Breast cancer and our environment


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When she looks at her suburban street, Geri Barish sees cancer. She believes it’s under her feet, in the soil that came from landfill and has been sprayed with pesticides. She believes it’s overhead, in the electric transformers that hang from telephone poles on her quiet cul-de-sac.

“Pollution from these sources may explain the cancer that killed my mother, my son and too many of my neighbors,” said Barish, of Hewlett, N.Y., a middle-income community at the heart of a dense cluster of cancer cases. “It may also explain why I’ve had to battle breast cancer three separate times myself.”

Suspicions that breast cancer could be caused by environmental pollution were once considered politically fringe. But in recent weeks, U.S. lawmakers, a presidential panel and the influential Susan G. Komen for the Cure have all signed on.

Komen’s partnership with the Institute of Medicine was announced shortly after the May 6 online publication of “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk,” a landmark report by the President’s Cancer Panel. The report warns that carcinogens are causing “grievous harm” to Americans and that the number of cancer deaths related to pollution has been “grossly underestimated” due to a lack of sufficient research.

To date, the Environmental Protection Agency has been able to ban five carcinogens: asbestos (used as insulation); polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, used in electrical transformers); hexavalent chromium (a paint additive); dioxins (byproducts of chemical manufacturing); and halogenated chlorofluoroalkanes (used in aerosol cosmetics).

Scientific research showed that when Chinese or Japanese people move to the West, within one or two generations their rates of breast cancer approach those of their host community.

Ask your Senators to co-sponsor the Safe Chemicals Act >>

More than 80,000 synthetic chemicals used in this country, only a few hundred have been tested for safety, and more chemicals are added every year. Federal law requires chemicals to be proved safe before they can be sold if they are to be used in pesticides, medications or food. Otherwise, chemicals are presumed safe until a danger is proved by the government

Maryland is the fourth U.S. state to “ban the chemical Bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA, which was linked to early puberty, childhood obesity, autism, reproductive problems, breast cancer and other medical issues.” Clear plastic containers can leach BPA into food and drink when heated.

The Maryland ban gives manufacturers of baby bottles and other children’s products until 2012 to stop using BPA. Other states that have banned BPA include Minnesota, Illinois and Connecticut. BPA is also prohibited in Canada and parts of Europe.

Here are the nine simple things you can do:

1. Filter your tap water. Common carcinogens in tap water include arsenic, chromium, and chemical byproducts that form when water is disinfected. A simple carbon filter or pitcher can help reduce the levels of some of these contaminants. If your water is polluted with arsenic or chromium, a reverse osmosis filter will help.

2. Seal outdoor wooden decks and play sets. Those built before 2005 are likely coated with an arsenic pesticide that can stick to hands and clothing.

3. Cut down on stain- and grease-proofing chemicals. “Fluorochemicals” related to Teflon and Scotchgard are used in stain repellents on carpets and couches and in greaseproof coatings for packaged and fast foods. Some of these chemicals cause cancer in lab studies. To avoid them, skip greasy packaged foods and say no to optional stain treatments in the home.

4. Stay safe in the sun. More than one million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States each year. To protect your skin from the sun’s cancer-causing ultraviolet (UV) radiation, seek shade, wear protective clothing and use a safe and effective sunscreen from EWG’s sunscreen database.

5. Cut down on fatty meat and high-fat dairy products. Long-lasting cancer-causing pollutants like dioxins and PCBs accumulate in the food chain and concentrate in animal fat.

6. Eat EWG’s Clean 15. Many pesticides have been linked to cancer. Eating from EWG’s Clean 15 list of the least contaminated fruits and vegetables will help cut your pesticide exposures.

7. Cut your exposures to BPA. Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a synthetic estrogen found in some hard plastic water bottles, canned infant formula, and canned foods. It may increase the risk of reproductive system cancers. To avoid it, eat fewer canned foods, breast feed your baby or use powdered formula, and choose water bottles free of BPA.

8. Avoid carcinogens in cosmetics. Use EWG’s Skin Deep cosmetic database (www.cosmeticdatabase.com) to find products free of chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer. When you’re shopping, don’t buy products that list ingredients with “PEG” or “-eth” in their name.

9. Read the warnings. Some products list warnings of cancer risks — read the label before you buy. Californians will see a “Proposition 65” warning label on products that contain chemicals the state has identified as cancer-causing.

– Courtesy of The Environmental Working Group