The Chemicals of Cancer - Part 1

May 11, 2001

By Michael Jessen

"April is the cruellest month," T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem 'The Waste Land.' It was particularly cruel for more than 200 West Kootenay Boundary Health Region residents. In April, they received their death sentences.

Their deaths are predicted in the annual statistics published last month by the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS - and the BC Cancer Registry ( But by the time the statistics are published, about 70 of the 200 West Kootenay residents are probably already dead, their obituaries containing phrases like "after a long courageous battle with cancer."

Canadian deaths from cancer are expected to average 179 daily in 2001 -- a death toll equivalent to a mid-size jet crashing every day with all passengers and crew killed. Of those 179 deaths, 22 will occur daily in BC. The CCS predicts 367 new cases of cancer (47 in BC) will be diagnosed every day this year in Canada. Multiplied over the year, that's 134,100 new cases (17,200 in BC) and 65,300 deaths (8,200 in BC).

These staggering statistics are contained in Canadian Cancer Statistics 2001. The booklet is filled with charts, graphs, and tables detailing types of cancers by geographical region and incidence and mortality rates.

The CCS says about 60 to 70 per cent of cancers could be prevented if Canadians adopted healthier lifestyles. If Canadians would quit smoking, eat more fibre and less fat, and protect themselves from the sun, then cancer incidence and mortality rates would drop, says the CCS.

Sandra Steingraber says the CCS frames "the cause of the disease as a problem of behavior rather than as a problem of exposure to disease-causing agents." Steingraber -- diagnosed with bladder cancer at age 20 and the author of "Living Downstream - A Scientist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment" -- says cancer is not a random misfortune.

"One-half of all the world's cancers occur among people living in industrialized countries, even though we are only one-fifth of the world's population," she writes. The World Health Organization, she says, has concluded that at least 80 percent of all cancer is attributable to environmental influences.

Similar to the United States, deaths from cancer in Canada are especially high in heavily industrialized areas. Elevated cancer rates are also found in about 60 different occupations.

Dr. Samuel Epstein, one of the world's foremost authorities on the carcinogenic effects of toxic and industrial pollutants in air, water, the workplace, and consumer products, says 1,000 Americans die every day from cancer and that most of these deaths are preventable. But most discussions of prevention, Epstein charges, intentionally omit any mention of the probable cause of the current cancer epidemic -- the poisoning of our entire planet.

"When we are urged to avoid carcinogens in the environment and workplace, this advice begs the question," says Steingraber, an internationally recognized expert on the environmental links to cancer. "Why must there be known carcinogens in our environment and at our job site?"

While the CCS says the rising incidence of cancer is due to an aging population, both Epstein and Steingraber dispute this. "A 60-year-old man is much more likely to die of cancer today than was his counterpart fifty years ago," says Epstein. "Women born between 1947 and 1958 are three times more likely to get breast cancer than their great-grandmothers were at the same age," says Steingraber.

Young people face an even greater danger, says Steingraber. "We do know with certainty that childhood cancers are on the rise, and indeed they are rising faster than adult cancers," she says. "We don't have any official explanation for that yet." According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cancer is the second leading cause of death for children aged 5 to 14 in the U.S. and the fourth leading cause of death for children aged 1 to 4.

"It's impossible to live safely in a toxic world," Steingraber says. "We can't make individual lifestyle changes and protect ourselves."

Much of our exposure, she says, comes from the air we breathe and the water in which we bathe. Drinking bottled or filtered water does not shield us from contaminants in our water supply. "Taking a ten-minute shower is the equivalent of drinking a half-gallon of tap water," says Steingraber.

In "Living Downstream," Steingraber cites a study that revealed an eightfold excess of bladder cancer among workers employed in a Connecticut pharmaceuticals plant that manufactured a variety of aromatic amines. She also notes that trihalomethanes -- unwanted by-products of water chlorination -- have been linked to bladder cancer, as has the dry-cleaning solvent and sometime-contaminant of drinking-water pipes, tetrachloroethylene.

"I possess individual reports on each of these topics," she writes. "What I do not have is a comprehensive description of how all these substances behave in combination. What are the risks of multiple trace exposures? What happens when we drink trihalomethanes, absorb aromatic amines, and inhale tetrachloroethylene?"

Steingraber then asks a number of questions including what is the fate of these substances when they enter the environment and why haven't safer substitutes replaced them all?

"These questions remain, to my knowledge, largely unaddressed by the cancer research community," she writes.

Answering researchers who argue some carcinogens -- like arsenic -- occur naturally and therefore exposure is impossible to eliminate, Steingraber responds: "It is hardly prudent to avoid regulating synthetic carcinogens just because we also have exposures to natural ones. If anything, an awareness of our exposures to unavoidable natural carcinogens should generate greater urgency toward eliminating the avoidable synthetic ones."

Prevention of cancer means eliminating factors that cause cancer in the first place. That's the conclusion of medical doctor Janette D. Sherman, author of "Life's Delicate Balance: The Causes and Prevention of Breast Cancer".

"If cancers are not caused by chemicals, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and ionizing radiation, what are the causes? How else can one explain the doubling, since 1940, of a woman's likelihood of developing breast cancer, increasing in tandem with prostate and childhood cancers?," Dr. Sherman asks.

A practicing physician who has treated 8,000 patients over 30 years, Dr. Sherman, unlike most physicians, possesses an extensive knowledge of chemistry.

