Breast Cancer Awareness: From Pink Ribbons to a Right to Know Law

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I am a breast cancer survivor, and in the years immediately after my diagnosis, I sometimes found the annual proliferation of pink ribbons difficult--it was hard to be reminded of cancer every time I went into the grocery store or read the newspaper.

Despite those tough moments, I am deeply grateful to the many people and institutions that use October to call attention to this disease. Still, I recommend one critical change in this effort. To get at some of the root causes of breast cancer, I think we should change the name to National Right to Know Month.

You may have seen these figures in breast cancer PSAs this month:

  • Between 1973 and 1998, breast cancer rates in the United States have risen by more than 40 percent.
  • Women born in the 1960s are twice as likely to get breast cancer as their grandmothers.

But you may not have heard about these closely related numbers:

  • Right now, there are about 80,000 synthetic chemicals in use here in America.
  • Only 7 percent of those chemicals have been fully studied for their impacts on humans.

What do these two sets of data have to do with each other? We are only beginning to find out, and that is the problem.

BPA in Plastics Linked to Tumor Growth

Take just one of those chemicals, bisphenol-A, or BPA as it is known. BPA is among the 50 most produced chemicals in the world. It is also a synthetic form of estrogen, and estrogen feeds breast cancer. The estrogen-like properties in BPA are so strong that even when male rodents were exposed to it, they had an increased risk of mammary tumors.

Another alarming study found that when normal breast tissue is exposed to BPA at levels we face everyday it can cause changes in gene expression similar to those seen in highly aggressive breast tumors.

In humans, estrogen can ramp up cell division in pre-cancerous cells and prompt tumors to metastasize. I will never forget when my oncologist explained to me what that means: when breast cancer spreads to another part of the body there is no cure.

The FDA Still Allows BPA in Common Products

Despite the growing alarm--and media attention--about the health hazards of BPA, it continues to be a building block of products we use in our daily lives. It is found in plastic water jugs labeled #7, baby bottles, baby formula cans, and canned food liners to take-out containers from your local deli--to name a few.

The FDA is currently evaluating the safety of BPA in food products and members of Congress have introduced bills that would phase out use of BPA. NRDC had to push the FDA's sluggish efforts along: last week NRDC petitioned the agency to ban BPA from food packaging (see my colleague Sarah Janssen's blog).

If Calories Are on the Label, Why Not Carcinogens?

But until BPA is banned and safe replacements are found, we have a right to know when it appears in our food and household goods. The same should be true for BPA's cousins--other endocrine disrupters like phthalates, which are linked to infertility and cancer yet appear in cosmetics, food, and air fresheners.

Thanks to concerns about obesity, food packaging must now notify us about trans fats. Why not a possible carcinogen? Thanks to concerns about the environment, factories must publicly report every chemical they emit into the air and water. Why not every chemical that goes into the product in our homes?

If the government won't protect us from the chemicals themselves, at least consumer should be able to make an informed choice. Here is what you can do.

  1. Avoid known sources BPA. Buy BPA-free baby bottles, opt for glass jars or paper bricks of food instead of metal cans, and avoid water bottles made from polycarbonate plastic and labeled #7.
  2. Use your consumer muscle. Many products include a phone number on the packaging: Use it. If there is a canned soup you like, but you are worried about its safety, call the manufacturers and ask them if there is BPA in their linings. When manufacturers start hearing from consumers, they do take notice.
  3. Contact your representatives. Demand more rigorous labeling laws and more funding for independent, scientific studies of endocrine disruptors.