Research Engine

Entering the slipstream of cancer in the plastisphere

Why does RI have the highest breast cancer incidence rate in the nation?

Image courtesy of Silent Spring Institute website

More than 5,000 tons of toxic chemicals are released from consumer products every year inside homes and workplaces. A new study by the Silent Spring Institute and UC Berkeley shows that people are exposed to multiple chemicals that can cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm. “Making this information public could incentivize manufacturers to reformulate their products and use othet ingredients," said lead study author Kristin Knox, a research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/9/23
October is breast cancer awareness month, and Rhode Island leads the country with the highest incidence level of breast cancer in the nation. The connections between toxic chemicals, endocrine disruptors and the incidence of breast cancer require more, better conversations to look at prevention by limiting exposure.
How can Rhode Island improve its protection of its residents from exposure to toxic chemicals in household products? Will Save The Bay join forces with RISE-UP, a collaborative research project involving state universities in Hawaii, Alaska, and Rhode Island? What kind of cooking classes can be planned at the community level that engages with neighborhoods and provides young parents with access to healthy food as well as daycare to allow parents to participate in the classes?
For all the talk about Rhode Island and the pride engendered by the state’s corporate promoters, the reality is that one of the state’s biggest industries is the export of scrap metal along the Providence waterfront. The Governor has been promoting a new dashboard to measure attendance figures in schools, attempting to cut down on chronic absenteeism, which has been tied to learning loss correlated with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The problem is that the leading cause of chronic absenteeism is tied to asthma, a chronic health condition tied to air pollution and particulate matter. The Governor’s new dashboard may showcase lots of snazzy graphics, but until the state confronts its air pollution problems related to highways and industrial smokestacks, chronic absenteeism will continue to plague our educational attainment metrics.

PROVIDENCE – Conversations about new research findings that connect the rising incidence of cancer in young people as a result of close encounters of a multiple kind with toxic chemicals and endocrine disruptors keep metastasizing.

The evidence found in the research, much like the toxins in the air we breathe, the water we drink and bathe in, and the food we eat, is overwhelming.

Take, for instance, the talk by Dr. Joseph Braun, Ph.D., on the health effects of PFAS, presented at the recent Brown University Cancer Biology Program meeting.

“Great presentation,” said Dr. Wafik S. El-Deiry, MD, Ph.D., the Associate Dean for Oncologic Sciences at the Warren Alpert Medical School and Director of the Cancer Center at Brown University. He praised Braun’s talk on PFAS, what El-Deiry called “forever chemicals."

“We appreciate his expertise that’s relevant to environmental exposures as we look into cancer associations in Rhode Island,” El-Deiry continued. “Braun spoke about epigenetic effects on leukocyte DNA from PFAS-exposed humans.”

It is, as science writer Rebecca Altman, Ph.D., describing the legacy and pervasiveness of plastics on the planet and in the body in her forthcoming book, The Song of Styrene: “What’s entangled and enmeshed in the plastic is us.”

Many in the growing community of environmental researchers have found common ground with Altman, Braun and others. “I think Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” lyrics need an update,” wrote Charlotte Leib, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale, who is writing a cultural history of the New Jersey Meadowlands.

“We are PFAS/ We are dioxin/ We’re existing on the margins/ And we’ve got to stay in place/ like this river that’s hardened,” Leib posted on the platform formerly known as Twitter, talking about the Passaic River ecosystem in New Jersey.

Leib continued: “So many EJ [environmental justice] communities [are] organizing, not fleeing, defending, persisting. Thinking of Rebecca Altman…”

Breathing in, breathing out
In July, Boston Globe reporter Felice Freyer penned a story, “Rise in cancer among younger people worries and puzzles doctors.” Freyer’s story appeared to pin the cause-and-effect of the increases in cancer rates on lifestyle change, as identified by many of Boston’s top cancer docs interviewed by Freyer.

“…Experts share a belief that the rise in cancer among younger adults may be driven by changes in the way that many of us have lived our lives over the past half century,” Freyer wrote.

Barely mentioned in Freyer’s initial article were any potential connections between environmental toxins and the increase in cancer rates. That omission provoked a strong response from many in the environmental research community.

“What about the thousands of tons of toxic chemicals in consumer products that people are exposed to every year inside their homes and workplaces?” the Silent Spring Institute responded to the posting of Freyer’s story on X, “Or the cancer-causing PFAS chemicals that pollute 45 percent of the U.S.’s tap water.”

ConvergenceRI responded to the Silent Spring Institute’s post: “Great question to ask the reporter – and the Globe – about the relationship between endocrine disruption from toxics and the prevalence of cancer. The reporter, Felice Freyer, should do a follow-up sir-down [interview] with the Silent Spring Institute.”

