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Cancer and the Environment

A version of the following article appeared in Briarpatch, Volume 32, Number 10, Dec 2003 / Jan 2004

In the war against cancer, there are only casualties. The launch of this so-called war was 1971 in the U.S. under President Richard Nixon. Canada followed suit. Since then we have seen a huge growth in research into possible cures for cancer, funding for tracking the genetic links and a proliferation of every organ’s cancer support group. Breast Cancer, Lung Cancer, prostate, Lymphoma, Childhood leukemia. The list is long. We have created a magical agency to grant a child’s wish — a trip to Disneyland between rounds of chemotherapy.

What we have not done is to reduce the incidence of cancer. On the contrary, it is climbing. Childhood cancers have increased by 26% overall, while the incidence of particular cancers has increased still more: acute lymphocytic leukemia, 62%; brain cancer, 50%; and bone cancer, 40%.

Testicular cancer, particularly in young men has increased 300%. Breast cancer rates are an epidemic, with the lifetime risk per Canadian woman rising from one in thirty, that many years ago, to one in nine today.

After thirty years, one is entitled to ask why we are losing the war against cancer? The answer is likely that we have focussed our resources on only part of the problem. In fact, the funding has been directed nearly entirely to the lab coat work of finding a cure. Virtually ignored has been pursuing and eliminating the potential causes of the disease. The old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” has been turned on its head. That pound of cure is viewed as more valuable than any amount of prevention.

The horrible secret of the war against cancer is that preventing the causes of cancer will cut into the profits of those who fund the cure.

Many of us have joined the pink ribboned brigades to “Run for the Cure.” As an expression of community solidarity, as a cathartic public moment of defiance in the face of the threat of personal loss, it is a powerful symbol. But its origins are unsavourary. At the time it created Breast Cancer Awareness Month, back in 1985, the British pharmaceutical company, Astra Zeneca (formerly “Zeneca”), was a subsidiary of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). ICI was under indictment by the US Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies for dumping carcinogenic chemicals into watercourses, decided to spruce up its image. It donated the money and became the first corporate sponsor of the Run for the Cure. “This is a conflict of interest unparalleled in the history of American medicine,” said Dr. Samuel Epstein, a professor emeritus of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois School of Public Health. “You’ve got a company that’s a spin-off of one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of carcinogenic chemicals, they’ve got control of breast cancer treatment, they’ve got control of the chemoprevention (studies)…”

When you look at the links between big pharmaceutical companies and big chemical companies, there is often perfect symmetry. Make money selling chemicals that cause cancer, create more cancer, and make more money selling the drugs to be used in cancer treatment.

In the United States, the American Cancer Society vigourously opposes investigations into the chemical and pesticide industry links to cancer. It is also a huge recipient of industry money. The Canadian Cancer Society, on the other hand, has recently charted an independent course from its American opposite number. Two years ago, the Canadian Cancer Society joined with Sierra Club Canada in calling for a ban on carcinogens used for lawn care. All Canadians should proudly donate to a cancer association that puts principles over profits.

Sad to say, our government has largely fallen in line with the cure-obsessed culture of the Cancer establishment, as Dr. Samuel Epstein has dubbed it. It is obvious that something in our environment is causing cancers. Only 10% of all cancer have a genetic link. Cancer is on the rise. So something in our environment or lifestyle must be the culprit. Lifestyle gets a good bit of what attention there is on prevention. But it risks falling in to a “blame the victim” mode. And with cancer rates rising in household pets, wildlife and small children, we might want to ask what lifestyle problems do they have? Have wildlife taken up smoking and eating fatty foods?

Sandra Steingraber in her compelling book, Living Downstream, relates the lines of evidence that phenoxy herbicides cause non-Hodgkin’s and malignant lymphomas. She traces the epidemiological work in Swedish forestry workers, Saskatchewan and Kansas farmers, Swedish farmers — and household dogs. The dogs walk across the sprayed lawns, track in the herbicides on their paws, and likely lick it off. Steingraber, a cancer survivor herself, opens the book movingly by describing the pattern of cancer in her family. Family member after family member died of cancer. When she got cancer, people might have assumed it ran was a genetic pre-disposition. Only Steingraber was adopted. As she writes, “Cancer did not run in my family. It ran in my environment.”

