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Breast Cancer: The Environmental Link
> by The Breast Cancer Fund
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> by Betty Holcomb
The Male Box
Ms. editor Gloria Jacobs engages two feminist writers--Susan Faludi and Braun Levine in candid conversation about men, women, and change.
Christy's Crusade
The Violence Against Women Act has been put to the test in a landmark case before the Supreme Court. How one young woman's quest for justice took her to the highest court in the land. > by Patrick Tracey
Confessions of a Recovering Misogynist
A not so good brother describes his struggle to become a better man. > by Kevin Powell

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-Good News, Bad News for East German Women
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- Special Report On Family-Friendly Policies and How The Class Card Gets Played
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-Breast Cancer: The Environmental Link > by The Breast Cancer Fund
- Profile: La Shawn Woodward
- Healthnotes

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Chemicals that are persistent in the environment accumulate in body fat and are carried by women in their breast tissue. Thus far, human data about the link between these chemicals and breast cancer are inconclusive. For example, some studies have shown that women with breast cancer have the same or lower levels of pesticide residue in their system than women without the disease.

However, other studies, by U.S. and Canadian scientists, have found that women with higher levels of organochlorines in their blood have four to ten times the risk of breast cancer than those with lower levels. [Organochlorines are hydrocarbon-based chemicals containing chlorines like DDT. Many of these compounds break down very slowly in the environment and can be stored in the fat of animals, fish, and humans.] These seemingly inconsistent results point to the need for long-term prospective studies on this issue.

There are only two recognized causes of breast cancer: exposure to ionizing radiation and inherited genetic defects in breast cells. Other factors, though they have not been shown to cause the disease, are associated with higher risk: beginning menstruation before age 12, onset of menopause after age 55, bearing children late in life or not at all, not breast-feeding, and prolonged use of estrogen after menopause.

More research is needed to examine why the established risk factors increase a woman's vulnerability. However, additional and different research is needed to determine which of the thousands of chemicals in the environment cause the disease, and how. Most important, we must conduct long-term prospective studies that measure exposures to chemicals during critical windows of breast development.

For many years the focus of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the largest single government funding source for cancer investigations, has been on earlier detection with mammography, improved radiation and chemotherapy, and improved surgical techniques designed to help women survive the disease and live longer. Much research continues to be focused on the role of inherited gene defects. Currently, there is no breast cancer prevention research strategy at the NCI except for chemo-prevention through the use of raloxifene and tamoxifen in high-risk, healthy women.

The federal government has funded one multimillion-dollar, multiyear environmental research study, the Long Island Breast Cancer Study Project, to determine whether environmental contaminants increase breast cancer risk. But overall, funding for environmental research represents only a tiny fraction of the government's budget for disease research. Of the National Institutes of Health's $15.7 billion budget last year, just $382 million, or 2.4 percent, went to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the primary agency conducting research on environmental health. Similarly, the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health received just $172 million for 1999.

Over the years, a growing movement has emerged calling for prevention-based research.

Breast cancer advocates and researchers have identified three important types of research currently underfunded by the federal government: testing and screening of industrial chemicals and pesticides for their toxicity and hormone-mimicking effects; measuring the levels of these chemicals in our bodies--a process known as "bio-monitoring"; and learning how girls and women are exposed to these chemicals, so we can study health effects and ultimately reduce health risks. In 1996, an advisory committee of scientists and experts established by the EPA recommended the creation of a program to test the toxicity and hormonal effects of 9,000 chemicals, as required under the Food Quality Protection Act. However, this program has been grossly underfunded. Development of the tests alone will cost $50 million over a period of several years. The program's proposed 2000 budget is only $12 million. Further, as currently devised, the tests do not screen for toxicity during the prenatal and early development period when chemicals have been known to have different and often more harmful effects. To fully understand the impact of environmental contaminants on humans, the EPA's data on the toxicity of these chemicals must be completed and complemented by an ongoing systematic program of bio-monitoring data to identify what chemicals exist in our bodies and at what levels.

Unfortunately, the CDC's National Environmental Health Laboratory, the agency that spearheads bio-monitoring research, is also severely underfunded. The Breast Cancer Fund is calling for more broad-based testing as well as testing on breast milk, a fluid that absorbs chemicals differently, and, in some cases, at higher and potentially more dangerous levels. Not only do women have the right to know what chemicals are in their breasts and breast milk, but investing in this kind of research is also a critical step to developing public policies and prevention strategies that will effectively address the breast cancer epidemic and other serious illnesses.

Yet research into the environmental causes of breast cancer remains a low priority among leading cancer organizations and government agencies. Advocates have attributed this lack of commitment, in part, to pressure from industry. Pharmaceutical companies, in particular, have a vested interest in keeping breast cancer research focused on drug therapies and away from environmental pollution. Breast Cancer Awareness Month was initiated by the pharmaceutical giant Zeneca, the maker of tamoxifen. [Activists often note Zeneca's link to Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), the maker of pesticides, plastics, pharmaceuticals, and paper. Zeneca was a spin-off company of ICI, which was sued in 1990 by state and federal agencies for dumping DDT and PCBs in California harbors.] In 1999, Zeneca merged with the Swedish pharmaceutical company Astra to become the world's third-largest drug concern. AstraZeneca continues to be the primary sponsor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

If exposure to chemicals in the environment was shown to be associated with only 10 to 20 percent of breast cancer cases, and the U.S. acted to reduce or eliminate these hazardous chemicals, we would be able to prevent between 9,000 and 36,000 women from contracting the disease each year.