One in Eight
Since 1960, more than 950,000 American women have died from breast cancer. To put this in perspective, only 617,000 Americans died in all the wars our country has fought in this century! And shockingly, almost half of cancer deaths have occurred in the last ten years, according to the 1994 Breast Cancer Health Project Fact Sheet, sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Between 1981 and 1991, annual breast cancer deaths increased by approximately 32 percent.In the United States today, there are more than 130 million women of all ages. More than 16 million of them will develop breast cancer. One in eight. On a typical suburban block with perhaps 25 families, three mothers will develop breast cancer. In most elementary schools, the great majority of teachers are women. Assuming two teachers per grade, at least two teachers in any school will develop breast cancer. (In 1994, the American Federation of Teachers reported that teachers have nearly twice the rate of breast cancer deaths as the general population.)What's behind this explosion in breast cancer incidence? If you listen to the pronouncements that issue from American Cancer Society (ACS), National Cancer Institute (NCI), the drug companies, and other mainstream agencies, it is our fault. Our family history is to blame, or reproductive/hormonal factors, or fatty diet and alcohol. But the truth is that 70 percent of women with breast cancer are getting their disease from causes other than genetics, chemical imbalances, and lifestyle. For more than 120,000 American women a year, their cancers are caused by environmental poisons--manmade chemicals and radiation that have been produced and distributed worldwide. And the leaders of the war on cancer have known this for decades.Since the dawn of the chemical age and the production of carcinogenic and hormone-manipulating substances, breast cancer has risen steadily. In 1964, the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that 80 percent of cancers were due to human-produced carcinogens. In 1979, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) identified environmental factors as the major cause of most cancers. This information is not filtering through to the public.Annual production rates for synthetic, carcinogenic, and other industrial chemicals exploded from one billion pounds in 1940 to more than 500 billion pounds annually during the 1980s. Since cancer has a latency period, it is safe and altogether logical to say the growing incidence corresponds to increased exposure to a variety of carcinogens found nearly everywhere. The connection between certain toxins in our environment and the decline of women's health has become more and more obvious.Industry, farms, and our very own well-kept lawns are the sources of discharges of hundreds of persistent, toxic chemicals into our food, water, and air. Both common chlorine-based organochlorines and low-level radioactive pollution have the potential for compromising the immune system.The 1994 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reassessment of dioxin, another organochlorine, links exposure to this chemical to immune disfunction. Dioxins (there are actually more than 200 chemical cousins in this family--all of them toxic) are considered the chemical equivalent of nuclear radiation, and they are regularly produced as unwanted waste products of hundreds of industrial processes and products. They are endemic to our environment; they enter our bodies right along with the very elements we need to survive, and go right to work destroying our natural defenses. EPA analysts admit that every person in the United States has a body burden of dioxin that is reaching the potential for a health crisis. Whatever breakthrough drug or treatment plan is ballyhooed in the media, the trend is plain: the epidemic of breast cancer will continue because our exposure to toxins continues.As more and more women are understanding, a tiny lump in the breast is not the beginning of breast cancer. It is only the first active proof of the disease that has been growing for years. Because of the toxins in our environment, we all carry the seeds of our own sorrow.The conclusion that toxic contaminants are significant (in fact, overriding) causes of breast cancer is one that the cancer establishment is reluctant to address. Industry condemns the studies pointing to environmental causes, and NCI has only recently started to focus on them. Here, according to the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), the advocacy group founded by Bella Abzug, are some of the conclusions of careful, professional, scientific studies that the cancer establishment is not telling you: In a Connecticut study, levels of PCBs and DDT were 50-60 percent higher in the breast tissue of women with breast cancer than in women without breast cancer. The EPA found that U.S. counties with waste sites were 6.5 times more likely to have elevated breast cancer rates than counties that did not have such sites. A Colorado study reported an association between electromagnetic field (EMF) exposure and female breast cancer. Male breast cancer (an extremely rare disease) may be linked to occupational