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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

October 15, 1993

Air Date: October 15, 1993


Breast Cancer and Chlorine / Brenda Wilson

Brenda Wilson reports on the movement among cancer researchers toward examining the link between breast cancer and chemicals found in the environment, including the pesticide DDT. The new momentum is due in part to two recent studies which suggested a link to between breast cancer and DDT and PCBs, both of which are chlorinated chemicals. (07:08)

Chlorine's Costs and Controversies / David Baron

David Baron of member station WBUR reports on the growing call for a near-complete ban on the use of chlorinated chemicals. Scientists say that many chlorine compounds are a central cause of environmental pollution in the Great Lakes region and elsewhere, affecting, fish, waterfowl and possibly people. A US-Canada commission which oversees the Lakes has joined the call for a ban. Users and producers of chlorine products argue that reduction of key chemicals is enough and a full scale ban is impossible and economically harmful. (09:33)

Chemical's "Dirty Dozen"

Host Steve Curwood talks to University of Wisconsin Professor Anders Andren about a call for a ban on the use of 11 "persistent toxic substances," including several chlorinated compounds, along with lead and methyl mercury. An advisory committee to the US-Canada International Joint Commission says the chemicals are unsafe in every known concentration. (04:39)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1993 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or retransmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: David Baron, Pye Chamberlayne, George Hardeen, Dawn Makinson, Brenda Wilson
GUESTS: Anders Andren

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Ever since World War Two, thousands of organic chemicals with chlorine have come into the environment. Pesticides and other chlorinated toxics are now major suspects for a variety of ills, from the breast cancer epidemic to learning disabilities. The Great Lakes has become the world's laboratory on chlorinated toxics, and the Joint US-Canadian commission on the Great Lakes now wants a near total ban on chlorine.

DURNIL: If just because of where I live or what I eat, my grandson can't perform in school the way he should, or if immune system was destroyed, or I know his sperm count's not going to be as high as mine, those kinds of things aren't liberal or conservative issues. Those are human health issues.

CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has endorsed a plan to control one of the biggest threats to one of the nation's greatest natural treasures. The site is the Grand Canyon. The threat - too many automobiles. George Hardeen has more.

HARDEEN: From spring to fall, travel along the Grand Canyon's South Rim road slows to a crawl. Parking lots are choked, and it's only getting worse with annual visitation expected to double to 10 million within a decade. Replacing this traffic with light rail or electric buses and restricting private vehicles are some of the alternatives outlined in the Grand Canyon National Park management plan, which is now being drafted. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt says he supports the plan, which would also allow what he called "gateway communities", where tourists could set out on foot, horseback, or mass transit, to visit the canyon. In recent years, park managers have tried to address air pollution and beach erosion along the Colorado River. But the people problem is considered the most charged, difficult, and expensive. For Living on Earth, I'm George Hardeen in Tuba City, Arizona.

NUNLEY: Researchers in New Zealand say ozone levels over the Antarctic are lower than ever. Sensors over the South Pole found less than half the normal amount of ozone this year. The researchers say the findings contradict the theory that last year's record low was a short-term phenomenon, caused by a volcanic eruption. Rather, they say, it confirms a 20-year trend of ever-lower ozone during the Antarctic winter, caused by synthetic chemicals.

Concern about increased solar radiation from thinning ozone in more temperate climes has led many to lather up with sunscreen, even without proof that it helps prevent cancer. Now there may be proof that sunscreen helps prevent at least one mild but widespread form of cancer. An Australian study found that regular use of a broad-spectrum, number 17 lotion may reduce the frequency of precancerous skin growths known as keratoses. Keratoses often lead to a non-fatal type of skin cancer, but can, rarely, turn into fatal melanoma.

A Congressional report says foreign species of plants, animals and insects are causing enormous damage in the United States. From Washington, Pye Chamberlayne reports.

