We shouldn’t trade our health for a pay­cheque

Pol­lu­tion plays cru­cial role in sick­ness, Jane McArthur says.

Windsor Star - - OPINION - Jane McArthur is a doc­toral fel­low in so­ci­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Wind­sor whose re­search ex­plores en­vi­ron­men­tal and oc­cu­pa­tional health is­sues.

How did the ex­perts get it so wrong? Turns out, they failed to re­ally look at the ev­i­dence.

A pa­per pub­lished last week in New Solutions Jour­nal helps set things right. By re-weigh­ing the ev­i­dence pre­sented at a work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion hear­ing, Dr. Michael Gil­ber­ston, for­mer fed­eral gov­ern­ment bi­ol­o­gist who stud­ied the health ef­fects of tox­ins, and Dr. Jim Bro­phy, oc­cu­pa­tional health re­searcher and founder of two Oc­cu­pa­tional Health Clin­ics for On­tario Work­ers, point to work­place ex­po­sures as a likely cause for one woman’s breast cancer, in spite of the rul­ing by the ex­perts on the On­tario Work­place Safety and In­sur­ance Ap­peals Tri­bunal. Can the ev­i­dence in the case of one woman at one work­place tell us some­thing about breast cancer that we don’t al­ready know? It can. Her story high­lights some­thing that is of­ten miss­ing when we talk about breast cancer: our en­vi­ron­ment, and the im­por­tant role it is likely play­ing in con­tribut­ing to breast cancer, among many other health con­di­tions.

Es­ti­mates of breast cancer from the known risk fac­tors — such as fam­ily his­tory, age, gen­der, eth­nic­ity and hor­mones — ap­ply to about 30 per cent of cases. The other 70 per cent have re­searchers look­ing to en­vi­ron­ment as the cause. That’s a lot of women, given that in Canada more than 26,000 women are di­ag­nosed with breast cancer each year. Stud­ies of breast cancer tell us that women tend to fo­cus on cures, de­tec­tion and treat­ments. What’s miss­ing from this list is preven­tion — and that means pri­mary preven­tion, not to be con­fused with early de­tec­tion. Re­cent re­ports look­ing at the fu­ture of cancer show ris­ing rates of many can­cers, in­clud­ing breast. Dr. Ted Schet­tler, au­thor of The Ecol­ogy of Breast Cancer, says “breast cancer is not only a dis­ease of ab­nor­mal cells, but also of com­mu­ni­ties we cre­ate and live in.” This means we have the abil­ity to cre­ate con­di­tions for fewer breast can­cers in the fu­ture. But how? We need to make preven­tion at least as much a pri­or­ity — or per­haps more — as early de­tec­tion, bet­ter treat­ments or finding a cure.

We have to take a good look at all sus­pected causes. We need to trust what the sci­ence is al­ready telling us about en­vi­ron­men­tal and work­place ex­po­sures and the causal agents within them. We need more aware­ness and pro­gram­ming with a fo­cus on en­vi­ron­men­tal and work­place causes. And we need to put poli­cies and reg­u­la­tions in place that pre­vent ex­po­sures and the breast can­cers they cause.

The preven­tion con­ver­sa­tion of­ten comes with de­bate about why we have breast cancer at the rates we do. An ag­ing pop­u­la­tion fea­tur­ing mem­bers who make bad lifestyle choices doesn’t ex­plain the in­crease in breast can­cers in more and younger women. It also doesn’t ex­plain why women who mi­grate from coun­tries with lower rates of breast cancer de­velop the same rates within 10 years of liv­ing in a new coun­try. And it doesn’t ex­plain the clus­ters of breast can­cers in lo­ca­tions with high lev­els of pol­lu­tion that are known car­cino­gens.

The case of the woman in the Gil­ber­ston & Bro­phy re­port places us at the Am­bas­sador Bridge, the busiest in­ter­na­tional border cross­ing in North Amer­ica, where 20,000 com­mer­cial trucks and ve­hi­cles cross ev­ery day. The woman’s case is now be­ing linked to this air pol­lu­tion hot spot. Her story, like many of the women who work there, is one of ex­po­sure to car­cino­gens found at other border cross­ings and at sites in­clud­ing many Cana­dian ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments with high lev­els of traf­fic and in­dus­trial pol­lu­tion, and po­ten­tially the Gordie Howe In­ter­na­tional Bridge be­ing built be­tween Wind­sor and Detroit. But her story gives us an enor­mous op­por­tu­nity: to ac­cept that many breast can­cers — like other health problems in­clud­ing other can­cers, car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, fer­til­ity problems, asthma, ad­verse birth out­comes, dis­abil­i­ties, di­a­betes, stroke and more — are linked to the en­vi­ron­ment. It also gives us an op­por­tu­nity to make preven­tion of ill health re­lated to air pol­lu­tion a pri­or­ity. And her story should re­in­force that we shouldn’t have to trade our health for a pay­cheque, or per­mit our com­mu­ni­ties to be used as sci­ence labs.

We have the abil­ity to cre­ate con­di­tions for fewer breast can­cers in the fu­ture.

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