And, shazam, that is what seems to have occurred.

‘You asked; we researched’
Last week, Freyer wrote a follow-up story, with the headline: “Are environmental toxins causing the rise in early-onset cancers? You asked, we researched.”

Freyer recapped her initial story, saying: An array of cancers are striking people younger than 50 at higher rates than in previous decades, prompting new screening guidelines, new research, and growing concern.

As The Globe reported in July, the reasons for the increase are not known, but researchers suspect the cancers arise from such lifestyle factors as lack of physical activity, inadequate sleep, consumption of processed foods and cured meats, and obesity.

Colorectal cancer has gone up by 2 percent a year since the 1990s, and breast cancer by 2 percent a year starting in 2015.

The story drew more than 300 responses online, with many asking: Why focus on lifestyle instead of the toxins all around us? [emphasis added]

Freyer then discussed what she called “omnipresent” chemicals – saying that they can cause harm, but their role in cancer “is poorly understood.”

Here is an excerpt of what Freyer reported, at length, in The Globe:

· Endocrine disruptors. These are chemicals that mimic, block, or interfere with hormones, and they are everywhere – in food, air, water, clothing, furniture.

They include bisphenol A, best known as BPA, which is used in making plastics; per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, the “forever chemicals,” used in firefighting foam, nonstick pans, and textile coatings; and phthalates, which are liquid plasticizers found in hundreds of products including some food packaging, cosmetics, and children’s toys.

These chemicals disrupt hormonal pathways, and can do harm, especially during pregnancy, early life, and puberty.

But do they contribute to cancer? PFAS are associated with cancers of the kidney and testis in people who have been heavily exposed, such as on the job or in the military.

What this means for people exposed to small amounts, or for the risk of other cancers, remains unclear. A 2020 review of the studies so far concluded: “Overall, the evidence for an association between cancer and PFAS remains sparse.”

Julia Brody, executive director of the Silent Spring Institute, an organization that researches the links between everyday chemicals and women’s health, said studies over the years have found associations between environmental toxins and breast cancer. Such data, she said, is surely relevant to early-onset breast cancer as well.

The Institute identified 300 chemicals in the environment that increase estradiol and progesterone, hormones that can promote breast cancer. “I wouldn’t say they cause breast cancer because we don’t know that yet. But they’re definitely a good place to look at,” said Ruthann Rudel, the Institute’s director of research.

Community-based participatory research
On Thursday evening, Oct. 12, the Silent Spring Institute will host its annual celebration, honoring the work of outgoing executive director Dr. Julia Brody for her 27 years of leadership and scientific excellence. [Last year, Rebecca Altman gave the keynote address at the annual celebration. See link below to ConvergenceRI story: “Rachel Carson was right!”]

The Silent Spring Institute is a mission-driven scientific research organization dedicated to uncovering the environmental causes of breast cancer.

Its independent research is empowering a revolution in environmental health to prevent cancers by reducing people’s exposure to harmful chemicals where they live, work and play, according to its website.

“We believe everyone has a right to clean air, clean water, and safer products and that no one should get sick from toxic chemicals,” the Institute shared on its website.

A recent Institute research study revealed how community-based participatory research, working with women firefighters, can serve as an effective tool for protecting women from hazardous chemical exposure and create healthier work environments, according to the Institute’s website.

A new study by the Silent Spring Institute and the University of California Berkeley looked at common household products, such as shampoos, body lotions, cleaners, mothballs, and paint removers, and found they contained toxic volatile organic compounds or VOCs—chemicals that escape as gases, accumulate in indoor air, and cause a variety of health problems including cancer.

“This study is the first to reveal the extent to which toxic VOCs are used in everyday products of all types that could lead to serious health problems,” said lead author Kristin Knox, a scientist at Silent Spring Institute, as reported on the Institute’s website. “Making this information public we could incentivize manufacturers to reformulate their products and use safer ingredients.”

For the analysis, Knox and her colleagues turned to an unlikely source of data: The California Air Resources Board [CARB]. For more than 30 years, CARB has been tracking VOCs in consumer products in an effort to reduce smog. In the presence of sunlight, VOCs react with other air pollutants to form ozone, the main ingredient in smog.

Under its Consumer Product Regulatory program, CARB periodically surveys companies that sell products in California, collecting information on a wide range of items—everything from hair spray to windshield wiper fluid. The data include information on the concentration of VOCs used in various types of products and how much of each product type is sold in the state. CARB does not share data on specific products.

Reporting in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, the researchers analyzed the most recent CARB data, focusing on 33 VOCs listed under California’s right-to-know law, Prop 65, because they cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.

The law requires companies that sell products in California to warn users if their products could expose them to significant amounts of these harmful chemicals.

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