Boomers grew up in a Toxic World
In the early fifties, shoe stores that catered to children had foot X-ray box. Children placed their foot in the box and it would show your bones. Allegedly it helped sales people properly fit our new shoes. In reality most kids played with it – shoving in feet and hands trying to figure out how it worked.
Post-war immigrants were routinely sprayed with DDT as they entered the country. DDT, as well as hundreds of household chemicals and pesticides could be found in most 50’s households. It wasn’t until the late 60’s that anyone even questioned the toxic soup beneath the kitchen sink. The Federal National Toxicology Program currently lists 48 chemicals (still in common use) that are linked with mammary tumors; or have been shown to trigger uncontrolled cell growth;
What’s more, recent research has shown, in eye-opening detail, that when environmental chemicals make their way into our bodies, they tend to stick around. In an ongoing sampling of the U.S. population begun in 1999, the Centers for Disease Control found that people are carrying varying amounts of dangerous substances such as phthalates, a derivative of DDT called DDE, dioxins, and PCBs. And when researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine conducted a more in-depth test on nine people published last year, they discovered that each harbored from 36 to 65 of the known or suspected carcinogens on the National Toxicology Program’s list. Andrea Martin, Evans’s former boss and the founder of the Breast Cancer Fund, was one of them; she carried 59 cancer-causing chemicals and 66 hormone disrupters in her tissue. Martin survived her breast cancer, but died of a brain tumor in August of 2003.
While scientists don’t know exactly how environmental toxins may cause breast cancer, it’s becoming increasingly clear that anything that disrupts hormones is likely to be dangerous. “There is a direct link between estrogen and breast cancer,” Russo says. The changes the breasts undergo throughout life are orchestrated by the interplay of estrogen and other hormones. When a substance interferes with the process—particularly by amplifying the effects of estrogen—it can trigger shifts in the molecular machinery that in turn set off uncontrolled cell growth.
Russo and his Fox Chase Cancer Center, breast cancer research laboratory colleagues have already shown how estrogenic substances can cause changes to DNA that lead to breast cancer. And other research has found that substances such as pesticides and solvents boost circulating estrogen, which then sparks abnormal cell growth. The herbicide atrazine, which is widely used on crops in the Midwest, for instance, has been shown in animal research to stir growth in portions of the mammary gland that are especially sensitive to carcinogens. Some chemicals can even make other toxins more dangerous to breasts, by disrupting cell development and regulation or by making cells more susceptible to tumor growth.
Working on a parallel track, epidemiologists have discovered that women are especially vulnerable to the effects of such changes at certain times in their development, in particular, before birth and at puberty. The 10- to 14-year-old girls who survived the atomic bombs in Japan, for example, were more likely than older women to develop breast cancer later in life. That means families with teenage girls should be especially careful to reduce environmental exposure.
Despite all the evidence and a theory that pulls it all together, so far no one has been able to make a direct link between breast cancer and exposure to particular toxins. A study in Long Island—an area with an exceptionally high incidence—came up cold, although air pollution did appear to increase risk.
Unwilling to give up the hypothesis, activists point to tantalizing hints in the findings that could support it, and investigators agree. Some suspect that many of the studies so far missed possible links because of their design.
They now know, for instance, that you simply cannot take a snapshot of contamination levels at the time of diagnosis and expect to learn much, since exposures from years past may have triggered the cancer. To remedy that, you need to study exposure during puberty, identify markers in cells that might show long-ago exposure, and follow women over the long term—all measures scientists are hoping to take.
Part 4: Does Our Toxic World Cause Breast Cancer? continued in October 5, 2006 Inconvenient Woman Blog