Bowdoin College, October 1997
Every three minutes, another woman is diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States. Every 12 minutes, another woman dies from breast cancer in the United States.
These were some of the grim statistics presented by Andrea Martin, founder and president of the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund, at a conference entitled “Environment and Health” at Bowdoin College in October.
Breast cancer is the leading cause of death among young women in the United States, Martin continued. The consequences? “We are losing our daughters and our friends. Children are growing up without mothers.”
Martin said that the San Francisco Bay Area has had the highest rate of breast cancer in the country since 1947, but that the Breast Cancer Registry, an arm of the federal government, kept that fact a secret until the Eighties. Then the Registry said that the high rate was due to the greater conscientiousness of women in that area about getting mammograms; or maybe it was because of their higher educational status; or their socio-economic status. In other words, the government couldn’t explain the cluster.
“Breast cancer is only part of the story,” Martin said. “Today the lifetime risk of getting cancer is 1 in 2 for men and 1 in 3 for women,” she continued. “By the year 2000, cancer will be the primary cause of death in the United States. Twenty-four billion has been spent in the ‘War on Cancer’ in the last 30 years, but cancer incidence and mortality are increasing. Cancer is winning.
“There is no cure. Prevention is the only answer.” Martin urged listeners to reduce their exposure to pesticides, radiation, electromagnetic fields and various synthetic chemicals. “Manufacturers and chemical and nuclear industries and those who treat cancer deny a connection between environment and the disease,” she said. “They release materials with no proof of their safety.
“We must act on the weight of the evidence. We can’t wait for absolute proof.” Martin agreed with the International Joint Commission that the focus must be on preventing the generation of persistent toxic chemicals, not on their control after they are released. Manufacturers must “prove a substance is safe before releasing it into the environment,” she said.
A grassroots movement is spreading these ideas across the country, she concluded. “Prevention is an idea whose time has come. Nothing is more powerful.”
Healthy People, Healthy Planet
Martin’s talk was followed by an entertaining and enlightening talk by Dr. Paul Connett, a professor of chemistry at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. Connett has made over 1200 presentations in 34 countries on dioxin and waste management, has co-authored six papers and 10 videos on the subject, and with his wife, Ellen, publishes a newsletter called Waste Not. Ralph Nader says, “He’s the only person I know who can make waste interesting.”
Connett subtitled his talk, “Sick People, Sick Planet” and “Sick Science, Sick Government.” He pointed out that we live in a society with an amazing ability to disconnect, and for emphasis asked how many Bowdoin faculty and students were in the audience. No faculty were present and only a few students raised their hands. In academia, he said, “it’s safe to research the small questions but the larger questions are a dangerous place for most. It’s difficult to reach beyond the environmental and medical community with regard to breast cancer.”
Among the goals Connett wanted to impart were: eliminate incineration; get organochlorines out of food, breast milk, etc.; get fluoride out of drinking water; get mercury out of commerce and mouths; get genuine science back into public policy; question the power of the corporate kingdom; make environmental health courses required for medical degrees; make ‘Sustainable Living on a Finite Planet’ a required course at all schools and colleges; get the TV out of the living room at least one day per week; get chemical warfare out of our agriculture. Regarding the last goal, he urged conference participants to sign Nancy Oden’s petition to ban aerial spraying of pesticides in Maine. “It’s a very gentle proposal,” he commented.
After citing increases in rates of breast, testicular and prostate cancer, decreases in sperm counts and other problems, Connett showed a video he had made about health problems among people who worked at the “K25” site at Oak Ridge National Labs – a site near an incinerator where radioactive wastes, PVC products and other toxins were burned. Some 50 workers from the site, many with master’s and Ph.D. degrees, many who were formerly very active physically, have developed incapacitating illnesses such as debilitating fatigue, anemia, gross insomnia, respiratory problems, chronic sinus infections, loss of short-term memory, flu-like symptoms, headaches that go on for six weeks at a time, slurred speech, vision problems, fibromyalgia, hearing loss, leakage around the heart, confusion – sometimes mass confusion, heart aneurysms and neurological damage. “Basically I’m falling apart,” one commented. Oak Ridge denies any connection with the nearby incinerator.
“We can be very clever and stupid at the same time,” Connett remarked after the video. “We produce clever people at the university, but are they wise?”
Connett gave some encouraging statistics about incinerators in the United States. Since 1985, citizens have stopped more than 300 of the facilities from being built. In 1995 and 1996, more incinerators were closed than were opened. In 1997, none were being seriously considered in the United States. In 1997, the New York Times documented pollution problems in Japan’s incinerators.
