Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#571 - The Truth About Breast Cancer -- Part 1, 05-Nov-1997

Background

More American women have died of breast cancer in the past two decades
than all the Americans killed in World War I, World War II, the Korean
War and the Vietnam War combined.[1] The average woman killed by breast
cancer loses 20 years of her life. Thus with approximately 46,000
American women killed each year by breast cancer, we are now losing
nearly a million person-years of life each year from breast cancer.[2]
The costs of this epidemic are incalculably large.

About 182,000 new cases of breast cancer arise each year among U.S.
women.[2] Furthermore, since 1940, the incidence (occurrence) of breast
cancer has been creeping upward 1% each year. This relentless increase
cannot be explained by an aging population or by better detection such
as mammography screening.[2] The 1% annual increase is real. Since
1940, a woman's chance of getting breast cancer has doubled.[3]

Everyone now accepts that breast cancer has environmental and
"lifestyle" causes. Two basic facts make this conclusion inescapable.
First, breast cancer incidence is five times as high in some countries
as in others. Secondly, when women migrate from a country with low
incidence of breast cancer to a country with high incidence, their
daughters acquire the breast-cancer risk prevailing in the high-
incidence country.[4] Clearly, something in the environment (air,
water, soil, food, or electromagnetic spectrum [for example, x-rays])
is at work here.

Until recently, the search for causes of breast cancer has ranged from
nonexistent to lackadaisical --perhaps because of racism (the most
rapid rise in breast cancer is occurring among African-American women
[2]), or perhaps because in the U.S. women are simply not valued as
highly as men. (We know, for example, that in the U.S. women's work is
not valued as highly as men's --women are paid only 70% as much as men
for equal work.[5])

For years, breast cancer research (centered at the National Cancer
Institute [NCI] in Bethesda, Maryland) has focused not on prevention
but on therapy and treatment --earlier detection, better chemotherapy,
better radiation, and better surgery.[6] These approaches have allowed
many women to survive the disease (most of them without their breasts)
but they have done little or nothing to prevent the scourge.

This non-preventive approach has been promoted aggressively by "Breast
Cancer Awareness Month," an annual campaign that surfaces every
October, sponsored by 17 governmental, professional, and medical
organizations, including the National Cancer Institute.[7]

Breast Cancer Awareness Month was initiated in 1985 by a British
chemical conglomerate called Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), now
known as Zeneca Pharmaceuticals. Breast Cancer Awareness Month is
"focused on educating women about early detection of breast cancer."[7]
Breast Cancer Awareness Month has promoted the slogan, "Early Detection
is Your Best Prevention," but this is nonsense --if your cancer can be
detected it's too late to prevent it. Breast Cancer Awareness Month --
with all the authority of those 17 sponsoring organizations --
consistently diverts attention away from real prevention.

According to a recent investigative report on Breast Cancer Awareness
Month (BCAM) by Monte Paulsen (DETROIT METRO TIMES, May, 1993), "ICI
has been the sole financial sponsor of BCAM since the event's
inception. Altogether, the company has spent 'several million dollars'
on the project, according to a spokeswoman. In return, ICI has been
allowed to approve --or veto --every poster, pamphlet, and
advertisement BCAM uses."[8] Thus the lack of a prevention message from
Breast Cancer Awareness Month has not been accidental, and the 17
sponsoring agencies have adopted and endorsed Imperial Chemical's
program and message.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month thus reveals an uncomfortably close
connection between the chemical industry and the cancer research
establishment in the U.S. Imperial Chemical --with revenues of $14
billion --is among the world's largest manufacturers of pesticides,
plastics, pharmaceuticals and paper. ICI is also a major polluter. For
example, one of its Canadian paint subsidiaries has been held
responsible for 30% of all the toxic chemicals dumped into the heavily-
polluted St. Lawrence River which separates the U.S. from Canada.[9]

In recent years, breast cancer research has begun to focus somewhat
more on causes, but until very recently the emphasis has been on
"lifestyle" factors --specifically obesity, alcohol, fat in the diet,
age at first pregnancy, number of pregnancies, breast feeding, and so
forth. Six years ago, 600,000 women wrote letters to Congress saying
they wanted federal researchers to cast a wider net in the search for
causes of breast cancer.[6] Two years later, SCIENCE magazine titled a
major story, "Search for a Killer: Focus Shifts from Fat to
Hormones."[3]

Actually hormones have been at the center of breast cancer research for
at least 20 years because everyone agrees that 30% of breast cancers
can be explained by exposure to naturally-occurring estrogen, the
female sex hormone.[10] (Breast cancer may be caused by other things as
well, but exposure to natural estrogens in the blood stream is widely
accepted as an important cause.) After a woman's period begins, each
month her blood stream is flooded with natural estrogens. If she has a
baby, the estrogen flow is interrupted. If she breast feeds, the
estrogen flow is interrupted. When she goes through menopause, the
estrogen flow is greatly diminished.

One of the effects of estrogen is to cause cells to grow in the
breasts. Many studies have now confirmed that women who start
menstruating later than the average and who go through menopause
earlier than the average have a reduce likelihood of breast cancer --
presumably because they have a reduced exposure to estrogen. Women who
have their first child early have a reduced risk. Women who have many
children have a reduced risk. Women who breast feed have a reduced
risk.

