Jennifer Beeman, Director, Breast Cancer Action Quebec

Karel Mayrand, Quebec Director, David Suzuki Foundation

Lise Parent, Professor, Teluq, Vice President of the Réseau des femmes en environnement and Breast Cancer Action Quebec

The debate around Josée Blanchette’s book, Je ne sais pas pondre l’oeuf, mais je sais quand il est pourri, highlights important dogmas and taboos regarding many issues surrounding cancer. This is vital as cancer and its treatment are brutal, but also because two out of five Canadians are expected to be diagnosed with some form of cancer in their lifetime. But there is a fundamental element missing in these discussions which is the role of toxic substances in our environment in the dramatic rise of cancer rates in the second half of the 20th century.

There is now a firm scientific consensus that cancers are multifactorial in origin, meaning a combination of genetic, lifestyle and external environmental exposures interact constantly. Furthermore, the genetic component of cancer genesis is no longer solely a question of certain hereditary gene mutations leading to increased risks for specific cancers. Widely used chemical substances known as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) or hormone disrupters can cause epigenetic changes which interfere with how cells interpret messages from a gene. And certain epigenetic changes can become hereditary. This means that the chemical substances in our environment affect human life and human illness in ways never before imagined.

Toxic substances that don’t kill

The problem with EDCs is that while they lead to many forms of cancer, obesity, developmental problems, male reproductive malformations and more, they don’t actually kill us, or not directly. But they are leading to an epidemic of chronic diseases and, unlike infectious diseases, chronic disease, even something as brutal as multiple cancers, are trivialized and do not create the fear needed to put resources into disease prevention.

In fact, our regulatory system of toxic substances is so lax that we haven’t done something as simple as banning bisphenol A (BPA). BPA, used widely to make plastics rigid and in the lining of tin cans among many other things, leaches into the foods and liquids that the plastic contains. The screening assessment of BPA by Environment Canada states, “Bisphenol A is acutely toxic to aquatic organisms and has been shown to adversely affect growth and development in both aquatic and terrestrial species. There is evidence that low-level exposure to bisphenol A, particularly at sensitive life cycle stages, may lead to permanent alterations in hormonal, developmental or reproductive capacity. »

Decades of research have linked it directly to a host of illnesses, so why isn’t it banned? Well, Environment Canada is still monitoring the case, although it has been banned from plastic baby bottles (but not from the lining of baby formula cans). In the face of consumer pressure to remove BPA from products, industry has developed substitutes, including bisphenol S, which research indicates is actually worse, and thus the cycle continues. And this is just one example among many others.

Canada’s regulatory system requires us to fight a reactive battle to prove a chemical substance is toxic which takes years of harm to humans and the environment to prove. And in the meantime, Canadians may develop very real and devastating diseases and disorders from exposure to these substances.

Our Environment, Our Health

Currently, our approach to prevention consists in making people feel guilty by saying that their lifestyle habits are the key to preventing cancer and other illnesses while we let food, cosmetic, argicultural, chemical and oil companies introduce tons of toxic substances into our environment.  Everyone is exposed to these substances, most often without their knowledge. No one can escape this. And no one can prevent or cure cancer through sheer force of will. Cancer is an industrial illness due in part to these chemical products and the worst of « chemos » is that insidiously inflicted on us every day of our lives. To help everyone facing cancer, we need to stop wearing pink ribbons and start demanding that industries and governments that should protect us be held accountable for the effects of the chemical products that are now part of our daily environment.