California urges study of alarming breast cancer rates
Author: Andrew Quinn
"When women in America today are getting breast cancer at a rate that is three times the rate of 50 years ago, something is seriously wrong," state Assemblyman Dario Frommer said at a special joint meeting of the legislature's health committees.
"We need to take a hard look at what is causing this surge in cancer and what we can do to reverse this trend."
Frommer and state Senator Deborah Ortiz said they planned to introduce legislation early next year which would make California the first state in the nation to embark on a program to monitor breast milk for chemical contaminants - hoping to draw a link between such everyday products as pesticides, fuels, plastics and detergents and increasing numbers of breast cancer patients in the state.
Breast cancer rates across the country have increased steadily in recent years, with the risk of a woman contracting the disease at some point during her life now at 1-in-8, against 1-in-22 just 50 years ago.
Northern California in particular has seen breast cancer diagnoses skyrocket. In the San Francisco Bay area, a woman's chance of contracting breast cancer is now 1-in-7.
While the rising rates of breast cancer can be attributed in part to the fact that fewer women are dying of infectious diseases and many now live long enough to develop breast cancer, the disease itself remains deadly. Nationally, breast cancer is the leading cause of death in women aged 34 to 55, killing more than 40,000 women across the country every year.
Wednesday's special legislative hearing in San Francisco was called to address the latest studies of breast cancer incidence, and what some scientists say is mounting evidence that environmental toxins are contributing to the disease.
"I believe it is high time to seriously consider environmental chemicals as the most likely cause of this sudden increase in risk," said Dr. Ana Soto, a breast cancer specialist at Tufts Medical School.
While many breast cancer studies focus on genetics, or lifestyle factors such as reproductive history, alcohol use and exercise, Soto said there was little being done to assess how environmental toxins may be causing cancer.
"The increasing risk of breast cancer and other cancers has paralleled the proliferation of synthetic chemicals since World War Two," Soto said, adding that only 7 percent of the estimated 85,000 synthetic chemicals registered for use in the United States had been subjected to toxicological screening.
BREAST IS STILL BEST
Scientists, public health experts and community groups put forward the plan to begin monitoring breast milk as a way of tracking what types of toxins are entering women's bodies.
Breast milk is regarded as a good "biomarker" for exposure to toxins because chemicals can accumulate in the breast's fatty tissue for a number of years.
"When breast milk speaks, people listen," said Jeanne Rizzo, executive director the Breast Cancer Fund, a San Francisco-based advocacy group.
While most speakers at Thursday's hearing supported beginning a breast milk monitoring program, many urged that it be undertaken carefully and in tandem with public education to remind women that - even with toxic exposure - breast milk is still by far the best source of nutrition for infants.
"Breast is still best," said Donna Vivio, director of global outreach at the American College of Nurse Midwives.
California is one of a number of states competing for a three-year, $3 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control to implement new monitoring programs, and Dr. Richard Nuetra of the state's Department of Health Services said the proposed breast milk program could be one to receive funding if the grant is won.
Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist at the National Resources Defense Council, said drawing more links between environmental toxins and breast cancer could help to broaden understanding of who develops the disease and why.
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