Despite the move toward recognizing the problems associated with incinerators, we still have the ash to deal with. Connett exclaimed that the EPA has “detoxified” this ash, then said, “It’s lousy science that says that the ash is not hazardous.” To illustrate his point, he said that 1/3 of a gram of mercury per year can contaminate a 25-acre lake to the point that the largest fish in that lake may not be acceptable for eating – yet in Massachusetts, 11,510 pounds of mercury are released from incinerators each year.
While incinerators are not being built in this country, the industry is moving to Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and South America to sell its toxic technology. It is telling Third World countries that their incinerators can be privately financed and will cogenerate energy. Connett travels extensively to counter the industry propaganda with scientific arguments against incineration. He tells the countries that the industry is not telling them that they will have to pay to build the facilities and they will have to pay to bring waste to the facilities to burn it.
“Waste is a human activity imposed upon materials,” said Connett. “It is a lazy human activity.” He said that “waste” could be buried or burned – or separated. When separated, it can be reused, recycled, composted, have the toxins removed, and the residue can be landfilled. “Separation is the step towards education,” said Connett. Currently, “if we can’t reuse, recycle or compost, we burn. No!” said Connett. “If we can’t reuse, recycle or compost, don’t make it. That’s where we can get to with separation.”
Connett said that solutions to waste problems should be simple, requiring no highly paid consultants; they should be local; integrated with the local economy; and integrated into the local community.
After a chemistry lesson showing how benzene rings and chlorine can combine to form PCBs, furans and dioxins, Connett explained that dioxin can cross the cell membrane, after which it fits into the “AH receptor protein.” He said that we don’t know what natural substance is supposed to combine with this receptor, but that the receptor is present in every living species above and including boned fish. “It entered evolution at the time when bones entered fish. So it’s either totally useless, or it’s of fundamental importance. The latter is more reasonable. We are interfering with it with dioxins, furans and PCBs.”
Connett further explained that in nature, one gene codes for one protein; that growth and development depend on switching genes on and off at different times; that steroid hormones function by switching different genes on and off; and that dioxin interferes with numerous hormonal systems – thus affecting growth and development in potentially broad ways. “Dioxins are growth disregulators,” said Connett, “the most potent ones we know.”
He went on to explain that Nature is a continual process of building up and breaking down products, whether in our bodies or elsewhere. Mankind, however, has made things to last forever. Although PCBs were banned in 1979, for example, they are so persistent that we still worry about their concentrations in bodies of water today. Regarding organochlorines, “Nobody was wise enough to ask why nature didn’t introduce the carbon-chlorine bond into our tissues,” said Connett. “We should have asked that before we introduced them.”
The main strategy for detoxification in our bodies, said Connett, is to take fat soluble substances and make them water soluble, then excrete them via the kidneys. The problem is, however, that we have made fat soluble substances our bodies cannot render water soluble; instead they accumulate in our fat over the course of our lives – with one exception: “A woman can get rid of her fat soluble toxins by having [and nursing] a baby. The tragedy that is unfolding in our species is that the highest doses go into our babies. The effects may not be visible until they reach reproductive age.” He cited a Lancet article about babies of 38 women with high average background levels of dioxin in their breast milk versus those with low levels. Significant differences in thyroid metabolism were found when the babies were as young as one week old. This worries researchers because thyroid metabolism influences early mental development, Connett continued; since this Lancet study, another study has found subtle changes in behavior and immune system functioning of babies whose mothers had high levels of dioxin in their breast milk.
Dioxins are common contaminants spread over our environment by incinerators, Connett said, and “Nature reconstitutes many of these pollutants. A cow grazing for one day puts as much dioxin into its body as you would breathing the air next to the cow in 14 years.”
Connett blamed many of our environmental problems on the “Regulatory-Industrial Complex,” in which regulatory agencies, regulated industries and overpaid consultants interact with one another. This complex avoids common sense, sees the public as its enemy, and designs “solutions” that “other people” – usually the economically poor or the politically weak – have to live with.
Connett touched on the fluoride issue briefly before closing his talk. “I beg you to look a the fluoride issue,” he said. “It is public lunacy to put fluoride in drinking water. It has subtle, long-term effects. I believe we will see serious bone damage in the population” in the future. Connett and his wife have written a 20-page paper on this issue. He also blasted the American Dental Association as “one of the more despicable associations in the country. It was formed around 1835 to lobby for mercury amalgams for teeth.”
