Breast Cancer and Environmental Toxins

What Corporations Don\’t Want You to Know

In July 1997, I was doing my monthly breast self-exam and I found a suspicious lump. I was 28 years old when I finally had the lump, which turned out to be breast cancer, surgically removed in January 1998. In October 1999 I was diagnosed with a local reoccurance of the breast cancer and in August 2000 the cancer metastasized to my bones. It took a long time to have the lump removed because I was so young that I had a hard time convincing doctors to diagnose the cancer. I had no risk factors for premenstrual breast cancer in my family. In fact, only 5-10 % of cases of breast cancer are purely hereditary, which leaves environmental factor, including lifestyle — obesity, cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption and exposure to toxins, radiation and hormones — as the cause of 90-95% of breast cancer cases. In 2000, one woman was diagnosed with breast cancer every three minutes.

Along with hereditary genes and exposure to agricultural chemicals and organochlorides (chemicals containing chloride), breast cancer has been linked to everything from wearing bras with under wire to an affluent lifestyle with a high fat diet. However, it is no coincidence that the rate of breast cancer has increased by 1% per year since 1940 and during the same period the production of synthetic chemicals has increased 350 times from 1940 to 1982. California uses 25% of the nation\’s pesticides and between 1991 and 1998 the use of carcinogenic pesticides increased by 127%. It is difficult to prove the guilt or innocence of a single chemical when humans are a crazy stew of chemicals. But reducing our exposure to as many cancer-causing chemicals as possible must be our goal.

I\’m convinced that my cancer and the cancer of millions of other people are caused by a political and economic system which value profits over our health, our right to know and our lives.

Because I do not have any of the hereditary and lifestyle factors associated with cancer, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and asked \”why me?\” the only reason I came up with was my exposure to environmental toxins as a child and teenager. As a lifeguard of an indoor swimming pool when I was 16, I spent so much time exposed to chlorine I no longer was able to smell it. A fireman at the time told me that meant I was probably beginning to experience brain damage from exposure. Chlorine is considered highly toxic and organochlorides can function as estrogen-mimicers which also disrupt hormone function in humans and animals.

I grew up in Southern California, where malathion was sprayed in the suburbs as well as agricultural areas to prevent the spread of the Mediterranean fly. While residents were informed that malathion was being sprayed in their neighborhoods, they only knew when this would happen by the sound of the approaching helicopter. City ordinances prohibiting the spraying were ignored by the state primarily because the agriculture industry is the most powerful lobby in California. Malathion is also a \”suspected\” (as defined by Federal regulations) endocrine disrupter, similar to DDT and dioxin, which disrupts hormone function in humans and wildlife.

I had to be diagnosed with breast cancer before I felt the urgency to find out this information, but I don\’t believe we should wait before we take stronger action, including pushing governing bodies to enforce the \”precautionary principle\” with respect to every human activity which effects the environment. The precautionary principle is defined as follows: \”When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.\”

The precautionary principle is based on the first part of the Hippocratic Oath — \”do no harm.\” It is already applied to the drug approval process. For example, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) didn\’t approve Thalidomide for use in the United States for pregnant women because of the precautionary principle. Its approval in other countries caused over 10,000 birth defects, although the risks were only \”suspected\” when these other countries approved its use.

For the past 10 years there have been efforts to extend the precautionary principle from food and drug regulations to environmental regulations. Unfortunately, as can be seen by the WTO\’s successful overturn of Europe\’s ban on hormone-treated beef, we have a long haul ahead.

Opposition to extending the precautionary principle comes, not surprisingly, from the chemical industry, which does not want to be responsible for the \”burden of proof.\” Jack Mongoven of the public relations firm Mongoven, Biscoe and Duchin has advised the chemical industry to \”mobilize science against the precautionary principle,\” saying the precautionary principle \”threatens the entire chemical industry.\” Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan, Director of the American Council on Science and Health — an organization \”defending the achievements and benefits of responsible technology within America\’s free-enterprise system\” — claims \”advocates have recommended discarding a useful form of technology, for example pesticides or pharmaceuticals, even if there is just a hint of a problem. For example, there are those who have recommended that a basic, health-enhancing chemical like chlorine be banned because of questionable adverse effects on wildlife.\”

In 1978 Israel banned three organochlorine pesticides detected in milk and other dairy products which caused 12 types of cancer in 10 different strains of rats and mice. After the ban, breast cancer rates which had increased every year for 25 years, dropped nearly 8% for all age groups and more than a third for women ages 25 to 34 by 1986. The American Cancer Society (ACS), an organization supposedly established to eliminate cancer, sided with the Chlorine Institute and issued a joint statement against a proposed 1992 international phase out of the roughly 15,000 chlorinated compounds in use. Members of the pharmaceutical and chemical industry have sat on the board of ACS, and since 1982, ACS has insisted on unequivocal proof that a substance causes cancer in humans before taking a position on the substance\’s public health hazards.

