Women's war against cancer

OUR PLANET 8.6 - Chemicals



Women's war against cancer



BELLA S. ABZUG





Bella S. Abzug

Breast cancer is every woman's nightmare. In the United States, it is one of every eight women's grim reality. Worldwide, it accounts for 19 per cent of all female cancers, and its incidence has risen by 26 per cent since 1980. This startling increase, and growing evidence linking environmental exposures to the cancer, confirm Rachel Carson's simple message in 1962: if we poison the environment, we poison ourselves.

For women the world over, breast cancer has become a metaphor for the malignant forms of production, consumption and development pursued everywhere. The millions of tonnes of pesticides, herbicides and other toxins - and radiation - released by industries pose increasingly complex risks to women as consumers and at the workplace.

Evidence accumulates of links between the proliferation of chemicals in the environment and their carcinogenic impact, although specific causal relationships for breast cancer are still being established. It is no coincidence that the rapid rise in the incidence of cancer has occurred alongside tremendous advances in the use of chemical and nuclear technologies over the last 50 years.

North America, Western Europe and Australia, among the most industrialized regions in the world, have the highest reported incidence of breast cancer at 84.8, 64.7 and 60.8 estimated cases respectively for every 100,000 women. Seven out of every ten United States women who develop the cancer have no known risk factors like age, delayed or reduced child-bearing and family history. When women migrate to the United States from countries with significantly lower breast cancer rates, their incidence of the disease rises to United States levels.



Chemical links

A number of studies suggest that breast cancer could be related to exposure to environmental compounds, such as some organochlorine substances. The most common finding is an association between breast cancer risk and tissue levels of DDT and its derivative, DDE - both banned in industrialized countries but still widely used in developing ones. A study in Connecticut showed that levels of these substances were 50 to 60 per cent higher in the breast tissues of United States women with the cancer than in those free of it.

A New York State Department of Health study found that women living near chemical industries ran a higher risk of breast cancer, while the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the United States has found 884 neurotoxic chemical compounds in the products of the cosmetics and perfume industries alone.

Many untested petrochemicals are used in a wide range of household products, including fabric softeners, air fresheners, paper products and other consumer goods. New discoveries reveal that synthetic chemicals that mimic hormones tend to upset normal reproductive and development processes, causing a dramatic rise in hormone-related cancers, endometriosis and other disorders.

Women's exposure to chemicals is great - but the odds against those working to establish connections between the environment and health are greater. Industry giants and chemicals manufacturers continue to resist the precautionary principle: a willingness to take protective action without waiting for scientific proof because delay may cause irreparable harm. The United States and Canadian Governments' International Joint Commission agreed in 1990 that the onus of proof for chemical safety should be put on manufacturers and users of chemicals, not the general public. In fact, industry intransigence is often aided and abetted by government inaction. Women's advocates face enormous challenges.



Sustained activism

In 1991, the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) - a global coalition of 20,000 activist networks based in New York - brought together more than 1,500 women at the World Women's Congress for a Healthy Planet in Miami. This called for recognition of a global, environmentally-induced cancer epidemic and demanded the removal of carcinogenic substances, which have particularly adverse effects on women and children, from the environment. In the five years since, sustained activism by affected communities and women's advocates - including WEDO's Action for Cancer Prevention Campaign - has drawn attention to the difficult connections between public policy and environmental causes of cancer and raised awareness in the general public and some sections of the medical and scientific community.

The impact of such activism on the research, pharmaceutical and industrial conglomerates in the United States will have far-reaching consequences in the rest of the world as women's health advocates struggle to focus on the causes and prevention of cancer.

Bella S. Abzug is Co-Founder and President of WEDO. The first World Conference on Breast Cancer - sponsored by WEDO and the Kingston Breast Cancer Conference Committee - will be held in Kingston, Canada, from 13 to 17 July 1997.


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