Cosmetics, Chemicals and Breast Cancer

Jane Shulman

Jeanne Rizzo, R.N., executive director of San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund, inspired a packed house of 300 people as she explained how one small group, determined to reduce the toll of breast cancer, is spearheading an international movement to effect social, political and environmental changes. It starts with a vision of a world in which women do not have to live in fear of losing their breasts or their lives to breast cancer, explained Rizzo, featured speaker at the Lanie Melamed / Muriel V. Roscoe Memorial Lecture on March 13th.

Rizzo described the Breast Cancer Fund’s achievements since a decision, six years ago, to focus solely on prevention. In its 15-year existence, BCF has recruited more than 70,000 supporters in the U.S. as well as an international following. “We identify and advocate for the elimination of environmental and other preventable causes of the disease,” said Rizzo . “Like Breast Cancer Action Montreal, we could no longer stand by and watch incidence rates go up worldwide. We wanted to focus on and understand the root causes of the more than 50 percent of breast cancer cases that cannot be explained by genetics, nor attributable to the known risk factors we hear about all the time, like reproductive history, diet and exercise.”

BCF set out to learn as much as possible about the environmental/chemical causes of breast cancer. The findings are astonishing. In the first edition (2001) of State of the Evidence: What is the Connection Between the Environment and Breast Cancer?, BCF researchers published the aggregated results of 350 scientific studies – a growing body of evidence linking breast cancer directly to ionizing radiation and to the effects of hundreds–if not thousands–of synthetic chemicals. “We began the journey toward breast cancer prevention standing on strong science. The evidence continues to mount not only as it relates to breast cancer but more broadly to a host of chronic diseases and conditions mediated by environmental exposures – Parkinson’s disease, learning disabilities, infertility, lymphoma ... on and on,” said Rizzo. “If we can figure out how to prevent breast cancer, we will also be preventing other diseases and contributing to the body of knowledge that will improve our collective health.”

Findings:

  • the timing of exposure is critical;
  • while low-dose, long-term, chronic exposures have been understudied, there is convincing evidence of harm;
  • we are exposed to a ‘chemical soup,’ chemicals that can have a cumulative, synergistic and even multiplicative effects;
  • synthetic chemicals often mimic the action of estrogen;
  • the greater a woman’s lifetime exposure to estrogen, the greater her risk of breast cancer;
  • estrogen-like chemicals are bisphenol- A, polyvinyl chloride, pthalates like dibutyl phthalate and DEHP – plasticizers found on shelves of your local grocery store and in your beauty salon;
  • everyday exposures include pesticides as well as air pollutants like 1,2 butadiene.

These chemicals can disrupt the entire endocrine system – throughout the entire life cycle of our natural hormonal processes. At least 100,000 chemicals have been introduced into our environment in the past 60 years. They are formulated and engineered into an infinite number of products and processes in commerce today. During roughly that same period, breast cancer incidence in Canada has risen from one in 40 women to one in 9.

Once BCF had the science to back it, the cosmetics industry became the focus – an industry consisting of largely unregulated, carcinogen-producing products that touch the lives of almost every woman dozens of times a day throughout her lifetime. There were several good reasons for taking on this $60 billion industry:

  • Cosmetics contain many hazardous chemicals
  • They are heavily marketed to women
  • Women are conscious of the marketing ploys
  • Despite cultural pressure, cosmetics are discretionary purchases
  • Given that we all use an average of 10 to 25 products (or 200 different chemicals) a day, it is a natural entry point for discussing the bigger issue of chemical exposure
  • The industry is seriously under-regulated

As a result of its Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, BCF and partners have seen more than 550 companies sign its Compact for Global Production of Safe Cosmetics. The Compact is a pledge by manufacturers to agree to total transparency about ingredients, to meet standards set by the European Union (where more than 1100 carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxins have been banned from use in cosmetics), and to create a plan to substitute safer ingredients. To date, the largest company to sign is The Body Shop. Forty Canadian companies have signed on, including four based in Montreal.

The mission is daunting, but Rizzo insists it is possible. Media and advertising campaigns in conjunction with grassroots efforts, shareholder activism and legislative strategies can work together to exert pressure, she said. “While we know we can’t win one chemical at a time, it serves to alert the public that there is a problem deserving of attention.”

Skin Deep, a website developed as part of the Campaign, is a searchable database of 15,000 personal care products that lists ingredients for each product and rates how safe or unsafe each is. Consumers can then contact manufacturers of their preferred products and demand that toxic chemicals be replaced, or choose safer products and let manufacturers know why they switched. More than a million searches are conducted on Skin Deep each month.

Use precaution where there is evidence of harm, advises Rizzo. “We need,” she said, “enough diverse thinking to be creative and innovative; enough confidence to challenge each other; enough grace to listen. There is absolutely no requirement that everyone be comfortable. We just have to stay, do the work, and remember why we are doing it.”

Jeanne Rizzo was the third speaker at BCAM’s annual Lanie Melamed Memorial Lecture, following Elizabeth May (2006) and Barbara Brenner (2005), each of whom delivered powerful and motivating messages about breast cancer and the environmental links to this terrible disease. BCAM’s partners for this year’s lecture were the McGill Women’s Alumnae Association (who annually honour Muriel V. Roscoe, a McGill University botanist) and the McGill Centre for Teaching and Research on Women.

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