Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers



24 October 2002
San Francisco Chronicle

Committees examine link between breast cancer and environment

COLLEEN VALLES, Associated Press Writer Thursday

More research needs to be directed at learning more about the possible link between breast cancer and the environment, panelists told state lawmakers.

But some also cautioned that one proposed method of that research that legislators heard testimony on -- monitoring breast milk for toxins -- needs to be conducted without hurting efforts to get more women to breast-feed their babies.

The panelists, a collection of healthcare professionals and representatives of organizations that fight breast cancer, spoke to the state Senate and Assembly health committees on Wednesday.

Breast cancer rates in the United States have increased from one in 22 in the 1940s to one in eight today, and the factors that are known to increase the risk of breast cancer -- reproductive history, genetics, exercise and alcohol use -- account for less than half of all cases, said Dr. Ana Soto, a professor at Tufts University.

"This swift increase cannot be attributed to genetic causation," she said. "Yet, the genetic causes of cancer continue to be the main topic of study in breast cancer research."

One way to monitor how toxins accumulate in the body and possibly cause cancer is to test breast milk. Similar monitoring is done using urine and blood, but because breast tissue is fatty and breast milk is high in fat, certain chemicals collect there that don't collect as well in urine or blood.

But the testing does have its limitations and likely won't tell scientists how much water-soluble or short-lived chemicals have accumulated in people's bodies, said Dr. Gina Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council. But it's still a good way to identify patterns and hotspots, she said.

"This is a way of getting a handle on what's getting into our bodies," she said. "It can give us information about who is exposed to what."

As with the recent controversy over the effectiveness of breast self-exams and mammography in detecting breast cancer, and with hormone replacement therapy sometimes leading to increased risk of the disease, monitoring of breast milk has some concerned that women will be frightened into not breast-feeding their children or shortening the time that they do breast-feed them.

"Despite concerns about the pollutants found in breast milk, there is compelling evidence that breast-feeding is still the best form of nutrition for babies," said Donna Vivio, director of global outreach for the American College of Nurse-Midwives.

Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action of San Francisco, said research money might be directed instead to monitor adolescent girls, because women are particularly vulnerable when their breasts are developing, she said.

The hearing comes two weeks before volunteers in Marin County will do their own type of monitoring, conducting a door-to-door survey to try to gather clues as to why that county has one of the nation's highest rates of breast cancer.

And it follows an attempt in New York to establish a link between breast cancer and environmental factors after analyzing blood and urine samples. An $8 million, seven-year study of four toxins -- mostly now-banned pesticides -- on Long Island did not show a definite link, although some have criticized the study as too narrow.

For Karen Holly, who told the legislators about her life living near chemical-laden areas, any monitoring comes too late. The two-time breast cancer survivor, who is battling her third bout of cancer, said she hopes the causes of breast cancer can be narrowed, and she plans to take the information she learned Tuesday back to her community in Richmond, where county officials often suggest people stay in their homes when one of the nearby oil or chemical plants discharges something into the air.

"We have these chemicals we have no control over in our environment," she said. "I don't want anybody else to go through this either."





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