Connett said that he could imagine a great obelisk erected at the end of the 21st century and inscribed regarding our time: “They became more and more sophisticated at answering the wrong questions,” it would say. Or, as Connett himself says, “We think with the wrong end of our bodies.” Or as Einstein said, “A clever person solves a problem, a wise person avoids it.”
“We are living as if we had another planet to go to,” Connett concluded, then gave some advice: read How Much Is Enough by Alan Durning; for citizens, don’t let experts take away your common sense; for politicians, put your faith back in the people and stop trying to solve problems with highly paid consultants and magic machines; and to activists, “Have fun!”
What Is Healthy Eating?
Dixie Mills, M.D., a Harvard trained general surgeon who has been specializing in breast care since 1989, previously worked with Dr. Susan Love and with the Mind-Body Institute in Boston and now works at Women To Women in Yarmouth. At the Bowdoin conference, she addressed the use of diet and supplements for preventing cancer.
The basic dietary guidelines include limiting one’s fat intake to 20 to 25% of the diet; eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day; eating a high fiber diet; and drinking alcohol in moderation. Contrary to these recommendations, Mills said that the average fat intake in the United States comprises 40% of the diet, while in Europe it is less than 30 percent.
Regarding alcohol consumption, she said that two drinks a day can increase the risk of breast cancer by 50% and three or more drinks can increase it by 130 percent. The mechanism by which alcohol has such effects is unclear, she said; it may reduce the ability of the liver to metabolize estrogen, or it may have more direct effects or interaction effects.
Another dietary guideline for helping prevent breast cancer is to increase one’s intake of soy protein to 30 to 50 mg per day. The optimum intake of this phytoestrogen-containing food is unknown yet, so the 30 to 50 mg rate is an educated guess. Mills said that 1 cup of soy milk contains 40 mg of soy. She recommended Estrogen the Natural Way as a good reference on how to cook with soy.
In addition, Mills said to eat plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, as found in salmon and mackerel; to eat organically grown foods; and to drink bottled or filtered water. Cut down on caffeine, processed sugar, nicotine and dairy products, she added. Supplements, such as beta carotene, vitamins B, C (up to 3,000 mg/day) and E (400 to 800 IU per day) and selenium can also be beneficial.
Women who have breast cancer, Mills said, should nourish their immune system in order to protect it during therapy. In addition, some supplements can help “starve” the tumor; and prevention of malnourishment or anorexia is important. Coenzyme Q10, for example, may help prevent breast cancer and may be helpful during treatment, she said. Dietary guidelines and various supplements can be specified for the time before surgery, after surgery, during radiation therapy and during chemotherapy. After treatment, nutrition and lifestyle changes can help prevent a recurrence.
Cleaning the Polluted (Main)Stream
Keynote speaker Bella Abzug is a former congresswoman (Her first campaign slogan was, “This woman’s place is in the House.”) and civil rights lawyer. She has worked recently as a women’s rights advocate, writer, and co-founder of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO). In 1993, she detected her own breast cancer. Since then WEDO has launched an international campaign called Women, Health and The Environment: Actions for Cancer Prevention.
Abzug began her speech by pointing out that when she was in Congress, 9 of 435 members of Congress were women and 1 of 100 senators was a woman; today women still comprise only 11.5% of the legislature. “In my opinion, we’re still a long way from democracy … We’ve done everything in pairs since Noah – except govern.”
She is working to help reverse this imbalance through WEDO, which is “working around the clock” at the UN to create violence-free families; to fight poverty; to support women’s right to chose a health system that cares about health; to create sustainable lives; in other words, to answer Freud’s question, “What do women want?” said Abzug.
She pointed out that once we had a day: Mother’s Day. Then, in 1975, we had Women’s Year, which was extended until 1985 to make the Decade of the Woman. “I said,” Abzug reported, “‘Maybe if we behave, they’ll let us into the whole thing.’ Of course we did not behave.
“In the ’90s,” she continued, “women have moved into the mainstream. But we’re not interested in just joining a polluted stream. We want to change it. Women were trained to speak softly and carry a lipstick. We’re demanding a bigger stick today,” she said, and that stick is aimed at issues concerning agriculture, biodiversity, education, war, peace, the military … and health.
“After more than two decades and $25 million spent, no new treatment [for breast cancer] has been developed, basically. More [U.S.] women have died of breast cancer this decade than [the number of U.S. citizens who] died in Vietnam. Most discover their own cancer. We need blood and skin and other tests” to detect breast cancer quickly, she said. “Regular screening only saves the lives of women over fifty.
