ANAHEIM, CaliforniaBringing together scientists and activists
involved in understanding and controlling environmental pollutants
associated with cancer can create powerful new research synergies,
Sandra Steingraber, PhD, said at a symposium on mixed environmental
hazards and cancer at the Annual Meeting of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Dr. Steingraber recently participated in the first conference ever to
bring together scientific researchers and local-level cancer-cluster
activists to share their expertise.
Such cooperation is particularly valuable because of the
dangers posed by little understood but complex interactions among
chemicals now present in the environment in many places, she
said. This complexity has thus far gotten little attention from
researchers, who have concentrated largely on single agents,
Dr. Steingraber, of the Womens Community Cancer Project,
Cambridge, Mass, said that the conference differed from typical
scientific meetings because the activists were involved from the
beginning to ask questions, present information, and give
opinions, and not merely to receive the expert conclusions of the
scientists. The consensus document from the meeting, known as
the Boston Statement, will be issued shortly, she added.
Far from hindering science, she said, a number of political
victories won by activist movements growing out of local cancer
clusters have provided researchers with some extremely valuable
resources. These include right-to-know laws that require
industries to inform the public about which chemicals they are
introducing into the environment. Before these laws, this
information was considered trade secrets, she said.
She also pointed to county-by-county cancer registers initiated as a
result of political activism growing out of a cancer cluster in
Woburn, Mass. This was the cluster that inspired the litigation
portrayed in the current John Travolta film, A Civil Action. Before
these registers were established, statisticians had no way of knowing
if a given cluster was simply a statistical aberration or, in fact, a
reflection of a local environmental hazard, Dr. Steingraber said.
Precise knowledge of both pollutants and cancers in given
localities is particularly important in generating hypotheses for
scientific testing, she said.
Too Many Chemicals to Count
A survey Dr. Steingraber conducted in her home town of Pekin,
Illinois, for example, revealed both a large number of different
potentially carcinogenic chemicals and an elevated rate of two types
of cancers, ovarian cancer and lymphoma. This small community has 30
industries, which, in 1991, added 11.1 tons of toxic chemicals to the
Dr. Steingraber, herself a 19-year survivor of bladder cancer, was
seeking exposures that might relate to her malignancy, diagnosed when
she was 20. She found too many chemicals to count in the landfill
near her childhood home and in the emissions of the factory near her
The fact that many of these chemicals are not in themselves
carcinogenic does not mean they cannot be involved in cancers, she
said. In addition to the additive and synergistic effects already
well established for some chemical combinations, she said, new
research is revealing other complex interactions that can also
Ozone, for example, though not a carcinogen, increases the likelihood
that carcinogens can cause cancer because it permits carcinogenic
materials to penetrate deeper into the lungs than would otherwise be
In addition, early exposures to chemicals can act as a
magnifying glass for other carcinogens, she said. Prenatal
exposure to dioxins, for example, can increase the risk of
Because of the ever-increasing complexity of the chemical reactions
among pollutant chemicals present in the environment, it is
vital that research into this area be stepped up, Dr.
Steingraber said. Cooperation between research scientists and local
activists can greatly enhance the effort.