exposure to EMF. Exposure to ionizing radiation can increase the risk of breast cancer, as shown by the increased breast cancer risk among Japanese atomic bomb survivors. In Israel, a ban on three carcinogenic pesticides may have been responsible for a 30-percent drop in breast cancer rates from 1976 to 1986. Other groups have provided evidence from different perspectives. Greenpeace, for instance, in a 1992 release entitled Breast Cancer and the Environment: The Chlorine Connections, noted several occupations that contribute to the breast cancer epidemic: Women working in the petroleum, chemical, pharmaceutical, and electrical equipment manufacturing industries had significantly higher rates of breast cancer than the general public....A study of 347 female chemists found breast cancer rates 63 percent higher than expected.And a 1994 report sponsored by the NAACP and the United Church of Christ offers a geographical connection between breast cancer and environmental carcinogens. Racial minorities are increasingly more likely than whites to live near hazardous waste sites in America, says Benjamin A. Goldman, co-author of the report. Why is this significant? NCI says the overall increase of 2.7 percent for female breast cancer among all races combined during the period 1973-1989 appears to be primarily due to a nearly 18-percent increase in the disease among black women. And for women younger than 40, blacks are 12 percent more likely than whites to get breast cancer, and 52 percent more likely to die from it. Common sense dictates that geography must be factored into any analysis of breast cancer.There are many more studies that bring us to the same conclusion: it's the environment. The connection between our toxic, industrialized environment and cancer is compelling. Cancer-causing materials have been dumped into the environment and into people for the past five decades--and today's statistics reflect the long-term development of cancer that exposure to these materials produces.Accepting this basic principle means our attention must turn to prevention. As Devra Lee Davis stated in (Journal of the American Medical Association);Preventing only 20 percent of all cancers in the United States each year would spare more than 200,000 people and their families from this often disfiguring and disabling disease.Most women carry around a major misconception about breast cancer--that it is somehow their fault that they have or might get the disease. This belief is abetted by official pronouncements that breast cancer is correlated with genetics (family history) and lifestyle. There are certain risk factors acknowledged by all authorities that show up in approximately 30 percent of all breast cancer patients. (See box below right.)But a risk factor is not a cause--it simply means that a woman's chance of getting breast cancer increases with the number of factors that she has. So what is the connection between the risk factors and breast cancer? Strong evidence indicates that it is the levels of hormones--specifically, estrogen--in women's bodies.We could add all the risk factors together and still have to deal with the fact that more than 70 percent of the women who develop breast cancer have none of these factors! While officials at ACS, NCI, and other institutions that determine the national dialogue about breast cancer believe their numbers of breast cancer are merely the result of better screening and earlier detection, something else is going on.What's going on is that for 70 percent of breast cancer patients, the cause of their illness is outside their bodies! Evidence compiled since 1990 points toward our environment and toxins that do serious damage.Environmental Estrogens Certain environmental contaminants act like toxic hormones. These hormone-mimicking chemicals, when taken into the body through our food, water, and air, can trigger unnatural growth that can progress to cancer.Since 1990, evidence has been accumulating that a host of industrial chemicals, including many plastics, pesticide and byproducts of combustion--mimic hormones. These hormone mimickers are capable of disrupting reproduction and development of humans and animals. Equally strong is the evidence that these same toxic estrogen mimickers can cause some of the most common cancers: prostate and testicular cancer in men and breast cancer in women.The American Chemical Society reported on this in the April 19, 1993 issue of Chemical & Engineering News. Then came studies published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), in the October 1993 issue of Environmental Health Perspectivesc. And in its February 9,1994 issue, JAMA published a study which stated, Estrogen and [chemical] agents that mimic it appear to be more pervasive and problematic than ever suspected.A number of established factors have emerged that are basic to understanding the effect of estrogenic compounds on our bodies: The higher the daily dose of estrogen, or estrogen-like compounds, the less time required for a cancer to develop. (This is true for exposure to other carcinogens as well.) The more constant the absorption of estrogen, the less time it takes to develop cancer, and the smaller amount