By Polly Hoppin, Dick Clapp, Molly Jacobs, Margaret Quinn and David Kriebel
We all know a woman who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, whether she’s our mother, sister, close friend or neighbor. It’s the most common invasive cancer in women in this country, and we need to get more serious about preventing it. Last month a respected group released a report on breast cancer prevention with a clear and urgent message: “identifying and mitigating the environmental causes of breast cancer is the key to reducing the number of new cases.” The report of the Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee (IBCERCC) was widely covered in the press and concluded that a “substantial number of new cases” of breast cancer could be prevented through coordinated targeted research and action on environmental and lifestyle factors that cause breast cancer.
The IBCERCC called for an urgent acceleration in environmental research on cancer prevention – identifying which chemicals and physical factors cause breast cancer. We agree, and we urge one more step in breast cancer prevention research: figuring out how to wean our economy from dependence on cancer-causing chemicals. Many Americans assume that it is not legal to release carcinogens into our environment and food or to put them in the products we buy. As we know, this is not the case. And when we use carcinogens in our workplaces and put them in our consumer products, we are building our economy with chemicals that can cause cancer.
Both types of environmental cancer research can be done now. Many environmental carcinogens have already been identified and there are already some great examples of government and private industry innovations that replace carcinogens in our economy.
Carcinogen Reduction Success Stories
In Massachusetts the Toxics Use Reduction Act (TURA) of 1989 established the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at the University of Massachusetts Lowell to work with companies using certain toxic chemicals to develop plans to reduce or eliminate them. Toxic substances are identified from authoritative sources such as the EPA Superfund chemicals list. The law does not require companies to implement the plans – simply to prepare them and file them with the state. There are no fines for failure to follow the plans, and no lengthy and litigious battles over the “safe” amount of a chemical. To prepare the TURA plans, the companies and TURI conduct collaborative research to develop feasible, safer alternatives.
Now, after more than twenty years of experience with TURA, it is possible to evaluate how it has worked. If we look at the results for carcinogens only (the law targets many types of toxic substances), we see that releases of carcinogens into Massachusetts air and water have declined by 93% since the program began. The volume of carcinogens used has fallen by 31% since 1990, and reporting companies have remained in business (see Figure A). The use of one probable carcinogen, perchloroethylene (the major chemical used in dry cleaning), has been reduced by 85% among the companies reporting under the state law. In addition, a number of dry cleaners in communities around the state are cost-effectively switching to “wet-cleaning” methods that rely on water instead of a toxic solvent. California has introduced similar measures and is making similar progress in reducing this and other toxic chemicals.
In the private sector, Seventh Generation has made a major commitment to identifying and adopting safer and non-carcinogenic personal care and cleaning products. In 2009, Seventh Generation moved to eliminate 1,4-dioxane from its hand-cleaning product because it was then listed as a possible human carcinogen with links to breast cancer. Other U.S. companies have followed Seventh Generation’s lead in this and other product changes. Another major U.S. company, Johnson & Johnson, has committed to removing a known carcinogen, formaldehyde, from its personal care products by the end of 2015. These initiatives show that businesses can remove carcinogenic chemicals from production and use and still thrive. Often, public relations drives companies to adopt less-toxic alternatives. Consumer concern about carcinogens is an important driver for transforming to a cancer free economy.
The IBCERCC joined other authoritative groups such as the Institute of Medicine and the President’s Cancer Panel in emphasizing the importance of environmental health research for cancer prevention. These groups have consistently concluded that this research would likely pay off in effective (and cost saving) methods of preventing this terrible disease. Our work with partners like the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Seventh Generation, and others has shown us the importance of an almost entirely overlooked area of cancer research: strategies to identify and remove carcinogens from consumer products, workplaces and the life cycle of the materials that flow through our economy and ultimately into our bodies. This is research on the solutions to environmental exposures to carcinogens – research leading us towards a cancer free economy.
Polly Hoppin, Dick Clapp, Molly Jacobs, Margaret Quinn and David Kriebel work for the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production.