There is no conclusive research proving that specific chemicals in the environment directly cause specific cancers. It is difficult to prove a direct correlation between exposure to a chemical and a specific disease in humans because we are not controlled experiments, we move around too much and are continuously exposing ourselves, either knowingly or unknowingly, to hazardous chemicals. Corporations use the inconclusiveness of scientific research to avoid regulation, and government conservatives to take no action while their palms are being greased. While not every chemical is dangerous, the burden should be on chemical companies to prove their products are safe.

Often,, corporations control both the scientific research process and the regulatory process over their own products. They control the media which defines for us what \”healthy\” is. And they produce cancer drug treatments as well as carcinogenic pesticides. Both our political-economic structure and health care system are focused on profit instead of people. These structures focus on the treatment of disease, a huge industry, rather than prevention of disease, which might hurt business. They fail to keep dangerous toxins from entering our environment and bodies in the first place.

I find it more than ironic that I am being treated with drugs, manufactured by corporations which also make agricultural products that are suspected carcinogens and hormone disrupters. It is amazing that for my treatment, medical products made from PVC plastic are used, which when incinerated in
East Oakland will pollute the environment with dioxins – hormone disrupters that can cause cancer. It is insulting that I am then told every October for \”Breast Cancer Awareness Month,\” which is funded by the aforementioned drug and pesticide producing and incinerating companies, that \”early detection is the best protection.\” Breast Cancer Awareness Month encourages women to use techniques and treatments owned by the same corporations!

I want to give a few examples of what we are up against because I often feel completely overwhelmed by the incestuousness of the government and business interest which are both treating and poisoning me.

The EPA recently declared dioxin to be a \”known\” human carcinogen. Yet, as Robert K. Musil, Ph.D, Executive Director of Physician for Social Responsibility (PSR) states, \”industries flooding our environment with dioxin have denied its dangers while this report has been held up for nine years.\” Sure enough, as soon as news of the EPA\’s change to the listing was leaked, New York restaurant owners and a medical device maker filed suit in federal court to overturn the finding, arguing they would suffer economic harm from the announcement, because people would avoid dioxin containing products such as plastic bag and food containers made from PVC, medical products such as plastic tubing and IV bags which release dioxins when incinerated, and foods such as meat and dairy. Dioxin is found in some herbicides and pesticides, but Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), a collaborative campaign of over 250 organizations for environmentally responsible health care, states that health care practices, especially medical waste incineration, are a leading source of dioxin and mercury emissions. Patients, such as myself, have urged my hospital, Alta Bates in Berkeley, to work with HCWH, so far to no avail.

Astra-Zeneca is the world\’s third-largest drug concern, valued at $67 billion, and manufactures tamoxifin, a successful breast cancer treatment. They provide me with my monthly dose of tamoxifin for free, which would otherwise cost me over $150, because my health insurance does not cover prescriptions. When Astra-Zeneca created \”Breast Cancer Awareness Month\” (BCAM) for October 1985 they were owned by Imperial Chemical Industries, a multibillion-dollar producer of pesticides, paper and plastics, a company sued by federal and state agencies in 1990 for dumping DDT and PCBs into Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors, near beaches where I spent every summer swimming as a child. Astra-Zeneca also: manufactures fungicides and herbicides, including the carcinogen acetochlor; owns the third-largest source of cancer-causing pollution in the U.S., a chemical plant in Perry, Ohio which released 53,000 pounds of recognized carcinogens into the air in 1996; holds a controlling interest in Salick Health Care Cancer Centers; and recommends use of tamoxifin for \”risk reduction\” in healthy women at high risk of developing breast cancer. It is no wonder that during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October you will be hard pressed to hear messages about real prevention — eradicating environmental toxins — and will hear more about the magic bullet that makes Astra-Zeneca money.

The federally funded National Cancer Institute\’s focuses on \”prevention research\” such as magic bullets like tamoxifin. It is no coincidence that NCI\’s senior executives work for pharmaceutical and chemical industries. For example, in 1990 the chairman of its advisory panel was Armand Hammer, who was also chairman of Occidental Petroleum. Occidental was responsible for the infamous toxic dump in New York, Love Canal.

