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Prevention Neglected: Could Your Couch or Dashboard Cause Cancer?

By Heather Millar

girl on couch

The cancer world is all a-twitter about a just-released, federally-mandated report that says that research into the prevention of breast cancer doesn’t get enough funding. Prevention should be as least as important as treatment and cure, the report insists.

The language of the report, prepared by a group of leading breast cancer experts, is strong. There’s none of the “on-the-one-hand; on-the-other-hand” dithering that you so often see in reports put together by committees. You can download a 4-page summary, or the full 270 pages here.

The expert panel, which has compiled largest to-date survey of peer-reviewed science on breast cancer and the environment makes some broad statements:

  • Preventing exposure to environmental risk factors is the most promising path to decreasing the incidence of breast cancer. While treatment has advanced in recent decades—I have no doubt it saved my life—the number of people diagnosed with breast cancer continues to rise; 40,000 a year die from it, according to the American Cancer Society.
  • We need to transform how research is conducted: Researchers from many disciplines need to team up. They need to explore how genetic and epigenetic (inherited changes that don’t mean a change in the DNA sequence) factors may influence breast cancer and breast density, and how our genes interact with our environment.
  • We don’t know nearly enough about how environmental factors influence the risk of developing breast cancer. We need lots more research on the chemical and physical factors that may trigger the disease.

When I read the first press release from the Breast Cancer Fund (BCF), a pioneering non-profit that’s been saying these kinds of things for years, I almost stood up and shouted, “Hallelujah!”

As Jeanne Rizzo, BCF’s CEO and a co-chair of the federal committee says, “We are all exposed to a cocktail of carcinogens and endocrine disruptors every day that puts us at greater risk for breast cancer, and we need to prioritize and invest in identifying and preventing exposures.”

But before I jumped up and let out a whoop, I started to think about all the other different kinds of cancer. Where are their committees? Where is the funding to link environmental exposures to the many, many other kinds of cancer? I’m sure there is some work going on, but I’m also reasonably sure that the situation is like that of the breast cancer world: Not nearly enough funding, so not nearly enough knowledge about how environmental factors might affect the development of various cancers.

The committee that put together the breast cancer report worked on it for about five years. You don’t have to spend nearly that long to find bits of data that should concern us all, and that should make us demand more research into links between our environment and all cancers.

Here are just a few:

  • A study in India found that the Punjab is the cancer capital of that country. Researchers also found high levels of arsenic, uranium and pesticides in this region.
  • Last November, Greenpeace released a report some of the world’s best known fashion retailers are selling clothes that contain chemicals that break down to form hormone-disrupting or cancer-causing agents. After nine days of intense pressure, one of these retailers, Zara, pledged to go toxic-free. What about all the other retailers?
  • Also last November, a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found high levels of carcinogenic flame retardants in 85 percent of the couches they tested. According to the magazine Mother Jones, “Manufacturers use 3.4 billion pounds of flame-retardant chemicals in couches, insulation, carpet padding, and electronics every year to, in theory, prevent them from catching fire. But studies have found that the chemicals aren’t actually effective.”
  • And again that month: A six-year study published in the journal, Environmental Health, found that women who worked in two Canadian automotive plastics factories had five times the risk of developing breast cancer compared to those in a control group who were not exposed to the fumes and dust of plastics manufacturing.

These are just the most recent studies I could find quickly, but they beg the question: Why aren’t we talking more about the prevention and environmental factors and how they relate to all cancers? Is a flame retardant couch cushion or a plastic car part or a cheap blouse worth the possibility that they increase your risk of cancer? I think not.

Let me know what you think. And if you know of any other studies regarding environmental factors and cancer, post them here!

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