Lifestyle not the cause of disease says Sierra Club
MONTREAL, QC. (CUP) - The correlation between soaring cancer rates and manufacturers' increasing the use of toxic ingredients is much closer than previously thought, said Sierra Club executive director Elizabeth May, during a speech at Concordia University last Monday on Mar 23.
Cancer has nearly become an epidemic because we live in a toxic soup of chemicals that are treated, according to May, "as though they have constitutional rights: Innocent until proven guilty."
Our bodies have become Petri dishes of about 500 chemicals that were unknown in 1920, said the 51-year-old environmental lawyer at the second Lanie Melamed Memorial Lecture sponsored by Breast Cancer Action Montreal.
The proverbial ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure, but not according to the cancer industry, said May. Instead of removing these "ubiquitous" carcinogens from the environment, the cancer industry focuses doggedly on finding a cure and on treatment, or as May put it, "burning, cutting and poisoning women with breast cancer".
When the cancer industry does discuss prevention, it wags the finger at the individual's lifestyle habits.
But if cancer were really a matter of unhealthy lifestyle, May mused, why would rates of childhood cancers have climbed 26 per cent since 1971?
"What bad habits have these kids picked up? This is not a disease of childhood like chicken pox or the measles."
May worries that she may be part of the last generation to react with alarm at the sight of cancer wards cluttered with children. Her own daughter has already acclimated herself to her elementary school classroom where asthma inhalators and EpiPen injectors are common.
"We keep getting told that we're winning the war [on cancer]," May said. "But I mostly see casualties. This is the only war I've ever seen where we never engage the enemy."
May related the devastating legacy of the Sydney Tar Ponds as an example of what a Herculean task it is to penetrate the steely defences of government denial. The Tar Ponds are not actually "ponds", but the largest toxic waste site in North America, a Cape Breton coastal estuary clogged with 700,000 tonnes of carcinogenic coal tar. Residents in the nearby community of Sydney are staring down a life expectancy that is 10 years less than the average for Canada.
The government blamed the high cancer rates on the lifestyle habits of Sydney residents. But a study done by Dalhousie University showed that nearby communities with similar demographics don't have nearly as high cancer rates. "These are the same kinds of people - they eat chips in Sydney, they eat chips in Glace Bay," said May.
If it's that difficult to get the government to admit that a 700,000-tonne toxic sludge heap is causing human cancers, it's even more of a challenge to confront the insidious danger of endocrine-disrupting substances, which lurk in seemingly benign products like plastic water bottles, said May. The manufacturers of detergents, pesticides, plastics and cosmetics are keeping consumers in the dark about which of their products are brimming with carcinogens by refusing to list them in the ingredients label.
"A lot of mascaras are made from coal tar. I don't think people would want to be applying toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons to their eyelashes," May estimated.
She envisions a future in which water bottles bearing "endocrine-disrupting-substance-free" labels will line store shelves. For now, Canadian consumers don't even have that option. Manufacturers refuse to label which plastics are made with these substances, and federal regulatory bodies don't enforce standards to keep these chemicals out of the manufacturing process.
Evidence continues to mount that the human body is much more sensitive to carcinogens than previously thought. May says the most sensitive time for exposure to carcinogens occurs between conception and birth, when "one whiff of an endocrine-disrupting substance" can cause testicular cancer, the rates of which have recently increased by 300 per cent. To make matters more deadly, the chemicals to which we are exposed operate synergistically, which means they are more dangerous together than each would have been on its own.
May, who spoke animatedly for 90 minutes, urged the audience to pressure the government to reduce unnecessary exposure by enforcing regulatory measures. Then, she thinks, "within a short period of time, we'd see rates go down."
Europe has adopted a similar strategy going beyond enforcing stringent labelling regulations to manufacturing products that are "safe enough to eat". Cosmetics companies must list the ingredients on their products. Cars in Germany must be completely recyclable, which means that manufacturers are much more careful about the materials they use, since the car returns to the manufacturer at the end of its life cycle. European grocery stores refuse to sell North American beef from steroid-fed cattle.
"It can be done . . . other countries have done it," May urged.