Intervenor: Vol 24. No 1 January - March 1999

Everyday Carcinogens - Stopping Cancer Before it Starts

Over the past two years, CELA has worked with a group of health professionals, environment and labour activists and cancer survivors to bring together experts with our communities to advance one common goal - to put primary cancer prevention on the agenda of cancer agencies. This work culminated in Hamilton, on March 26 and 27 in a series of events called "Everyday Carcinogens: Stopping Cancer Before It Starts". Over 350 people gathered for a public hearing, a day-long workshop and a special evening on Losing the War on Cancer: Who is Responsible & What to Do?, featuring Dr. Ross Hume Hall, Professor Emeritus, McMaster University and the renown cancer advocate, critic and author Dr. Sam Epstein of the Department of Occupational & Environmental Medicine of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Presentations from health and environmental experts from Canada and the US, from cancer survivors, aboriginal people, Ontario workers, local residents exposed to the Hamilton Plastimet fire had one common theme; that involuntary exposure to "everyday carcinogens" in our homes, the environment and in our workplaces is causing unnecessary and preventable cancers at huge costs to families and society. The only divergence from that view came from Dr. Richard Schabas, Head of Preventive Oncology, Cancer Care Ontario (CCO), the Provinces super-agency which allocates priorities and expenditures on cancer. Dr. Schabas presented the preliminary program of CCO for prevention which recognized early screening as the most legitimate approach to prevention and has yet to recognize other options, including reducing occupational exposures. This stunning divergence and institutionalized denial certainly served to galvanize participants in the weekend workshop to continue to act together for primary prevention.

There was no shortage of good ideas on how others are doing this. Beverly Thorpe from Clean Production Action spoke of the array of pollution prevention and industrial reforms which have put European countries like Denmark light years ahead of Canada. Cathy Crumbly of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute of Lowell, Massachusetts showed how a partnership between universities and industry radically reduced that state's production of hazardous waste. Paul Connett of Waste Not outlined his campaign to "Just Say No To Dioxin and Yes to Health Care Without Harm" by eliminating the use and burning of plastics in hospital incinerators. Brian Johnson of the City of Santa Monica presented that city's comprehensive approach to systematic reduction of carcinogens.

Dr. Epstein said US age-adjusted cancer rates have risen about 55% since the 1950s but only a quarter of that can be blamed on smoking. Genetic and life-style causes cannot explain the increases in, for example childhood cancer and animal cancers. Beluga whales in the polluted St. Lawrence have cancer, but others who live in more pristine waters do not.

Sandra Steingraber's Message

The most moving and eloquent moment in the weekend came with Dr. Sandra Steingraber's special videotaped presentation. Sandra, a new mother, poet, scientist, cancer survivor and author of the book Living Downstream moved us to tears with her plea for infants' rights to uncontaminated breast milk.

She painted the picture of what state cancer registries show. The industrial areas of the US and Canada have the highest rates of bladder and colon cancer. The great plains, with its high usage of pesticides and herbicides, have the highest rates of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. "The evidence," she says is not causative, but it is provocative."

"The dose makes the poison" says the old axiom of pharmacology. But, says Dr. Steingraber, regulating the "dosage" of toxins we ingest is not enough. "Virtual elimination" (to quote the standard of the new Canadian Environmental Protection Act) is not the answer because our bodies receive and store toxins in different ways-we are not all 150 pound males.

One of the most sensitive times of life is in the womb and in the first few months of life. That is the time that mothers pass the benefits of their immune systems to our children. It is also the time we pass on the hazards of the toxins we have stored over our lives. "A woman's body is the first environment. All the contaminants stored in a woman's body find their way into the next generation."

Sarah Miller is coordinator at CELA