A Real War on Cancer:

Imagine a government that really wanted to see cancer rates decline. Where would it start?

The first step is to jettison the current regulatory system. It places chemicals in a position approaching that of accused persons — innocent until proven guilty. It places a burden of proof on those who challenge the use of a substance to show by direct laboratory tests and by the weight of evidence from not one, but many epidemiological studies, that the substance not only causes cancer, but that it will cause cancer in the human population in its approved uses. There are a lot of registered substances that are known carcinogens. It is the daunting nature of proof of harm that keeps them registered.

Is this particular cancer caused by that particular chemical? In the real world, it is nearly an impossible question to answer. Unless the type of cancer is extremely rare and the substance to which the patient was exposed was notoriously connected to that rare pathology, the link between cancer and chemical is likely to fall into the vast background noise of hundreds of substances. As an example, if thalidomide had caused cleft palate or spina bifida, it might not have been linked to the congenital abnormalities. Only because the birth defects of flippers instead of arms and legs were so dramatic was the regulatory response so quick.

What of the thousands of substances in our environment that are still not properly tested? Environment Canada’s estimate is of 23,000 substances that still need to be reviewed under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The glacial pace of assessments will never catch up with the backlog.

If we were re-inventing the system , we would think not of the individual cancer and the links to an individual chemical, but rather look at the whole human population and see what diseases are on the rise. We would look at the collectivity of chemical contaminants in our food, water, pesticides, tail pipes and cosmetics and start eliminating the worst ones as quickly as possible. In other words, we would work to detoxify the world.

There are some good examples of this approach. In Israel, as the breast cancer rate rose in 1978, the government took the precautionary step of banning three pesticides (benzene hexachloride, lindane and DDT). Breast cancer mortality rates declined.

Our government is still more invested in defending carcinogens than getting rid of them. Canada has shamelessly promoted asbestos sales all around the world and in Canada. (Quebec buildings and federal buildings are now under policy directives to increase their use of asbestos!) In contaminated Sydney , Nova Scotia, Health Canada has spent $10 million on health “studies” designed to show that toxic chemicals pose no health risk. The cancer rates, higher than anywhere else in Canada, are blamed on the bogey-man “lifestyle once again. The government should be embarrassed in such a shameful attempt to divert attention from the real cause. A study by Dalhousie University researcher, Dr. Judith Guernsey, demonstrated that cancer rates in Sydney were significantly higher than those in near-by industrial Cape Breton towns, such as Glace Bay and New Waterford. Those near-by towns have people of the same ethnic background, likely the same genetic pool, the same lifestyle, and the same socio-economic status. The only real difference is that the Sydney population was exposed to 100 years of steel making and the toxic legacy it left behind.

The new Pest Control Products Act says it will regulate pesticides to take into account the special vulnerabilities of children. Despite the fact the bill is more than a year old, regulations to achieve this sea change in regulation have still not been tabled. It is children and particularly the unborn who are the most at risk. Minute, infinitesimal, amounts of chemical contaminants, crossing the placenta, can cause cancer in young adults decades later. The prevailing theory to explain the huge increase in testicular cancer is the effect of endocrine disrupting substances on male fetuses. Meanwhile, the Liberal Government has ignored the recommendation of the Canadian Cancer Society, the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Environment, and even that of the Liberal Party of Canada, that toxic, carcinogenic lawn pesticides used to make a lawn look better, should be banned.

A campaign linking all the forms of cancer — all the organ by organ groups of victims and families of victims – recognizing that one out of every three Canadians will get some form of cancer – is long over-due. The Canadian Environmental Protection Act is coming up for review. Maybe now is a good time to start.

Elizabeth May was a Executive Director of Sierra Club Canada for 17 years. Thanks to Sandra Batt, whose article in Sierra magazine, Sept-Oct 1999, “Cancer Inc.” is the source of the origins of Run for the Cure.


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