Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a time of reflection for all of us. We remember the loved ones we have lost to the disease, pray for those we know in the thick of battle, and hope deep down that we are not the next friend or daughter to be diagnosed.
Awareness of the disease has driven funding for research and treatment of breast cancer, and that's a good thing. But there's an aspect of the issue that is even more important: prevention. And among the causes of breast cancer that we are able to affect are those linked to toxic chemical exposures.
The incidence of breast cancer has risen in parallel with the rise of our exposure to synthetic chemicals, some of the most toxic of which are found in personal care products, cleaning products, and food.
The Breast Cancer Fund, a leading organization in the movement to address environmental causes of cancer, notes that only one in 10 breast cancer victims has a genetic history of the disease.
Scientific and medical experts have strong evidence showing that toxic chemical pollution plays a large role (see the Breast Cancer Fund's annual "State of the Evidence" report at breastcancerfund.org). Right now, it is difficult to avoid exposure to toxic chemicals because they are in virtually every product that we use.
For example, the chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) is present in canned goods including soup and soda, many shatterproof plastics, thermal receipt paper, money and even toilet paper. Methylparaben can be found in the majority of personal care products, including body lotion, cosmetics and shampoo. Phthalates (pronounced THA-laytes) are used in fragrances and soft plastics including toys.
Manufacturers of the products containing these toxins have for years contended there is such a small amount of the toxin present in their products that there is no need for concern. However it's not only the chemical dose that makes the poison: it's the timing of exposure to these chemicals, and repeated exposure from multiple sources, that matter.
Women use an average of 12 personal care products a day — teen girls use an average of 17 — products often laden with toxic chemicals, and pregnant women and children, whose cells are rapidly dividing, are particularly susceptible to the effects.
Most people assume our government would not allow dangerous chemicals to be used in our products. The fact is, federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency are limited by outdated legislation that does not give them the power to regulate harmful chemicals. Of more than 80,000 chemicals that are registered, the EPA has required testing on around 200 of them.
So while the American public is being asked to walk, pledge money and buy products festooned with pink ribbons to raise awareness of the horrible disease of breast cancer, companies are knowingly selling products that contain chemicals linked to breast cancer and the government continues to stall action on more protective regulations.
As a mother, I first became concerned with chemical contamination when I saw my young daughter experiencing signs of early puberty — another symptom of exposure to synthetic chemical hormones. But health professional groups are also speaking out for reform policies that will help prevent breast cancer and other illnesses.
Last May, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a position statement asking for better regulation of chemicals used in products marketed to children and pregnant women. The AAP, along with the American Nurses Association and the American Medical Association, are just some of the many professional organizations recognizing the need for such reform, and while bills have been introduced to make reform possible, they have yet to be passed, due in part to the considerable lobbying power of the chemical and personal care industries.
As we conclude this month of breast cancer awareness, I hope readers will consider the paradox created by companies, many selling products labeled with a pink ribbon, while their ingredient lists include toxins suspected as links to breast cancer.
And though it is a comfort to know that, thanks to breast cancer awareness, my chance of surviving the disease is better now than it was 10 years ago, I would rather prevent the disease from occurring in the first place — for myself, for my daughter and for generations to come.