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
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
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
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
"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.