It is encouraging to see greater attention in the media to the issue of climate change and its effects on the life-support systems of the planet. The link between breast cancer and the environment, however, is being overlooked.
Premenopausal women exposed to high levels of air pollution have a 30 per cent increased risk for breast cancer, according to a paper in Environmental Epidemiology published by Paul Villeneuve, a professor of occupational and environmental health at Carleton University, and his research team last year.
This should trigger a wake-up call given that we tend to think of breast cancer as a disease of aging women.
Using the evidence presented at a worker’s compensation hearing, Michael Gilbertson, a former federal government biologist who studied the health effects of toxic chemicals, and Jim Brophy, an occupational health researcher, found that they could infer a causal relationship between the woman’s diagnosis of breast cancer and her high exposure to air pollution — as a border guard at the bridge connecting Windsor, Ont. to Detroit, Mich.
Despite the scientific evidence highlighting environmental factors and the important role they likely play in contributing to breast cancer, the woman at the bridge was denied compensation.
She was denied even though breast cancers were occurring in this region at a rate up to 16 times higher than the rest of the county, and in an environment with pollutants containing known breast carcinogens such as benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
It is not surprising, given that environment is regularly ignored when we talk about breast cancer.
“breast cancer is not only a disease of abnormal cells, but also of communities we create and live in.”
If we apply his argument, it means we can create conditions for fewer future breast cancers. The question then becomes how?
We cannot blame women
To start, we need to make prevention at least as much a priority as early detection, better treatments and the search for cures. We also have to take a good look at all suspected causes.
Conversations about prevention often stir debate about what is to blame for the breast cancer rates we are seeing. But an aging population of women who make bad lifestyle choices doesn’t explain increases in breast cancers in more and younger women.
It doesn’t explain why women who migrate from countries with lower rates of breast cancer develop the same rates within 10 years of living in their new homes. It also doesn’t explain the clusters of breast cancers in regions with high levels of air pollution containing definitive breast carcinogens.
We need greater awareness and extended programmes that focus on these environmental and workplace causes. And we need to create and enforce policies and put regulations in place that prevent such exposures.
The climate change link
The women in Paul Villeneuve’s study are not unlike the female border guard. These cases are all linked to high levels of air pollution. Their stories are those of countless other women who face exposures to breast carcinogens in many Canadian urban environments and workplaces with high levels of traffic and industrial pollution.
Finally, as the incidence of fires increase with climate change, exposures to chemicals associated with the development of breast cancer often found in fires also increase. Studies are now investigating possible elevated incidence of breast cancer among women firefighters. They are clearly a highly exposed group and may be just one example of women bearing an elevated breast cancer risk.
Prevention a priority
At this important moment in history, as we debate the poor state of the environment and the adverse outcomes associated with it, we have the opportunity to make prevention of the many diseases — including breast cancer — a priority.
Many stories report on the numerous health problems connected to climate change including other cancers, cardiovascular disease, fertility problems, asthma, adverse birth outcomes, disabilities, diabetes and stroke. And yet, despite increasing evidence of an association between breast cancer and environmental exposures, the media does not cover this piece of the story.
We must do the work now to create a future where we won’t have to surrender our good health to unregulated exposure to known and suspected breast carcinogens. Instead we must implement the precautionary principle — in our communities, our workplaces and across our planet.
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.