Leaders in cancer treatment and information are the same chemical companies that also produce carcinogenic products. Breast Cancer Awareness Month, initiated in 1985 by the chemical conglomerate Imperial Chemical Industries,
currently called Zeneca Pharmaceuticals, reveals an uncomfortably close connection between the chemical industry and the cancer research establishment. As the controlling sponsor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM), Zeneca is able to approve—or veto—any promotional or informational materials, posters, advertisements, etc. that BCAM uses. The focus is strictly limited to information regarding early detection and treatment, avoiding the topic of prevention. Critics have begun to question why.
With revenues of $14 billion, Zeneca is among the world’s largest manufacturers of pesticides, plastics, and pharm-aceuticals. Forty-nine percent of Zeneca’s 1997 profits came from pesticides and other industrial chemicals, another 49 percent came from pharmaceutical sales, and the remaining 2 percent came from health care services including 11 cancer treatment centers. Zeneca’s herbicide acetochlor, considered a probable carcinogen by the EPA, accounted for around $300 million in sales in 1997. Their product tamoxifen citrate (Nolvadex) is the most commonly prescribed breast cancer treatment drug on the market, and accounted for $500 million in 1997 sales. Cancer prevention would clearly conflict with Zeneca’s business plan.
In response to criticism that BCAM is not promoting the prevention of breast cancer, Zeneca was instrumental in convincing the FDA to approve tamoxifen as a “prevention” measure to reduce the incidence of breast cancer in healthy women at risk. However, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer considers tamoxifen itself a “probable human carcinogen.” While tamoxifen reduces the incidence of breast cancer in healthy women at risk, it doubles the incidence of uterine cancer as well as posing other significant, and often fatal, health risks, including embolisms and deep vein thrombosis.
Other large corporations have a vested interest in breast cancer as well. General Electric sells upwards of $100 million annually in mammography machines; DuPont supplies much of the film used in those machines. These companies aggressively promote mammography screening of women in their 40s, despite the risk of its contributing to breast cancer in that age group. And while biotech giant Monsanto sponsors Breast Cancer Awareness Month’s high profile event, the Race for the Cure, it continues to profit from the production of many known carcinogens.
The incidence of breast cancer has been increasing about 1 percent a year since 1940. In the past 20 years, more American women have died from breast cancer than all Americans killed in World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. Breast cancer has both lifestyle and environmental causes, but research into the environmental links has received little funding or attention by corporate and governmental entities.
Hormones have been at the center of breast cancer research for the past two decades. Five years ago, however, researchers began to consider the possibility that chlorinated chemicals might contribute to the rising occurrences of breast cancer. Researchers Devra Lee Davis and Leon Bradlow hypothesized that environmental and pharmaceutical estrogens are likely culprits. “The research world began to buzz with interesting new work,” quotes Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly, “asking whether chemicals that mimic or block estrogen might contribute to breast cancer.” Seen as a threat by chemical interests, the Chemical Manufacturers Association and the Chlorine Chemistry Council banded together to develop a strategy to discount Davis and Bradlow’s hypothesis, including hiring a public relations firm to discredit Davis personally.
Although early detection does save some lives, 7 of 11 recent studies found elevated organochlorine levels in breast cancer victims. As Tracy Baxter says, “Let’s face it: We’re no dummies, and it’s time to expose companies that, by producing environmental poisons and providing breast cancer services, get us coming and going.”
UPDATE BY AUTHOR PETER MONTAGUE: “In the year since we published our series on breast cancer, evidence has continued to accumulate showing that a significant portion of breast cancer is preventable because it is caused by exposure to carcinogens. This is still not a message that the ‘cancer establishment’ wants to embrace because it means that the modern chemical industry is dangerous to women’s health. The chemical industry introduces between 1,000 and 2,000 new chemicals into use each year, almost none of them tested for their effects on human health.
“The federal government is feeling great pressure to adopt a ‘preventive’ approach to breast cancer. Accordingly, the National Cancer Institute announced in April 1998 that breast cancer could be ‘prevented’ by treating women continuously with a powerful drug called tamoxifen. The New York Times editorialized on April 8th that treating women with tamoxifen is a ‘breast cancer breakthrough.’ However, The Times acknowledged that treating 1,000 women with tamoxifen for five years would prevent 17 breast cancers but would cause an additional 12 cases of endometrial cancer and 20 cases of serious blood clots in the same 1,000 women. Blood clots can cause strokes and heart attacks. This is hardly an unalloyed success story and certainly not a ‘breast cancer breakthrough.’ Indeed, treating women with a potent drug to counter the effects of lifelong exposure to industrial carcinogens hardly seems like a success at all. To me, it seems more like an admission of defeat in the battle to control murderous discharges from the chemical industry.”
UPDATE BY AUTHORS ALLISON SLOAN AND TRACY BAXTER: “In spite of its dangerous side effects, tamoxifen (Nolvadex) was approved by the FDA on October 29, 1998 for use, in reducing the risk of breast cancer in healthy women at high risk of the disease. Using the FDA’s criteria, this includes virtually all females possessing breasts. Women considered at risk are those who are over 50 years old, have direct-line relatives with breast cancer, have had atypical breast biopsies, bore their first child after age 30, or began menstruating before age 12. Disturbing, however, is the fact that only 30 percent of women with breast cancer match any of these risk factors other than age. Nevertheless, a Zeneca spokeswoman claimed in The New York Times that 29 million women are at increased risk for breast cancer. If only 10 percent of them took tamoxifen sales would amount to $14.5 billion! Zeneca announced that they would immediately begin promoting tamoxifen to doctors and women—a sure sign they’ve done their math.
“The pharmaceutical industry spent $74.4 million on lobbying efforts in the U.S. in 1997-more than any other lobby group. At the same time, a growing number of pharmaceutical companies are doubling as pesticide manufactures. Zeneca, however, has the distinction of spending millions to convince women, through its sponsorship of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, that toxic treatment and mammography are our only weapons in fighting this scourge.
“Monte Paulsen first revealed the BCAM-Zeneca sponsorship link in a May 1993 article in the Detroit Metro Times. We are not aware whether it was reported in the mainstream media, but women’s health activist organizations pounced on the story, and some stage their own ‘Cancer Industry Awareness Month’ each October to expose the deceptive nature of the Zeneca-sponsored event. For more information, contact Breast Cancer Action, Tel: (877) 2STOPBC; the Toxic Links Coalition (at Communities for a Better Environment), Tel: (415) 2438373, ext. 305; or the Women’s Community Cancer Project, Tel: (617) 354-9888.
Sources: RACHEL’S ENVIRONMENT AND HEALTH WEEKLY, Title: “The Truth About Breast Cancer,” Date: December 4, 1997, Author: Peter Montague; THE GREEN GUIDE, Title: “Profiting Off Breast Cancer,” Date: October 1998, Authors: Allison Sloan and Tracy Baxter, SSU Censored Researchers: Dan Bluthardt and Patrick Ryan.
SSU Faculty Evaluator: Mary Gomes