In “Silent Spring,” her 1962 book that started the environmental movement, Rachel Carson presented the revolutionary idea that tiny levels of common household chemicals could cause disease. More than a half-century later, and long after Carson died of breast cancer, the idea has more scientific traction than ever.
The Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition (MBCC) and its research partner, the Newton-based Silent Spring Institute, has created an educational program entitled “Let's Talk Prevention: Reducing Toxic Exposures.” The display will be at the Dennis Public Library, 5 Hall St., Dennisport, during the month of October.
MBCC Executive Director Cheryl Osimo said it's must-have information for people on Cape Cod, where rates of certain types of cancer are still significantly above state averages.
“It's an educational program designed to increase discussions about environmental exposures and chemicals of concern,” she said. It includes documents geared for health care providers and pamphlets aimed at regular citizens, and the goal is to get people talking with their doctors about environmental contaminants. Those chemicals include BPA, found in food containers and plastic products; flame retardants; parabens and phthalates found in soft plastics and cosmetics; pesticides, certain antibacterial soaps; and chemicals in stain-resistant clothes and nonstick cookware.
Some of the chemicals are carcinogens, and others are endocrine disruptors, which interfere with the body's hormones. Chemicals that mimic estrogen are believed to increase the risk of breast cancer. While there's no smoking gun when it comes to environmental causes of cancer, researchers know that, of all people diagnosed with breast cancer, only 20 to 30 percent have genetic and lifestyle risk factors. The assumption is that environmental factors are contributing to the remaining 70 or 80 percent of cases.
Those common chemicals are not only present in our homes and in the food we consume, but also in the water we drink. One of the Silent Spring Institute's focuses is identifying estrogens and other pollutants in Cape Cod groundwater; an ongoing study is tracking the passage of those water-borne chemicals back to their sources, commonly residential septic systems. Some pharmaceuticals not absorbed by a person's body are passed through their waste to the groundwater where they are present in very tiny amounts.
The Silent Spring Institute's key work was its Cape Cod Breast Cancer and Environment Study, which examines an area of elevated breast cancer incidence and investigates the links between increased breast cancer risk and environmental exposures. Among other findings, the study concluded that women who have lived longer on Cape Cod are at higher risk for the disease than new arrivals.
Osimo said there's no single approach to reducing long-term environmental exposures, but there are some basic steps that help. Frequent hand-washing not only helps prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses, but can remove chemical residues. Because pesticides and chemicals can be tracked in from the outside, it's best to take off one's shoes at the door at home. Taking shorter showers not only saves energy, but limits exposure to airborne and water-borne chemicals, and avoiding the use of plastic food storage containers can limit the ingestion of other chemicals. Occasionally opening windows and regularly vacuuming can reduce accumulations of chemicals in the air and in dust, and buying fresh, organic produce limits exposure to pesticides.
The compounds in question are believed to be harmful over the course of many years. Osimo said it's important not to become overwhelmed or frightened about exposure, but to make smart decisions over the course of a lifetime.
“Clean air, clean water, clean food. It's just the basics,” she said.
Much more research is needed to show links between environmental chemicals and diseases, and MBCC raises funds to support that research. Osimo said the coalition has not recently had success in obtaining state funds for Silent Spring Institute research projects; she urged interested citizens to talk to their lawmakers to support the funding.