“We need to feel the strength of a movement, of a global political force of people affected by the disease,” she continued. One specific goal is to develop action plans for breast cancer at various levels. “We have a national action plan for breast cancer. Every state should have its plan – to collectively act and mobilize; to find environmental links; a global action plan is urgently needed, too. This is an international public health crisis. Breast cancer is every woman’s nightmare and every woman’s grim reality. The malignant form of development has caused today’s rate of breast cancer.”
Abzug criticized the disproportionate amounts of money being spent to research genetic causes of breast cancer. “The cause of 90% of breast cancer is due to something else besides genes,” she said. However, “it is difficult to get the government and manufacturers to look at prevention,” especially when “a corporation is going to patent the breast cancer genes.
“In 70% of breast cancer, the likely causes have not been identified. We can put a man on the moon, machines on Mars, but we can’t understand this assault on our mammaries.” She did suggest a likely assault: “Our breasts are fast becoming toxic waste dumps.”
Breast cancer is not our only worry, though. “Some think that the same chemicals that cause breast cancer cause childhood cancers and male cancers. There has been a 350-fold increase in the production of synthetic chemicals in our lifetimes. Only about 10% of new chemicals are adequately tested for carcinogenicity. And cancer is only one of many illnesses being inflicted on us as guinea pigs.”
Abzug said that we must internationalize the research agenda for cancer; that we need a network guided by change and not profit; that we need to count the dead publicly, as we did during Vietnam; and that “out of our outrage, we demand change.
“Remember waiting for Prince Charming or a knight in shining armor? We are the ones we have been waiting for. We have to stop waiting for someone else to take care of us. We have to claim our share of political space. We have to take on the chemical industry” and demand that chemicals be tested for toxicity before they are released into the environment.
Abzug pointed out that breast cancer survivors who attended the Environment and Health Conference were among the more affluent and educated, but that many victims were not there: those who were never taught to do breast self-exams; those who work with toxic chemicals; those in underserved communities; those without insurance. Despite such inequities and seemingly insurmountable problems, Abzug said, “I remain an incurable optimist. These meetings will become larger. There are discussions about a march on Washington by women with breast cancer and men with testicular cancer. The strategy is for each of us to use our power, our unique gifts, to bring about health.”
Abzug’s optimism draws strength from the power that she sees in common people. “Letter writing to members of Congress, in an organized, large way, is effective. Until Congress received 1 million telegrams to impeach Nixon,” it didn’t act. But the big issue now, she said, is that “this is going to get worse unless we deal with prevention and causes.”
Returning to the theme of the power of common people, Abzug pointed out that the beginning of the civil rights movement, when one woman moved from the back of a bus; the forcing of a president to resign; the end of the Vietnam war; and the institution of women’s rights all came about because “the people did it.” The people can take on the breast cancer epidemic, too, she said. “Whether you’re two-breasted or one or none, this is a two-fisted fight. Never give in and never give up!”
Not Just Cancer
Dianne Dumanoski, co-author of Our Stolen Future, has reported on national and global environmental issues for the Boston Globe for 17 years and received the prestigious Knight Fellowship in Science Journalism at MIT. She focused on health issues beyond cancer and beyond single generations in her talk at Bowdoin.
Dumanoski said that her perspective on environmental issues changed when she covered ozone depletion, the Montreal Protocol and the Earth Summit in Rio. “Our experience with ozone depletion … is the story of a great global experiment. It has taken half a century for both [the effects of ozone depletion and the effects of hormone disrupters] to show up; and they’ve shown up in places we never expected. The lesson is that with broad scale experiments, the results may show up where you don’t expect them.
“We’ve almost become habituated to the appalling nature of our reality,” she continued. “Each of us contains about 500 manmade chemicals in our bodies that our ancestors never had. In this experiment, we are changing the composition of the earth’s atmosphere and the chemistry of our own bodies. Worse, we have changed the chemicals we are passing on to our own children” because so many toxic chemicals are stored in body fat until they move into our babies. Endocrine disrupters are “a transgenerational issue,” Dumanoski said. “The way you feed your daughters will affect your grandchildren.”
Dumanoski explained that our narrow thinking about toxic chemicals stemmed from knowledge of the effects of the bomb and, ironically, from the work of Rachel Carson and others. Mutations caused by the bomb caused cancer, which started the cancer scare and “helped frame our thinking that toxic chemicals equal cancer, and if we regulated for cancer, we would regulate for other things. The surprise about endocrine disrupters was that many chemicals can have other effects.”