After a woman goes through menopause, her natural flow of estrogen is
greatly reduced. In the past 20 years, about 30% of American women aged
50-65 have been taking estrogen replacement pills after menopause.[11]
There are real benefits from this "estrogen replacement therapy" (or
ERT) --reduced osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) and reduced
likelihood of death from heart disease. Unfortunately, taking ERT pills
for 10 years increases a woman's chances of getting breast cancer by
anywhere from 30% to 100%, and the longer she takes ERT the worse her
outlook for breast cancer.[11,12,13]

In the past 5 years researchers have begun asking, "If some pesticides
and plastics and other chlorinated chemicals can interfere with both
male and female sex hormones in wildlife and humans,[14] and if 30% of
breast cancer is known to be caused by naturally-occurring female sex
hormones, isn't there a reasonable likelihood that some of these
chlorinated chemicals contribute to the rising incidence of breast
cancer?" It seems a reasonable enough question.

Researchers Devra Lee Davis and Leon Bradlow with Cornell University
formally proposed a hypothesis, suggesting ways in which environmental
estrogens (or, as they are sometimes called, xenoestrogens --xeno
meaning "foreign") might cause breast cancer.[15] The research world
began to buzz with interesting new work, asking whether chemicals that
mimic, or block, estrogens might contribute to breast cancer.

It seemed a rather straightforward and obvious scientific question to
be asking --and one with great consequences for public health. But to
the chemical industry it looked like something more than merely an
important public health question. With billions of dollars riding on
the outcome, they saw it as a political struggle, less about saving
lives than about maintaining profits, power and, above all, control.
The Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA) and its subsidiary, the
Chlorine Chemistry Council (CCC), quickly developed a strategy to
protect their interests against those of the 180,000 women afflicted by
breast cancer each year. (See REHW #495.) They hired a scientist to
begin casting doubt on the Davis/Bradlow hypothesis by saying this line
of research is a dead end, a huge waste of time and taxpayers' money.
(Manufacturing doubt is a strategy that has served the tobacco industry
handsomely for 50 years, and the chemical industry has now adopted it -
- all, of course, in the name of "good science.") And they hired a
sleazy, third-rate public relations firm --Mongoven, Biscoe and Duchin
of Washington, D.C. --to develop a plan for discrediting Devra Lee
Davis herself.

[Continued next week.]

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

=====

[1] David Perlmutter, "Organochlorines, Breast Cancer, and GATT [a
letter]," JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION Vol. 271, No. 15
(April 20, 1994), pgs. 1160-1161.

[2] Devra Lee Davis and H. Leon Bradlow, "Can Environmental Estrogens
Cause Breast Cancer?" SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Vol. 273, No. 4 (October
1995), pgs. 166-172.

[3] Eliot Marshall, "Search for a Killer: Focus Shifts From Fat to
Hormones," SCIENCE Vol. 259 (January 29, 1993), pgs. 618-621.

[4] David J. Hunter and others, "Plasma Organochlorine Levels and the
Risk of Breast Cancer," NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE Vol. 337, No.
18 (October 30, 1997), pgs. 1253-1258.

[5] U.S. Bureau of the Census, STATISTICAL ABSTRACT OF THE UNITED
STATES: 1996 (116th edition) (Springfield, Virginia: National Technical
Information Service, 1996) pg. 426, Table 663.

[6] Eliot Marshall, "The Politics of Breast Cancer," SCIENCE Vol. 259
(January 29, 1993), pgs. 616-617.

[7] This information comes from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in
Orlando, Florida. See http://www.pinkoctober.org/awarenes.html. Note
the unique spelling of awareness.

[8] Paulsen quoted in Jim Hightower, THERE'S NOTHING IN THE MIDDLE OF
THE ROAD BUT YELLOW STRIPES AND DEAD ARMADILLOS (New York:
HarperCollins, 1997), pgs. 215-216. The DETROIT METRO TIMES (and Monte
Paulsen) can be reached at (313) 961-4060.

[9] Hightower, cited above, pg. 215.

[10] Stephen Safe, "Is There an Association between Exposure to
Environmental Estrogens and Breast Cancer?" ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH
PERSPECTIVES Vol. 105, Supplement 3 (April 1997), pgs. 675-678.

[11] Louise A. Brinton and Catherine Schairer, "Estrogen Replacement
Therapy and Breast Cancer Risk," EPIDEMIOLOGIC REVIEWS Vol. 15, No. 1
(1993), pgs. 66-79.

[12] Graham A. Colditz and others, "The Use of Estrogens and Progestins
and the Risk of Breast Cancer in Postmenopausal Women," NEW ENGLAND
JOURNAL OF MEDICINE Vol. 332, No. 24 (June 15, 1995), pgs. 1589-1593.

[13] Randall E. Harris and others, "Breast Cancer Risk: Effects of
Estrogen Replacement Therapy and Body Mass," JOURNAL OF THE NATIONAL
CANCER INSTITUTE Vol. 84, No. 20 (October 21, 1992), pgs. 1575-1582.

[14] Theo Colborn and Coralie Clement, editors, CHEMICALLY-INDUCED
ALTERATIONS IN SEXUAL AND FUNCTIONAL DEVELOPMENT: THE WILDLIFE/HUMAN
CONNECTION [Advances in Modern Environmental Toxicology Vol. XXI]
(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Scientific Publishing Co., 1992).

[15] Devra Lee Davis, H. Leon Bradlow and others, "Medical Hypothesis:
Xenoestrogens As Preventable Causes of Cancer," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH
PERSPECTIVES Vol. 101, No. 5 (October, 1993), pgs. 372-377.

Descriptor terms: breast cancer; organochlorines; good science;
mortality statistics; morbidity statistics; african-americans; women's
wages; nci; breast cancer awareness month; imperial; chemical
industries; zeneca pharmaceuticals; detroit metro times; monte paulsen;
st. lawrence river; canada; hormones; estrogen; estrogen replacement
therapy;