In a discussion of breast cancer, Dr. Sherman lists the known "risk factors" the common characteristics shared by many women who get breast cancer: early menarche (age at which menstruation begins); late menopause (age at which menstruation ends); late childbirth and the birth of few or no children; no experience breast-feeding; obesity; high fat diet; being tall; having cancer of the ovaries or uterus; use of oral contraceptives; excessive use of alcohol.

"What is the message running through all of these 'risks?'" Dr. Sherman asks. "Hormones, hormones, and hormones. Hormones of the wrong kind, hormones too soon in a girl's life, hormones for too many years in a woman's life, too many chemicals with hormonal action, and too great a total hormonal load."

Since giving birth to a daughter in September 1998, Steingraber learned both the power of parental love and the perils of breast-feeding.

"Of all food consumed by humans, breast milk is now the most contaminated," Steingraber wrote in the July 11, 1999 issue of Rachel's Environment and Health News. "Even thus compromised, however, breast milk is still a healthier food for babies than its inferior pretender, infant formula. This is why I have chosen to breast-feed my daughter for more than two years."

She targets polyvinyl chloride plastic as one of the toxic chemicals lurking in our environment. It is found in medical products, toys, food packaging, and vinyl siding. Steingraber charts its path as it is tossed in the trash and sent to an incinerator where burning PVC creates dioxin. The dioxins attach themselves to dust particles and raindrops, fall back to Earth, contaminating crops and other plants. Eaten by humans, dioxin molecules accumulate in fatty tissues, like breasts.

"If there was ever a need to invoke the precautionary principle -- the idea that we must protect human life from possible toxic danger well in advance of scientific proof about that danger -- it is here, in the breasts of nursing mothers," writes Steingraber. "What is the price for the many benefits of breast milk? We don't know yet. But why should there be any price? Breast-feeding should be a zero-risk activity.

"If alternatives to PVC and other carcinogens exist, we have a moral obligation to use them, " concludes Steingraber. "Compromising the goodness of breast milk is a human rights violation of the highest order."

If cancer is caused by exposure to carcinogens, the way to beat cancer is to stop the exposures. Unfortunately, our culture views cancer as just another business opportunity, writes Dr. Sherman.

"We are no longer people who become sick. We have become markets," she concludes. "Is it any wonder that prevention receives so little attention? Cancer is a big and successful business!"

ONE SMALL STEP - Here are seven steps you can take to reduce your toxic exposure. Don't use weed killers (herbicides) or bug sprays (pesticides); buy organic foods when you can; eat lower on the food chain -- choose fruits, vegetables and grains rather than dairy foods and meat; use non-toxic cleaning supplies; don't smoke and keep away from second-hand smoke; don't buy products that contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC plastic), mercury or phthalates; and don't use burning as a way to get rid of yard waste or trash.

RESOURCES - Dr. Steingraber, who has a doctorate in biology and a master's degree in English, is a faculty member at Cornell University's Center for the Environment in Ithaca, New York. "Living Downstream" is available in paperback from Vintage. Her new book -- "Having Faith: the Ecology of Pregnancy and Childbirth" -- is about potential impacts of environmental contaminants on fetuses and newborns. Perseus Books will publish it October 16, 2001. Sierra Club Books published Dr. Epstein's prize-winning 1978 book "The Politics of Cancer". He is also the author of "The Safe Shopper's Bible" (Macmillan, 1995), "The Breast Cancer Prevention Program" (Macmillan, 1998), and "The Politics of Cancer, Revisited" (East Ridge Press, 1998). Dr. Epstein is emeritus professor of environmental medicine at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, and Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition ( Rachel's Environment and Health News is available online at Rachel's printed a review of Dr. Sherman's book in issue #723 dated April 26, 2001. Dr. Sherman's book is available in paperback from Taylor and Francis. Zillah Eisenstein is the author of "Manmade Breast Cancers" available in paperback from Cornell University Press. By "manmade," she means not just carcinogenic emissions by multinational corporations but also "patriarchal privilege." The Toxics Links Coalition ( is holding its 7th annual Cancer Industry Tour in the San Francisco financial district on October 3, 2001 to protest against the industry-developed and -sponsored "Breast Cancer Awareness Month" pink-ribbon public relations program. The group claims it promotes the pharmaceutical industry and ignores environmental links to cancer. The coalition also lobbies city councils to rename October "Cancer Industry Awareness Month." According to Dr. Devra Davis, a leading epidemiologist and researcher on environmental causes of cancer and chronic disease, many pesticides are hormone mimicking, "...which mimic the action of estrogen produced in cells or which alter the hormone's activity." There is compelling evidence that these hormone-mimicking chemicals are linked to the increase in breast cancer. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety has an online page about endocrine disruptors at According to the Pesticide Action Network North America ( human toxicity data do not exist for many chemicals, and the process by which chemicals are prioritized for study or included on an official list (carcinogens, reproductive toxins, etc.) is as much political as it is scientific. On May 15, the U.S. National Institutes of Health issued a press release ( indicating five large breast cancer studies have found no link to the pesticide DDT or to PCBs, a widespread industrial chemical. The Silent Spring Institute (, a nonprofit scientific research organization dedicated to identifying the links between the environment and women's health, especially breast cancer, is continuing its studies into environmental estrogens and abnormally high incidences of breast cancer on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The San Francisco-based group Breast Cancer Action ( is a valuable source of information and has an excellent newsletter.

Michael Jessen is an environmental consultant and owner of toenail environmental services, which specializes in helping businesses with sustainability issues. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 250-229-5632. His firm's award-winning web site can be found at

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