We also tend to deny other effects even when they are blatant. “When the ozone hole showed up over Antarctica, it exceeded our worst-case scenario,” said Dumanoski. “NASA satellites were rejecting data because they thought there was some error,” i.e., because the data were so far from normal. “Models,” she continued, “can be an important focus but can screen out something our environment is trying to tell us.”
As with the ozone problem, we have been receiving considerable data about hormone disrupters for decades. “The first experiment suggesting DDT could act as a hormone came out in 1950,” said Dumanoski. “It was even cited in Silent Spring. Chicks that were exposed to DDT didn’t die – their testicles were about 18% the normal size. They had been chemically castrated. Researchers suspected that DDT was acting like estrogen. They even compared the structure of DDT to that of DES (diethyl stilbestrol).
Dumanoski said that not until wildlife biologist Theo Colborn (co-author of Our Stolen Future) put aside the cancer idea was she able to see that animals affected by certain chemicals seemed to be those who were highest in the food chain; the adults seemed to be okay but their offspring were suffering; and all of the suspect chemicals that seemed most common in wildlife were those that affected the endocrine system.
“During early development,” Dumanoski explained, “important messages that determine development are brought to the baby via hormones. The timing of these messages is essential. You need the right message at the right time to get the reproductive or immune system to form properly – for life. The nervous system keeps developing through puberty.” When Colborn saw the effects of chemicals on wildlife – impaired reproduction, sperm deformities, reduced sperm counts, immune system problems, and more – she realized that these messages were being interrupted at critical times.
“There are parallels between Carson and Colborn,” said Dumanoski. “It took two women, who were not mainstream researchers, to do a task rarely done in science: synthesis. ‘What is this saying to us?’ ‘What are we doing to ourselves?’ they asked. Theo saw the thread that linked disparate problems. She saw that all these chemicals – in pesticides, plastics, detergents … – could interfere with development.”
To date, some 57 chemicals have been identified as endocrine disrupters, and the effects of all of these have been discovered by accident. Work by Ana Soto at Tufts University, for instance, ground to a halt for months when an estrogen-mimicking chemical leached from a plastic lab tube and confounded her experiments.
Dumanoski said that we can take steps to try to protect ourselves from hormone disrupters but that we need collective action to be really effective. “I have come to the radical first principle approach: We are going to be in a huge swamp if we try to test for all endocrine disrupter effects. We should reduce exposure, period. We should not wait for proven biological effects. It’s very difficult to prove connections.
“We must minimize the number of new chemicals introduced into the environment,” she continued. “The current regime is out of control.” She cited pesticide regulations, for example, as “a case of the emperor’s new clothes – There is much less there than there appears.” Pesticide toxicity ratings have not been calculated based on how much exposure children receive, for instance. Agencies regulating pesticides “don’t even talk to each other,” she added. On a positive note, she said that concern about children’s exposure to pesticides is mobilizing communities to protect children. Newton, Mass., for instance, has formed a Coalition Against Pesticides for this purpose.
Responding to a question about whether plastics could be rated for safety from cradle to grave, Paul Connett, who attended Dumanoski’s session, said that there are some 2,500 additives in plastic and that Chemical and Engineering News has called plastic manufacturing “a black art.” Of the top six hazardous wastes, he added, five are produced from the plastic industry.
The following organizations, individuals and businesses took part in the Environment and Health Conference:
Bella Abzug, WEDO, 845 Third Ave., 15th Floor, New York, NY 10022
Dr. Paul Connett, St. Lawrence Univ., Park St., Canton, NY 13617-1458
Andrea Martin, The Breast Cancer Fund, 282 Second St., Third Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105
Dianne Dumanoski (address not given)
Dixie J. Mills, MD, FACS, Women To Women, 3 Marina Rd., Yarmouth, ME 04096
Casting for Recovery (sponsors retreats in natural settings for women who have had breast cancer), RR 2 Box 5151, Manchester Center, VT 05255
Natural Resources Council of Maine, 271 State St., Augusta, ME 04330
Rogers-McKay (facilitating circle leadership), P.O. Box 1725, Saco, ME 04072
Patagonia (committed to using only organically raised cotton in its apparel containing cotton), Box 150, Ventura, CA 93022-0150
Martha Derbyshire (homeopath), The Wellness Center, 71 Elm St., Camden, ME 04843
The Conference was organized by the Maine chapter of the Breast Cancer Fund.
– Jean English