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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Women Demand Action on Breast Cancer Causes

Air Date: Week of

Tatiana Schreiber reports on a recent conference in Boston which explored the possible links between breast cancer and environmental risk factors such as pesticides, plastics, nuclear radiation, food additives and electromagnetic fields. Former New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug was among the organizers of the conference which brought together 70 groups of grassroots women's health activists seeking research funding, answers and results.


CURWOOD: One in nine. That's the number of women who develop breast cancer in the United States, and it's also the name of one of the more than 70 grassroots organizations that are turning to the political system for action on this devastating disease. In recent years, numerous studies have shown an environmental link to breast cancer, with questions raised about nuclear radiation, electromagnetic fields, pesticides, and plastics. Breast cancer activists and scientists are pushing for more money for research into these risks, but they're also pushing for action to eliminate them now. They argue that by the time the relationship of these risks to breast cancer is fully understood, many more women will have lost their lives. Reporter Tatiana Schreiber attended a recent gathering of these activists in Boston, led by former Congresswoman Bella Abzug.

(Room of mulled conversation)

SCHREIBER: The statistics are grim: a half million women died of breast cancer worldwide in 1980, and that number's expected to double by the year 2000. A million women dying each year and activists say the science isn't keeping up with the need to act.

ABZUG: We have to commit our own tax dollars to research, to prevention, to the life and the health of everybody in this country, certainly the many who are now at risk. We demand of our government immediate responses to take care of the continuing the civilization of which we are at least 50%. [Applause]

SCHREIBER: Bella Abzug, former Congress member and co-chair of the Women's Environment and Development Organization, hosted a day of testimony at the State House in Boston, followed by a day of science and activism focused on environmental links to breast cancer. Those links include chemicals and pesticides and plastics, radiation from nuclear power plants, hormones added to food, and electromagnetic fields. Early last year, Abzug held a similar hearing in New York City, in part because of pressure from activists on Long Island. Three months later, Abzug learned she herself had breast cancer.

(Mulled conversation in large room)

SCHREIBER: Rhoda Schaeffer brought her experience with the Long Island group One in Nine to the Boston meeting. She told the 300-plus audience about the group's first demonstrations in 1990.

SCHAEFFER: Four hundred women stood on the steps of the Nassau County Supreme Court in Mineola, New York. Women marching with their wigs on broomsticks, and we appeared on the front page of Newsday the next day: where do we go next? So that was in 1990...

SCHREIBER: What they did next was push for money to study environmental exposures that might be contributing to breast and other cancers. Grassroots groups like One In Nine are pushing for this kind of research, because the known risk factors for breast cancer, including diet, family history, early menstruation and late menopause, only account for 20 to 30% of the cases. The majority are unexplained. But while the incidence continues to rise, most dramatically in older women, there's been little evidence pointing to external causes. That's now beginning to change. A series of studies have found an association between breast cancer and chemicals that affect the body's endocrine system. New studies also suggest that electrical workers and others exposed to electromagnetic fields may be at higher risk, and several of the scientists involved in these studies are speaking out.

SOTO: I'm honored to speak here today. For the last 20 years we have been studying the mechanism by which female hormones, estrogens, promote tumor growth. As part of this research.

SCHREIBER: Dr. Ana Soto, a breast cancer researcher at Tufts University Medical School, testified at the State House hearing that she and her colleagues had unexpectedly discovered that new plastic test tubes were leaching chemicals into their samples of breast cells, causing the cells to grow.

SOTO: To our surprise, this chemical, called nonylphenol, is used in plastic products and may contaminate foods during processing or packaging. In addition, these estrogens, alkylphenols, are used in a variety of applications: as industrial detergents, in cosmetics, as condom lubricants, and as spermicidal foams. Due to the accumulative effects of estrogens and the variety of estrogens present in the environment, I will stress the necessity of screening chemicals for their hormone-like properties before they are released into the environment.

SCHREIBER: An official from the Food and Drug Administration asked Dr. Soto if her results have been reported to the FDA. She responded that yes, they had written a letter to the Department in 1988 to express their concerns, but no action had been taken. The FDA official, Joe Rawlinitis, defended his agency's testing methods.

RAWLINITIS: We have laws and testing procedures in effect which have worked since 1906 pretty effectively. And yes, I strongly enforce strict regulation of pesticides. As to the future, as to accumulative effects, unfortunately in some cases studies are not always foolproof. Science has its limitations.

SCHREIBER: That's just what worries the activists who say this really isn't a scientific issue. Since we can never have 100% scientific certainty, they say, and because current testing can't account for the combined effects of all the different chemicals we are exposed to in our food and water, any harmful substance that persists in the environment should be withdrawn from use. Chlorine-based products are a first target of that campaign. A public relations firm hired by the Chlorine Manufacturers Association deluged reporters at the conference with materials downplaying the dangers of environmental pollutants. Ana Soto agrees that all the evidence isn't in. But she thinks it's not too early to take protective measures against the threat of cumulative exposures from millions of pounds of industrial chemicals. She's most worried about the long-term effects of hormone-like chemicals on human reproduction.

SOTO: What are you going to tell your son, if your son cannot reproduce or your daughter? So it's up to us as human, as citizens of the world to decide whether we want to continue this or not.

SCHREIBER: Sponsors of the Boston conference say they want to redefine breast cancer as an environmental issue. With dozens of other groups, they formed Rachel's Children, an international network named in honor of Rachel Carson, to redirect research toward breast cancer cause and prevention, and to work for the elimination of hazards that undermine women's health. For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber in Boston.



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