Cancer conference looks at environmental factors

Bei Hu

Three of Leanne Sorteberg’s six children had either birth defects or childhood cancer because of the long-term side-effects of an anti-acne medication she had taken.
One of her children, an 8-year-old boy named Andrew, had terminal cancer and was expected to live only six months. But, the Burnsville mother said, he no longer has cancer and will live longer than expected because of an organic diet and a healthier environment.
“You have choices that you can make,” she said. “If we build our immune system through natural sources, and eliminate the toxins in our environment, we have the ability to heal ourselves.”
A two-day conference titled “Turning the Tides — Creating a Cancer-free Environment Now” began Friday in the St. Paul State Office Building. The focus of the conference is the link between exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation in the environment and increasing occurrences of cancer.
The Twin Cities-based Women’s Cancer Resource Center sponsored the conference, along with about 30 organizations from the Mid-west and East Coast. More than 100 legislators, public officials, scholars, business representatives and citizens attended the public hearing.
University lab medicine and pathology professor Vincent Garry presented his study of pesticide use, which suggests that pesticides might increase the rates of cancer among Minnesotan farm families.
Speakers at the public hearing cited statistics stating that one in two men and one in three women in the United States get cancer in the during the course of their lives. They also said there has been an 18 percent increase in all cancer incidences and a 6 percent increase in cancer mortality rates over the past 25 years.
Cancer, once considered a threat only to the elderly population, is now attacking people in their 20s and 30s, speakers said. Cancer incidences among children have almost tripled in the last four decades.
Many speakers predicted that cancer, now the second leading cause of death in the United States, will soon surpass heart disease as the number one killer disease in the country.
Scientists have long tried to establish the connection between cancer and genetic and lifestyle factors. The World Health Organization identified as early as 1964 that 80 percent of cancer incidences involve environmental factors. The American Cancer Society’s studies also show that heredity accounts for only five to 10 percent of breast cancer incidences.
With emotional and sometimes tearful testimonies, speakers at the public hearing attributed the rising rates of cancer and birth defects to environmental pollution, primarily resulting from corporate activities.
“We are talking about corporate rights to poison people,” said Lois Gibbs, founder of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste in New York. Gibbs began campaigning against industrial pollution in 1978 when she learned the elementary school her children were attending sat on top of a chemical waste dump.
She said many corporations make products and burn wastes that give off high levels of dioxin, a chemical believed to cause cancer.
Gibbs said the government and citizens need to take away the rights of “American and foreign corporations operating in this country for profit at the expense of men, women and children.”
More than a dozen other speakers, many of whom are cancer survivors, testified at the public hearing. They said harmful chemicals can come in a number of forms, including pesticides, food additives, cosmetics and drugs. The economically disadvantaged (migrant workers, for example) are usually among the first to fall victim to pollution, speakers said.
Speakers also challenged the government’s current health policies. Since the Nixon Administration declared war on cancer in 1971, Congress has channelled $25 billion into researching early detection and treatment of the disease. Many speakers urged the government to devote more resources to cancer prevention and environmental protection.
“The issue is that the substantial (environmental) impact on the quality of life and reproductivity of our citizens can no longer be ignored,” said Bella Abzug, a former U.S. Congresswoman who acted as moderator during the public hearing. She is also president and co-founder of Women’s Environment and Development Organization.
Abzug said more people need to urge the government to change current policies regarding cancer prevention.
“Whether you are one-breasted, two-breasted or no-breasted, this is a two-fisted fight,” she said.