to improve?
I think it needs to be supportive and focused on the students that are a part of its community, what the students need, want, and deserve should be on top of everybody’s mind. If you have a place that is focussed on the people that live, work, and study there, you’ll build something that has real value.

In AU there’s a lot of activity for online learning and lifetime learning. It’s really an important thing and as the years go on, people will be more engaged in learning. Given the complexities of our lives, and how that’s increasing, distance learning will be required. So AU can do a lot with this type of program.

But it may need to rethink how to bring more shared learning into the process. In a real classroom setting people learn from each other, they have all kinds of insights. Everybody in the room has a point of view and experience and ideas and we learn from each other, it’s not just up-down learning. We learn from those we study with when we discuss these issues and share these passions, and it’s tough to do this at AU, so more needs to be done to build that type of community.

I’ve felt it might be interesting to use Skype and set up small group-work so that these various students that I get to talk to, with all their widely different experiences and lives could meet each other in class and learn from each other’s point of view.