On Thursday, February 17, several members of the New York State Assembly held a public hearing at the University Hospital in Stonybrook, Long Island. The purpose of the conference was to hear testimony on possible causes of breast cancer, of which Nassau and Suffolk Counties have an unusually high incidence. Besides breast cancer, prostate cancer, brain cancer, and numerous other maladies were implicated as the result of pervasive usage of toxic chemicals in our communities. Added to the list were diseases of the nervous system like multiple sclerosis. Among those offering testimony on the possible causes of breast cancer and other cancers were Barbara Balaban of the New York State Breast Cancer Hotline, 800-877-8077; Roger Grimson of Prevention Medicine at SUNY Stonybrook; Dr. Eli Seifert of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Epidemiologist Dr. Lee Caplan; Tracy Frisch, Director of New York Alternatives to Pesticides (NYCAP); and Dr. Carlof Sonnenschein of Tufts University School of Medicine.
A member of a Long Island cancer coalition spoke of the widespread use in her community of lawn chemicals containing cadmium and how it leached into the ground water supply and how it entered the inlets and bays as run-off. Cadmium is implicated as a carcinogen for breast and prostate cancers. More and more women in their 40’s, 30’s and 20’s were being diagnosed with breast cancer. Ethnic origin, family history, child-bearing age, alcohol, smoking and other lifestyle habits did not appear to play a significant role, as to whom was diagnosed with breast cancer and who was spared. A much stronger indication seemed to be environmental factors.
These environmental factors implicate organochlorine compounds which are a major ingredient in chemical pesticides and herbicides. Organochlorines are used in a large class of chemicals among a few of which are the most toxic and carcinogenic chemicals used anywhere. They include PCBs, CFCs, and dioxins. Organochlorines contain estrogenic properties. They concentrate in fatty tissue and accumulate over time. Research indicates a strong connection between breast cancer and increased levels of the hormone estrogen
In Israel in the 50’s and 60’s great quantities of synthetic agri-chemicals were used. There was also a high rate of breast cancer. Israel phased out its use of these pesticides and herbicides and the rate of breast cancer eventually dropped. In addition to breast, scientific studies implicate organochlorines in several other cancers. Besides cancer, the high toxicity of organochlorines are believed to cause a wide range of other health risks, including genetic mutations, birth defects, hormonal disruption, immune suppression, impaired childhood development and infertility. Organochlorines pose additional threats to human health by interacting with each other and interacting with other chemicals to raise the risk of breast cancer and other disease. There are no industrial organochlorines which are known to be non-toxic.
The media has done little to inform the public about these dangers, even though the scientific community has been aware of this connection for decades. A research scientist at Tufts University discussed research he has been working on for over 25 years linking estrogens to breast cancer. He discussed the book, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, written 30 years ago, which did much to bring about the ban of DDT in our country. However, we continue to use other chemicals which are equally harmful to the environment and to our health.
Atrazine is now the best selling pesticide in the U.S. even though the EPA determined ten years ago that it was a breast cancer carcinogen. Atrazine has also been implicated in ovarian, prostate, and endometrial cancers. Currently 107 different active ingredients in pesticides are known to cause cancer in animals or humans. These ingredients are contained in thousands of commercial products that are used on food crops, in and around our homes and schools. They have contaminated numerous lakes, rivers and underground water supplies. Pollution to the Great Lakes region has caused reproductive difficulty and birth defects among the wildlife and become a threat to human health as well. The U.S. and Canada have reached an agreement to phase out use of organochlorines in that area.
Organochlorines are so pervasive in our environment that indoor pollution is often ten times higher than outdoor pollution, even in homes where toxic chemicals are seldom used. In addition to hearing many statistics about cancer rates and toxic chemical usage, attending members of the New York Assembly were asked to implement legislation that would seriously limit, or phase out, use of these carcinogenic chemicals from our environment. They were informed that the rate of breast cancer has not only increased over the years, but it afflicts women at a younger and younger age, and this may be merely the tip of the iceberg.
There are no scientific or ethical reasons to presume a chemical is harmless until proven otherwise. This approach allows action only after irreversible harm to health and the environment has taken place. Historically, the cardinal principle of public health practice has been disease prevention. To require that a cause and effect relationship be proven before taking action violates this cardinal rule of disease prevention.