This interview from Living on Earth with Dr. Devra Lee Davis helped me realize that the concern about environmental pollutants contributing to breast cancer is real, and we all need to take it into account. Dr. Davis is the author of The Secret History of the War on Cancer which argues that there has been a deliberate effort to suppress attempts to address cancer from the prevention angle, resulting in “10 million preventable cancer deaths over the past 30 years.” From the interview:
[...] CURWOOD: So, this report says what there are some 216 chemicals with carcinogenic properties that could be responsible for breast cancer. What sorts of chemicals are we talking about here?
DAVIS: Well, let’s first establish this: every chemical that we know for sure causes cancer in humans has been shown to cause it in animals when experimentally tested. That’s a very important fact. Now the question is, is the obverse true? Namely, is every chemical we know that causes cancer in animals â€“ should it be regarded as though it causes cancer in humans? I happen to think yes it should. We should pay attention to these animal tests and that’s what this study of Silent Spring Institute has done.
They’ve identified 216 chemicals that are shown to cause breast cancer in animals when tested under controlled conditions. Some of the chemicals that they are talking about are very widely spread in our environment. For example 1-3 butadiene is a common air pollutant. It’s in gasoline. It’s obviously found in the urban environment wherever there are cars or trucks or busses. Benzene is a similar pollutant found in gasoline and therefore engine exhaust. Methylene chloride you may not know it but some furniture, polish some fabric cleaners, and a lot of wood sealants in the past have used methylene chloride and although it is supposed to be being phased out you don’t know whether it is in these compounds now or not.
CURWOOD: So, almost anywhere it seems then you could be exposed to a chemical that gives you breast cancer.
DAVIS: Well, let’s just say that the exposures are widespread and that’s why it’s really important that we take another look at the way we are organizing our society and the kinds of chemicals that we are using everyday. We think that there are alternatives that can be used. Here in Pittsburgh we are leading the way with green chemistry. We don’t want to wait until we have proof in humans that the chemicals that we now know cause cancer in animals will do so in humans. But in many cases we already have that evidence for some chemicals and we ought to act on the basis of what we know now to continue to reformulate and redesign our products. Big business is going to make a lot of money by doing that.
CURWOOD: Now, how do we look at 216 chemicals one at a time? How do we make sound policy out of that?
DAVIS: That is the sixty-four thousand dollar or perhaps the sixty-four million dollar question. One of the things that’s being done in Europe now is the REACH program. They are reregistering and evaluating chemical hazards by asking manufacturers to give them information that will be used to reregister and reconsider some of the highest volume chemicals in commerce today.
CURWOOD: Dr. Davis, what’s the purpose of releasing a metastudy like this, is this a call to regulators to individuals?
DAVIS: I think the purpose of this study was two things. First, was to show there was a robust and extensive literature out there; studies in animals, studies in cell cultures, and some studies in humans. The second point of this review is frankly, you have to see where it’s been published. It’s being published in the major journal of the American Cancer Society. The American Cancer Society has been somewhat slow to embrace the environment as an issue. And I think the fact that the American Cancer Society published it is really signaling a sea change in public attitudes about the environment. [full text]
October is breast cancer awareness month, and I know a number of our readers have been impacted directly and indirectly by this disease recently. Let’s hope that research will begin to more clearly identify the toxins that need to be removed from the environment in order to reduce the occurrences of breast cancer in the US and worldwide.