When I realize the extent of destruction of both the planet and my body, and how deep lies the corruption of the government and industry, I wonder whether or not my actions as an individual are futile. However, I also believe action is an antidote for despair and I therefore have some suggestions. I specifically want to move beyond \”the Race for the Cure\” and focus on preventing cancer in future generations, taking Rachel Carson\’s words, which she wrote in Silent Spring while dying of breast cancer: \”It is a disservice to humanity to hold out the hope that the solution will come suddenly, in a single master stroke.\”

Call things by their real names. Breast Cancer Action is urging other cities to follow the lead of San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley to declare October \”Stop Cancer Where It Starts Month,\” acknowledging the impact of toxins in the environment and working to reduce them, on the grounds that we are already \”aware\” and do not need the breast cancer industry\’s \”National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.\” Toxic Links has taken this a step further in attempting to declare October \”Cancer Industry Awareness Month.\” They had a \”Cancer Industry Tour\” of San Francisco, which included street theater.

Use alternative methods to educate the public. Web sites, such as — which ranks top Bay Area polluters, locates them on a map and was originally an interactive art installation — and and Art and Revolution are examples of creative, direct action efforts to educate. On March 26 PBS will air \”Trade Secrets,\” a Bill Moyers investigative report on how industries have put our health and safety at risk. A coalition of groups are launching Coming Clean, a project aimed at cleaning up the chemical industry, which will work with groups across the country to organize local \”Trade Secrets\” viewing events. Growers, farm workers and citizens have the right to know associated hazards in all ingredients and Pesticide Action Network (PAN) urges the EPA to require pesticide manufacturers to fully disclose any adverse health or environmental impacts on their product labels. We also need to access this information easily and PAN\’s database of chemicals, accessible for free through the web, is an example of this.

Move beyond a politics of individualism and build coalitions with diverse communities. Individuals recycling, using less pesticide heavy products, such as cotton, and eating organic is fine, but a small piece of the pie. We are all interconnected and so are our politics. The environmental racism movement is building coalitions between environmental activists and the neighborhoods who suffer the health effects of chemical toxicity. Locally, Greenaction, Asian and Pacific Islanders for Reproductive Health, the Center for Environmental Health and others are demanding that Integrated Environmental Systems replace their medical waste incinerators in East Oakland with safer non-incineration technologies to better protect the health of the workers and residents.

Pressure the government to make structural changes. Science, regulatory bodies and the education system should serve the interests of citizens, not industries. Extending the precautionary principle from food and drug regulations to the environment is one necessary change. PAN points to structural causes, such as economic factors and institutional support for present practices, including the lack of research into alternatives and agricultural extension outreach, as the reason for the increased use of pesticides. The costs associated with farmers transitioning away from pesticide use are major economic deterrents, especially since there is no incentive — pesticide users and producers do not have to pay for environmental and health damage caused by the use of pesticides. PAN recommends mandating the use of pesticide reduction and changing the economic equation, including internalizing the full costs of pesticides, providing for growers to transition, and increasing research funding for alternative approaches to pest management.


Batt, Sharon and Liza Gross. \”Cancer, Inc.\” Sierra. Sept / Oct 1999.

Kegley, Susan, Ph.D., Stephen Orme, and Lars Neumeister. \”Hooked on Poison: Pesticide Use in California 1991-1998.\” Pesticide Action Network. Report by Californians for Pesticide Reform.

Love, Su
san M., M.D. with Karen Lindsey. Dr. Susan Love\’s Breast Book, Second Edition Fully Revised. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company: Menlo Park, CA. 1995.

Breast Cancer Action =

Direct action sites =,,

Greenaction =

Health Care Without Harm =

Pesticide Action Network and the Pesticide List =,

Physicians For Social Responsibility =

Rachel\’s Environment and Health Weekly (back issues):

Toxic Link Coalition (East Bay) =

\”The more people fall ill, the more money corporations running the hospitals make.\”

\”Contamination…disproportionately impacts low-income people of color because of the incinerators location.\”

\”My cancer… was caused by a political and economic system which values profits over our health, our right to know, and our lives\”

\”I realize the extent of destruction of both the planet and my body…I also believe action is the antidote for despair.\”

\”I am being treated with drugs manufactured by corporations which also make agricultural products that are suspected carcinogens and endocrine disrupters.\”

\”The precautionary principle states that…the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.\”

\”The proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.\”