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Activists and Scientists Join to Control Pollution Linked to Cancer

Activists and Scientists Join to Control Pollution Linked to Cancer

ANAHEIM, California—Bringing 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,” she added.

Dr. Steingraber, of the Women’s 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 local environment.

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 high school.

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 potentiate cancers.

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 the case.

“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 cancer.”

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.

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