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Chemicals and Cancer

why won’t the government pay attention to problem substances?

Veronica Villafañe

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When it comes to the battle against cancer, many organizations have been effective in building awareness about the illness. But tackling cancer issues within the Latino community hasn’t been so easy…and getting researchers and policy makers to pay attention to their needs has been a battle in itself. The newest challenge is making people aware we’re exposed to environmental contaminants that can increase our chances of getting cancer.

For the past 13 years, Ysabel Duron, a San Francisco TV anchor, has battled cancer—first as a patient and then, as an advocate. She founded Latinas Contra Cancer in 2003 to raise awareness about cancer in the Latino community, increase access to quality care and improve the health care experience by offering support services and resources to patients and their families. Realizing that wasn’t enough, she spoke on the issue before Congress and numerous government organizations. In 2008, she took her fight even further by creating the first ever National Latino Cancer Summit. Hundreds of experts converged in San Francisco to discuss prevention and access to treatment. Two years later, the summit’s focus was health disparities, the lack of research on Latinos and cancer, the miniscule participation of Latinos in National Cancer Institute clinical trials (only 2 percent), and the lack of Latino representation in the highest spheres of policy making and government health funding agencies. Unfortunately, since 2010, little has changed.

“A lot more has to be done in the Latino community. Even researchers say these populations have been under-researched,” says Duron. “We need to make sure that we have more Latino researchers. We have to feed and fund the pipeline of students going into the medical research field to make a difference and have our voices heard.”

The 2012 biannual summit addresses the impact of the environment on cancer and Latinos. Yes. The environment. Besides the obvious culprits—pollution and toxic chemicals released by manufacturing plants—people are exposed to other cancer-causing chemicals on a daily basis without even realizing it. Duron felt it was important to ring alarm bells within the Latino community, as a growing body of research shows environmental factors increase cancer incidence. While cancer doesn’t discriminate, Latinos are among those at highest risk.

In 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel report stressed that the burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated and urged government action to reduce exposure to known carcinogens by removing them “and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs.” Yet the FDA has not banned substances such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates that scientists insist should be taken off the market. BPA and phthalates are endocrine disruptors; chemicals that interfere with the hormone system and have been linked to cancer, developmental problems in babies, obesity and infertility.

Both chemicals are used in plastics and plastic linings. They’re everywhere—in water bottles, baby bottles, food and soda cans. They can leach into the food and drink we consume, contaminating our bodies.  In a 2007 study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detected BPA in almost 93 percent of  those tested. Many had levels above the EPA’s current safety threshold. They also found people with the least income had more BPA in their systems. Scientist and biology professor Frederick vom Saal, an expert on the dangers of this toxin, has been one of the strongest advocates for banning BPA. His work convinced 11 states (including California), Canada and some European countries, to ban it. Yet in March the FDA rejected a petition by the Natural Resources Defense Council to ban BPA in food packaging.

Toxic chemicals are also present in personal care products, like shampoos, moisturizers, lotions, toothpaste, and some cosmetics. Yet many of these chemicals are not listed in the ingredients and the FDA doesn’t regulate personal care products. “There are 80,000 chemicals in use in this country and only 2-to-3 percent have actually been researched….We really don’t have a clue how many of these toxic chemicals have put us at risk,” explains Duron. “We’re only on the cusp in terms of environmental exposures in beginning to understand how impactful they are on any group of people in the whole country and in this particular instance, on Latinos. Why are Latinas getting breast cancer younger and their tumors getting bigger? Is there a difference between exposure to Cuban, Puerto Rican or Mexican sub-populations?”

She says more research is needed. “Environment is that in which we live and those things that affect us. We’re talking about race, place, poverty—those are all environmental factors and we want to begin to turn the spotlight in our community. We need answers to all of these questions.”

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