Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Victory for breast cancer awareness as BPA declared toxic

It’s fitting that this October--Breast Cancer Awareness Month--saw Canada add Bisphenol A (BPA) to its Toxic Substances List. This victory is thanks to a long campaign by Environmental Defence, which works to expose the daily carcinogens in our lives. For too long we’ve been told to “be aware” of breast cancer, while the carcinogens we eat, drink, breathe, and lather on ourselves have been ignored. This victory is an important first step in  raising awareness about breast cancer and how to prevent it. Below I will quote extensively from the most accessible, comprehensive and yet ignored text on breast cancer prevention I’ve come across: State of the evidence: the connection between breast cancer and the environment.

     BPA is the chemical building block of hard plastic used to make baby bottles, water bottles, and food storage containers. We are literally bathing in BPA: more than 4 billion kilograms are produced globally, and it’s been found in the bodies of more than 90 percent of people in North America. But it’s an unstable compound that can leach into food and then into people, where it acts on estrogen receptors and increases the risk of breast cancer (in addition to heart disease, diabetes, miscarriages, neurological problems, and prostate cancer). Adding BPA to Canada’s Toxic Substances List is just the first step in ending its role in breast cancer. According to Dr. Rick Smith, Executive Director of Environmental Defence, and co-author of Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health, “We look forward to now working with the federal government to take the next important step: banning BPA from all metal food and beverage cans since these can leach it into our food.”

     The designation of BPA as toxic is a challenge to the mainstream understanding of breast cancer. Health Canada exemplifies the mainstream medical model that reduces breast cancer to women and their internal hormones: while mentioning smoking, radiation, and hormone replacement therapy as risks, most risk factors they list are internal to women: female gender, older age, early menstruation, late menopause (all factors over which we have no control), having a baby late or never, never breastfeeding, and being overweight. Some have called this “bikini medicine”, reducing women’s health to those parts covered by the bikini: breasts and ovaries. This list also reads like the typical advice that  magazines bombard women with on a daily basis: be young, be thin, have children and don’t wait too long. Ironically, many of those cosmetic products designed to give a youthful appearance actually increase breast cancer risk.
     This reductionist biomedical model cannot explain the epidemic of breast cancer (or cancer in general) in which we’re living: “between 1973 and 1998, breast cancer incidence rates in the United States increased by more than 40 percent”. Conventional risk factors can’t explain this sudden rise, nor its geographical distribution:
“Globally, more than 1.15 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002. The highest rates are found in the industrialized nations of north America and western Europe…In northern Africa, as in many regions that are either developing or in transition, breast cancer rates are escalating sharply”. 
     We are witnessing the globalization of cancer, which has more to do with external  hormones than internal ones. This has been proved by the recent decline in breast cancer:
“the most recent incidence data indicate a significant decline over the past several years in both breast cancer incidence and mortality in the United States. The most widely discussed explanation for this decrease is the sharp decline in use of post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy (HRT) over the past decade and especially following the announcement in 2002 of the association of HRT use with increased risk for breast cancer.”
But obviously HRT is not the only chemical to which women are exposed:
“the increasing incidence of breast cancer [and cancer in general] over these decades paralleled the proliferation of synthetic chemicals…1000 or more new chemicals are synthesized each year. Complete toxicological screening data are available for just 7 percent of these chemicals, and more than 90 percent of these chemicals have never been tested for their effects of human health….many of these chemicals persist in the environment, accumulate in body fat, and may remain in breast tissue for decades.”
 Here are some compounds linked to breast cancer:
1) Estrogens/progestins: HRT, personal care products
2) Radiation: light at night (night-shift workers), ionizing radiation (medical radiology)
3) Xenoestrogens and other Endocrine-disrupting Compounds (EDCs): tobacco, dioxins (industrial processes), alkylphenols (detergents, hair products), parabens (cosmetic, deodorants, preservatives), BPA, phthalates(plastics, cosmetics, cleaning materials), suncreens, pesticides, food additives, hormones used in food production
4) Non-EDC Industrial chemicals: ethylene oxide (cosmetics), organic solvents, aromatic amines (tobacco, combustion), benzene (exhaust, refineries), butadiene (petroleum refineries)

     Besides the fact that tobacco is but one of multiple carcinogens, three themes emerge from this list: toxic consumption, occupational hazards, and home cleaning products.

