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Cancer Charities Continue To Ignore Environmental Risk Factors

Campaigners from Breast Cancer UK awaiting a response to their petition on breast cancer prevention put to the Prime Minister have, once again, been sorely disappointed. Many see the government response as ignorance of the issues and dismissal of the valid arguments regarding long-term low level exposure to chemicals in products and the environment which campaigners have pointed to as suspect for a long time.

Why is breast cancer on the increase?

The reason says the No More Breast Cancer campaigning group is the link between breast cancer and everyday exposure to toxic chemicals. In the UK, to date, government, industry and mainstream cancer organisations have refuted this possibility.

The campaigners argue that lifelong, low-level exposure to the cocktail of hundreds of toxics and hormone-disruptors in our everyday lives – from pesticide residues in food to chemicals in consumer products and in the workplace – is linked to ever-rising rates of the disease.

As part of this, they want the British government to mark a new approach by ensuring the substitution of all carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting chemicals with safer alternatives, as soon as they are available.

Click to go to the E-petitionThe petition raised concerns about the lack of acknowledgement by the UK's leading cancer charities about environmental and occupational exposures as risk factors for breast cancer. It petitioned the PM to ask the cancer charities why they continue to refute these as risk factors.

The paltry response instead came from the Department of Health.

“We are not debating the science but debating the policy? It’s a very simple question, why do the cancer charities not acknowledge environmental and occupational risk factors?  And why are they afraid to address this?” asks the petition author and cancer prevention campaigner, Helen Lynn.

“What’s needed is a paradigm shift from their traditional narrow, lifestyle focused, thinking around breast cancer, towards primary prevention. Lifestyle and genetic factors only account for 30-50% of breast cancer cases. The current economic crisis is a stern reminder that the continuing rise in incidence, by more than 50% over the last twenty-five years, will put untold strain on an already overloaded NHS budget. Screening costs alone are in the region of £52 million. It is time now to focus on prevention.”

The response from the government stated that new chemicals are fully tested for safety before they enter the market, and a number of initiatives, such as REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) are in progress to update the database on existing chemicals. 

If this were the case, then we wouldn't have such serious health effects from chemicals found in everyday products and in our workplaces such as Bisphenol A, Phthalates and Formaldehyde. How many more workers will be exposed to carcinogens before we see any benefits from the REACH legislation? Given the long latency period for breast cancer we are not likely see the results of today’s exposure’s for 10-20 years.

Hilda Palmer from the Hazards Campaign says: “We are utterly sick of the government's worker blaming messages which places all the responsibility for cancer on individuals for eating and drinking too much, and not exercising enough. There is some individual responsibility but it is an untenable health policy while one fifth of workers are still exposed to carcinogens at work.  There is a great deal more action needed in enforcing employers’ legal duties to prevent exposure to chemicals which can cause harm to workers health. But we need to stop blaming workers and start looking at the much neglected occupational risk factors.”

The UK government and cancer charities decade-long, outdated mantra, in response to the mounting evidence linking breast cancer to environmental and occupational exposures, has been one of ‘no evidence’. Yet the EU Parliament already recognise that environmental causes like pollution and chemical contamination must be considered in any initiative to combat cancer.

The ‘blame the patient’ approach’ listing only potential lifestyle risk factors is wearing very thin. “It’s a little known fact that exercise lowers the levels of oestrogen in the body. Lower oestrogen levels mean a lower life time risk of breast cancer. Yet we also know that certain chemicals in our homes, workplaces, and in the wider environment can mimic oestrogen and can add to or interfere with levels in the body. Our job is not to have to provide absolute proof, but their job is to act with precaution on the results of the science to date,” says Clare Dimmer, Chair of Breast Cancer UK.

Jamie Page of the Cancer Prevention and Education Society says, “How can the government say ‘There is little convincing evidence to indicate that environmental exposure to chemicals in the UK causes breast cancer or any other forms of cancer’?  There is a huge wealth of evidence implicating chemicals and pollution to cancer and other diseases in the scientific literature. There are many scientists and doctors who are worried about the environmental health effects of chemicals. Anti-smoking programmes have been very successful in bringing down lung cancer rates. We need to be doing the same for other cancers by reducing human exposure to harmful chemicals whether they be in consumer products, medical devices, gardening products or agricultural pesticides. I would like to see the UK government adopting a similar stance to that shown by the Canadian Cancer Society who are giving guidance about reducing environmental exposure to harmful agents'.

What we would like to know from the cancer charities is, what the tipping point is for these risk factors? Who, how and when do they decide what goes on the risk factor list?

Our question is not about how much evidence is needed but how much evidence is enough? We want to see some follow up to this totally unsatisfactory reply and a private members bill to address the issue of environmental and occupational risk factors being given equal footing.

No More Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer UK

Source: Breast Cancer UK

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