By Molly M. Ginty
Sunday, July 4, 2010
Suspicions that breast cancer could be caused by environmental pollution were once considered politically fringe. But in recent weeks, U.S. lawmakers, a presidential panel and the influential Susan G. Komen for the Cure have all signed on.
"This report is a breakthrough because of its source--and because it's the first government document to ever summarize these issues clearly and in one place," said Janice Barlow, director of Zero Breast Cancer, an advocacy group in San Raphael, Calif.
The Safe Chemicals Act of 2010--introduced April 15 in the Senate by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and in the House by Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Bobby Rush, D-Ill.--is another sign of environmental health worries gaining mainstream attention.
This legislation would revamp the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 and would ensure, in Lautenberg's words, that "those who make chemicals be responsible for testing them before they are released."
Under current policy, the Environmental Protection Agency can call for safety testing only after evidence surfaces to indicate that a chemical is dangerous. As a result, the agency has only been able to require testing for 200 of the 80,000 chemicals registered in its database.
To date, the Environmental Protection Agency has been able to ban five carcinogens: asbestos (used as insulation); polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, used in electrical transformers); hexavalent chromium (a paint additive); dioxins (byproducts of chemical manufacturing); and halogenated chlorofluoroalkanes (used in aerosol cosmetics).
To lobby for the Safe Chemicals Act, currently being reviewed by congressional committees, the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization in Washington, has created an online petition that the bill's supporters can send to their legislators. The Senate and House could vote on the proposed law later this year.
"This act is revolutionary because it's built on the precautionary principle, which holds that you prove chemicals are safe before you introduce them," said Barbara Brenner, executive director of the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Action. "Growing interest in that principle means legislation like this finally has a chance to move forward."
Grassroots activists say such legislation could have a wide impact. Forty-one percent of Americans will develop cancer at some point in their lives, according to the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass.
Six percent of all cancer deaths are linked to environmental factors, estimates the Atlanta-based American Cancer Society. Grassroots groups have long pointed to evidence, however, that indicates the true number is much higher.
One Department of Health and Human Services study, for instance, estimates that 70 percent of breast cancer cases are linked to environmental exposures.
The President's Cancer Panel report takes aim at environmental risk factors in manufacturing, agriculture, medical sources, the military and modern lifestyles.
These include benzene (in petroleum products, such as the oil currently leaking into the Gulf of Mexico); chromium trioxide (an ingredient used in pesticides); increased medical testing (which is boosting Americans' exposure to radiation); the 900 Superfund sites (areas identified by the federal government as "the nation's worst uncontrolled hazardous waste sites"); and bisphenol-A (a plastic ingredient found in throw-away bottles).
The 240-page report recommends reducing exposure to carcinogens during pregnancy (which can impair fetal development); studying vulnerable populations (such as low-income residents of polluted communities); teaching Americans to protect themselves from cancer by taking practical steps (such as microwaving food in glass containers instead of plastic ones); and creating a stronger screening system that ensures chemicals are proven safe before they are put on the market.
If the Safe Chemicals Act passes, that last recommendation--which health advocates have long said is a crucial starting point--will be met, potentially paving the way for future reforms.
Molly M. Ginty (http://mollymaureenginty.wordpress.com) is a freelance writer based in New York City.
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"Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk," President's Cancer Panel:
Petition Supporting the Safe Chemicals Act, Environmental Working Group:
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