of hormone required. The greater the estrogenic potency of the chemical absorbed, the less time required to develop breast cancer. Estrogenic chemicals of radically different chemical structures can be similar in their hormonal action and are similar in their cancer-producing action. A variety of breast cancer cell types, all with the ability to metastasize, are produced by estrogen administration. Long-term, repeated administration of relatively small doses may intensify tissue response to hormonal substances. During the 1980s, United States industries manufactured over 500 billion pounds a year of synthetic organic chemicals, many of which are carcinogens. By comparison, in 1940 only one billion pounds were produced. Thanks to modern industrial practices that place profit before public health, we are exposed to thousands of industrial emissions that are toxic and carcinogenic. Most of these compounds have never been tested for their safety or their effects on the human body.The industries involved have littered the entire landscape of the United States with some 50,000 toxic waste landfills (20,000 of which are recognized as potentially hazardous), 170,000 industrial impoundments (ponds, pits, and lagoons), 7,000 underground injection wells, and some 2.5 million underground gasoline tanks, many of which are leaking. These industries manufacture products and use processes that are taken for granted in our modern industrial state: plastics (especially PVCs), products bleached with chlorine, metal mining and processing, nuclear fission products, and petrochemicals.Due to the action of wind and water, toxic pollutants can now be found almost everywhere, even the most remote areas of the globe. And thanks to the accumulative exposure to thousands of toxic contaminants, all beings are imperiled. We can no longer hide from the stark reality that the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the places where we work may be profoundly contaminated. As the contamination increases, so will the cancer statistics.Many pollutants persist in the environment, remaining harmful for decades and accumulating in the bodies of all living things. For instance, dioxins bioaccumulate in fish at concentrations 59,000 times higher than in the water they swim in. Those beings who are higher up on the food chain accumulate ever higher concentrations. Humans, of course, are at the top of the chain, and so reap the greatest share of this toxic harvest. According to Greenpeace, we carry in our bodies toxins at concentration levels thousands or even millions of times greater than in the surrounding environment.Devra Lee Davis is one of many researchers who thinks it's time to put more emphasis on the environmental causes of breast cancer. We're spending $22 billion on the war on cancer and the bulk of that is in treatment, she says. And as of 1993, the five-year survival rate for advanced breast cancer has not improved in two decades. It's time we changed public policy to ask how to prevent cancer.A large number of the articles that Davis mentions report on independent research done in the United States, Finland, Sweden, and Israel that have identified a specific group of chemical pollutants as particularly dangerous to humans. They are called organochlorines: compounds in which chlorine is bonded to the carbon-rich organic matter of which living things are made. (They are also called chlorinated organic compounds and chlorinated hydrocarbons.) They include thousands of persistent chemical products and byproducts. These compounds resist breakdown for decades and even centuries.They concentrate in fatty tissues and multiply in concentration as they move up the food chain. Greenpeace reports that at least 177 organochlorines have been identified in the fat, breast milk, blood, semen, and breath of the general American and Canadian population, and many of them have been shown to cause or promote breast cancer. As Greenpeace notes, The worldwide increase in breast cancer rates has occurred during the same period in which the global environment has become contaminated with industrial synthetic chemicals, including the toxic and persistent organochlorines.These industrial chemicals that mimic human hormones are called xenoestrogens, and they have the potential to disrupt the human endocrine system. (The Greek root xeno- means foreign.) DDE for example, has the same chemical structure as a hormone. It stimulates estrogen, which in turn stimulates breast cells, which then proliferate rapidly. Other chemicals mimic hormones, tricking the body and promoting cell growth. Once inside our bodies, they weaken our defenses and wreak their harm: cancer, hormonal disruption, immunological abnormalities, and birth defects. They are silent, insidious enemies. As Rachel Carson said in Silent Spring in 1962:The most alarming of all man's assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth's rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world--the very nature of its life.Liane Casten in an investigative environmental journalist. This article is excerpted from her recent book, Breast Cancer: Poisons, Profits, and Prevention, published by Common Courage Press, 1996.