     The cosmetic industry bombards women with constant messages that they need to slather all sorts of chemicals on their bodies, and it turns out many of these are linked to breast cancer. How ironic then that Estee Lauder has tried to silence this message by shining pink lights on various landmarks as part of breast cancer awareness month (see my previous post on this issue). There is also a racialized aspect to carcinogenic cosmetics, as magazines and adds perpetuate the message that black is not beautiful (like L'Oreal's ads that white-washed Beyonce):
“Products marketed to women of colour often contain some of the most problematic chemicals. Skin lighteners, hair relaxers, hair dyes and skin moisturizers developed for women of colour often contain carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting compounds”
    The food industry is also producing breast cancer by their profit-driven quest to produce the largest animals in the most cramped conditions in the shortest time span, along with homogenous crops that require artificial protection from pests:
“Pesticides sprayed on crops, antibiotics used on poultry, and hormones injected into cattle, sheep and hogs expose consumers involuntarily to contaminants that become part of our bodies. Research suggests that some of these exposures may increase breast cancer risk”. 
     While cancer, and illnesses in general, are often reduced to “lifestyle choices”, there is often very little choice involved as most people are unaware of what they are consuming:
“despite opposition from physicians, scientists and consumer advocacy groups, the FDA in 1993 approved Monsanto’s genetically engineered hormone product rBGH for injection in daily cows to increase milk production. This hormone quickly found its way (without labeling) into the US milk supply [where is raises IGF-1, which is linked to breast cancer] and from there into ice cream, buttermilk, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products.”
     But in another recent victory, a US federal court ruled Ohio's ban on labeling of dairy products as hormone-free was unconstitutional.

     Women are not just breasts and ovaries, are not just consumers, they are also workers. Ignoring this fact has prevented scientific studies from discovering risk factors for breast cancer:
“The relationship between toxic exposures in the workplace and later diagnosis of breast cancer has been difficult to establish in large part because, until recently, occupational studies have not included women in sufficient numbers to evaluate relationships between environments and female-specific cancers like breast cancer.”
     Now research is emerging that links breast cancer with work done predominantly by women. I know from my work that most nurses and radiology technicians who work night shifts are women. Add to this list cosmetic industry workers, dental hygienists, and many agricultural workers. There is also a racialized aspect to these exposures:
“Many farmworkers are undocumented immigrants who enjoy fewer legal protections and less access to health care that the general population, limiting their ability to protect themselves from pesticide exposure or to seek medical care in response to chemically induced health problems.”
     In addition, many dangerous industries are located in close proximity to racialized communities, like Canada’s tar sands and its carcinogenic impact on FirstNations. Finally, women’s labour in the home has been ignored not only economically but also medically:
“although women make up nearly half the workforce in the United States, relatively few studies have been conducted to identify occupational exposures associated with breast cancer…Many women actually have two places of work: their homes and the paid workplace. Each site has its unique set of exposures to chemicals and non-ionizing radiation. However, traditional occupational exposure studies focus on exposures only in the paid workplace.”
     To truly raise breast cancer awareness we need to ditch bikini medicine and acknowledge the reality of women’s lives: pressured by sexist and racist media to douse chemicals on their bodies, consuming food laced with hormones and pesticides, working in toxic environments in the workplace and in the home, living in communities surrounded by dangerous oil industries. Only by exposing and purging all these chemicals from our lives will we have a chance to conquer breast cancer. Declaring BPA toxic marks an important first step.


  1. I can't get over that Loreal ad. What I often think about is how seductive advertising is and affects people from a very young age. Images from TV and magazines seem more "normal" than people in the real world. An amazing phenomenon. I wonder how much positive association goes with images that people have absorbed as children that are full of racism and cosmetic advertising.

    Interesting clip here on racism in Disney: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LibK0SCpIkk

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