The Allegheny Front Rewind: Linking Environmental Toxins to Breast Cancer

One in eight women will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in her lifetime. The race for the cure is on, but it's taking more than one path. This week for The Allegheny Front Rewind, Kara Holsopple sorts through our archives to uncover where the road linking environmental toxins and breast cancer has been going over the last decades.

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OPEN: One in eight women will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in her lifetime. The race for the cure is on, but it's taking more than one path. This week for The Allegheny Front Rewind, Kara Holsopple sorts through our archives to uncover where the road linking environmental toxins and breast cancer has been going over the last decades.

HOLSOPPLE: Talal El Hefnawy of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Instituteís Center for Environmental Oncology was raising awareness at a Pittsburgh hospital three years ago.

DOCTOR: Our speaker today is Talal El Hafnawy who is going to talk to us about estrogenic pollutants in the environment and the risk they pose to people.

HOLSOPPLE: El Hefnawy was talking to doctors and researchers. It was part of a new program to educate healthcare professionals who can be the first line of defense in cancer prevention. 

ElHANOWE: Can these chemicals which resemble estrogen cause an increase in the risk to develop cancer? The answer is yes.

HOLOPPLE: But in the audience, there were more questions than answers about environmental toxins and cancer. Particularly breast cancer. And those questions remain.

Most doctors are conservative about drawing conclusions about environmental links to cancer research and passing on that information in the exam room. But that hasn't stopped advocates and scientists from speaking out about potential risk.

Every other year the Breast Cancer Fund puts out a report called "The State of the Evidence" that compiles information from dozens of scientific studies. Its latest report cites a long list of chemicals linked to breast cancer. Endocrine disruptors like BPA, industrial chemicals like Benzene, estrogens in personal care products all make the list. But only DDT, a pesticide, has been proven to directly cause the disease -- that proof came in 2007. It was nearly a half century after Rachel Carson had warned about DDT's impact on wildlife and water.

In 1994, Dr. Ernest Sternglass, a Pittsburgh physicist and radiation researcher, invoked Carson. He talked with The Allegheny Front about reducing exposure to toxins to avoid breast cancer.

STERNGLASS: The only thing to do is to prevent the dissemination of these terrible pesticides, herbicides and radioactivity into the environment.

HOLSOPPLE: But Sternglass' early interpretation on the links between cancer and radiation were later discredited by other scientists and researchers because of his broad use of data to make a direct link.

A direct link between causes and effects of breast cancer is a tough sell to scientists. That's because no studies have been done directly on humans to make the links distinct from other known risk factors like genetics or obesity. Dr. Maryann Donovan, now the executive director of the Center for Environmental Oncology, says activists, researchers and public health experts are all talking about breast cancer and the environment. Each has a slightly different tone, but where they are starting to sing harmony is in reducing risk. And that takes some thoughtóand education. That's clear, Donovan says in a recent interview, by the example of how people deal with pests like stink bugs:

DONOVAN: What you really need to do is kind of figure out ways to seal up your windows and your screens in your house so that they can't get in. I do not use chemicals, because they don't really work on them, but a lot of people want to get a container of bug spray and they're spraying it all over their house. That's a choice.

HOLSOPPLE: Making less toxic choices has been an idea floating around for some time. Donovan says it's not just personal choices but raising voices that will make a difference.

DONOVAN: In this country, wanting to prevent disease from happening is kind of an evolving awareness, and I think that would change the discussion.

HOLSOPPLE: Breast cancer activists have perhaps been the loudest voice in the discussion, calling for environmental links to breast cancer to be a priority. Ten years ago, then executive director for Rachel Carson Institute, Ellen Dorsey, asked scientists and activists at a conference:

DORSEY: Why are we reticent to really grapple with the health consequences, the human health consequences of environmental contamination? By coming together as environmental advocates women's health and breast cancer advocates, we are building a new movement here and in Pittsburgh and it reflects what is happening across this country.

HOLSOPPLE: Activists like The National Breast Cancer Coalition are pushing even harder nowócalling for an end to the disease by 2020. Maryann Donovan says there will have to be political will for that to happen. But the Safe Chemical Act, meant to tighten up the older Toxic Substances Control Act, didn't go anywhere in Congress last year.

The changes many hope for will likely take time. It took over 50 years to prove a link between smoking and lung cancer. 

For The Allegheny Front Rewind, I'm Kara Holsopple.