A hellish decision for mothers

Breast Cancer

It used to be that the best thing a mother could do for her newly-born infant was to breast feed it, because with its mother’s milk, the infant received a replica of her immune system — the antibodies to protect it from illness and disease.

In addition, her milk would be a source of sialic acid, which is key to brain development. And according to a just-released study by Swedish researchers, she would also deliver powerful anti-cancer proteins. The study says that the proteins  induce defective cells to « commit suicide,’’ preventing a later development of cancer (Experimental Cell Research, Vol. 249, No 2, June 15, 1999, pages 260-268).

Now, however, a mother has to think long and hard about whether she should breast feed her child, because she will also deliver persistent toxins, especially those from the organochlorine family.

These toxins lodge in body fat, and when a woman is breast feeding, the toxins concentrate in her breast tissue, carried there by fat globules that are drawn from all parts of her body to make milk.

Dioxin is one of the most fearsome organochlorines, and breast milk contains ten to one hundred times the amount of dioxin found in dairy products, meat, eggs, and fish. Since humans are at the top of the food chain, eating the fat of other animals, that’s not surprising.

The result is that breast-fed infants can receive what is called a « safe’’ lifetime dose of dioxin within their first six months of breast feeding. At the same time, the mother’s concentration of toxins declines. What’s she’s doing, therefore, is downloading her lifetime accumulation of carcinogenic toxins to her baby.

This poses a hellish choice for mothers. No wonder women are rapidly making the connection between environmental degradation and health. No wonder they are rallying to the precautionary principle, as they did at the Second World Conference on Breast Cancer held throughout this past week in Ottawa.

According to the precautionary principle, if there is a reasonable suspicion that a substance might cause harm, it ought to be proved safe before being released into the environment.

In 1992, Canada agreed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to implement a very modest expression of the precautionary principle, but it has never done so. Instead, products are assumed to be safe unless proved harmful.

Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration said: « In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by states according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.’’

For those who did not attend the conference in Ottawa, a video available from the Women’s Network on Health and the Environment (WNHE) offers a examination of the terrible cost women are paying over our failure to confront the spectre of hormone mimicking compounds such as the organochlorines.

We’ve known for a long time that the more exposure a woman has to estrogen during her lifetime, the greater is the likelihood she will develop breast cancer. Hormone mimickers act like estrogen, and evidence is mounting that they increase the risk of breast cancer.

The video is low key, but one of the most compelling documentaries I’ve seen. Produced two years ago, it’s called Exposure: Environmental Links to Breast Cancer, and is available for $38.07 (including tax and mailing) from WNHE at 517 College St., Suite 233, Toronto M6G-4A2, telephone (416) 928-0880.

Since about 36 million tonnes of chlorine are produced annually, much of it finding its way into products that in their manufacture, use, or disposal can release organochlorine compounds, the commercial consequences of applying the precautionary principle are intimidating to many people.

Nevertheless, our language is full of expressions that extol precaution: « Better safe than sorry.’’ « A stitch in time saves nine.’’ « Look before you leap.’’ « Caution is the soul of valour.’’ We apply this principle in everything else. Isn’t it time to start applying it to the environment?

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