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Breast Cancer - A Study Gone Wrong?

Bold headlines in The New York Times, with important news: a major hypothesis - that breast cancer was correlated with exposure to DDT and PCBs - has purportedly been refuted. 250 nurses took part in the study, donating blood samples in 1991. A prominent epidemiologist at the prestigious Harvard School of Public Health conducted the study, to be published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Nurses with more DDE (a breakdown product of DDT) and PCBs in their blood seemingly did not develop any more breast cancer than those with less.

But something sounds very wrong here. We already know that women who lived on Long Island, New York, long exposed to DDT spraying, showed higher incidence of cancer than women in the general population. We also know that both DDT and PCBs were taken off the market precisely because they caused cancer (though not necessarily breast cancer), and there is other anecdotal evidence that exposure to those chemicals has been implicated in breast cancer cases.

What we have here is statistics being used to convince people that environmental degradation should not be blamed for the epidemic of illness that we see all around us. Both the study's assumptions and its methodology are questionable, and you don't need to be a statistician to understand why:

  • Most cancer-causing substances are fat-soluble. The concentration of cancer-causing chemicals in the fat tissue is what usually causes or promotes cancer, not the concentration in the blood. While the two are sometimes correlated, they are often not correlated at all. Blood concentrations of toxic substances increase during dieting, for instance, as fat containing the substances is metabolized (used as energy).
  • There are literally thousands of chemicals that are or were in widespread use, that are suspected of causing breast cancer. Hundreds of them, chemically similar to DDE and PCBs, and can be found in the blood and especially the fat cells of most adults in the U.S.   The Harvard study did not (and probably could not) make the comparison of concentrations of other cancer-causing chemicals, some of which are more potent than DDE and PCBs.
  • Cancer is a predatory disease, that is, it is much more common among people whose immune system and/or overall health is compromised or weak. The researchers did not (and probably could not) take this into consideration.
  • Cancer is a statistical disease, that is, given exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, it is dependent on concentration, length of exposure, and a number of other factors, and will then strike at random. The Harvard study measured blood concentration at a particular time. The researchers did not (and probably could not) measure length of exposure.
  • Radiation exposure, both by x-rays and by internal radiation from strontium-90 (from atom bomb fallout in milk), is a significant cause of breast cancer, as outlined by Dr. John Gofman in Radiation and Health. The Harvard researchers did not (and probably could not) take this into consideration.

So why was this study published, and why has it gotten so much media attention? There is a hint in the coverage in The New York Times: the article about the study was carefully prepared by Gina Kolata, the very same New York Times reporter who previously wrote a series of articles that were critical of the work of Theo Colborn et. al. in Our Stolen Future. That book - which identifies many industrial chemicals as disruptive to our endocrine (hormone) system - is now regarded as important in our understanding of the influence of industrial chemicals on the environment and health as Silent Spring was in awakening us to the dangers of pesticides. Ms. Kolata's articles appeared at about the same time as several other critical articles appeared in other major magazines and newspapers, just before publication of the book. The articles went beyond scientific questioning, but were instead crafted to belittle and marginalize the work of some of the top endocrine researchers in the U.S.

Breast cancer affects virtually every American family, rich or poor, Afro-American, white, Hispanic, Native American, or Asian. It cuts across all class lines. It kills millions of women, both old and young. Any notion that this modern plague could have anything to do with pollution, hormone disrupters, pesticides, or industrial chemicals is a very dangerous notion indeed. If people became aware that their lives or the lives of their loved ones were being compromised for the sake of increased revenue for multinational polluters, they might complain, or protest, or - perish the thought - organize to stop the pollution of their communities. That would be a change in "business as usual," which would of course cut into profit margins and is therefore unacceptable. And - from the perspective of the multinationals - we certainly can't have ordinary, non-technical people making decisions about their environment. That would be too much like democracy.

During the last 10 years there has been a giant upswing in environmental activism, to the point where many people in the U.S. view protection of their environment (along with recycling) as a patriotic endeavor. Housewives are becoming environmental activists. Parent-teacher associations are stopping pesticiding of schools. Local business folks are coming to realize that pollution is not good for their communities. It is becoming more difficult for multinational "business as usual."

In the coming months we should expect an onslaught of propaganda aimed in our direction, to marginalize the efforts of environmental activists and scientists, as the corporate polluters attempt to put us all back to sleep, and to convince us that the illness and death that we see all around us are due to inheritance and bad habits. We need to separate good science from propaganda, and the Harvard study is a good place to start. Given the evidence, what do you think?

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