CHAMBERLAYNE: The study, by the Office of Technology Assessment, says it could cost a hundred billion dollars to correct the damage from these foreign species. The most expensive would be the gypsy moth. It was introduced in Massachusetts about a hundred years ago by a scientist who said it might provide an American silk industry. It has instead decimated forests from Maine to Georgia. Other expensive pests include kudzu vine that has smothered power poles and farmland in the South, zebra mussels that clog water supply pipes in the Midwest, fire ants, Mediterranean fruit flies, and cotton boll weevils. The study noted that boll weevil infestations in Texas alone cost 40 million dollars a year. For Living on Earth, I'm Pye Chamberlayne in Washington.

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth.

New York's highest court has ruled that fears of cancer may entitle some neighbors of new electric power lines to monetary damages. The court said plaintiffs may be entitled to compensation if they can prove that their property was devalued by public concern over electromagnetic radiation from the power lines. The court said establishing the "reasonableness" of the fear wasn't necessary. The New York Power Authority, which lost the suit, says it accepts the decision because financial harm from such fear is difficult to prove.

A plan to begin the cleanup of one of the world's most polluted rivers has led a top Argentine environmental official to resign in protest. From Buenos Aires, Dawn Makinson reports.

MAKINSON: To Argentines, the Rio Tuelo is a constant reminder of years of environmental neglect. Its water is heavily contaminated with industrial waste well-settled into the river's soft bed. Hope for environmentalists here came a few months ago when President Carlos Mennen called for a cleanup of the Rio Tuelo within one thousand days. But now the cleanup is becoming as controversial as the river. Argentina's most powerful civil servant in the Environment Department recently resigned because he says a German study says the current plan to dredge the Rio Tuelo would do little more than stir up toxins settled in the river's bed. His resignation leaves the safety of the cleanup in doubt and has raised fears of health problems for millions of residents along the river bank. For Living on Earth, I'm Dawn Makinson in Buenos Aires.

NUNLEY: The land of the car is now home to the most expensive monument to car culture ever constructed. The new high tech "Century Freeway" in Los Angeles cost $127 million dollars per mile. One interchange alone is seven stories high and covers 100 acres. The project displaced more than 25 thousand people and nearly half of its budget went into relocating residents and financing other social programs in neighboring communities. The expense is one reason the "Century" may be one of the nation's last new urban freeways.

That's this week's environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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Breast Cancer and Chlorine

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

Probably few of us have been untouched by what has become an epidemic of breast cancer in the US. Malignant breast tumors strike one in every nine American women. Many are cured, but many are not, making breast cancer one of the leading causes of death. Part of what makes the disease so scary is the mystery surrounding its cause, and that its rate has risen steadily in recent years. Despite advances in detection and treatment, there has yet to be a scientific consensus on what causes the majority of breast cancer cases. There are some statistical links to early puberty, late child bearing, certain genes, and high alcohol and fat consumption. But these and other known risk factors account for only about 30 percent of U-S breast cancers cases. What causes the rest of these tumors? Some are pointing the finger at a group of toxic organic chemicals that contain chlorine. Originally developed in part as nerve gases, these compounds are found in many pesticides, such as DDT. They tend to concentrate in fat and fatty tissue. Researchers have been slow to explore the pesticide link to breast cancer. But as Brenda Wilson reports from Washington, that's beginning to change.

(Sound of party in progress)

WILSON: As Washington soirees go, this one is on the low-key and highly purposeful side. Evening wear festooned in pink ribbons and the presence of media stars offer indisputable evidence that breast cancer as a cause has arrived. This dinner, honoring First Lady Hillary Clinton, kicks off National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
The dinner's sponsor, the pharmaceutical company Zeneca, is here to promote early screening, and the use of anti-cancer drugs and the mammography units that it manufactures. But detection is cold comfort for women who contend these cancers could have been prevented if women had not all too often been overlooked by the scientific community. Nancy Brinker is the founder of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

BRINKER: We are going to have to rededicate some of our research priorities to prevention. There have to be substances in our environment. It is so clear that some of these substances must be causing fatal and chronic diseases.

WILSON: Funding for breast cancer research has jumped from 43 to 300 million dollars since lobbying efforts began two years ago. Inquiries to the National Cancer Institute regarding the agency's research focus were directed to Dr. Aaron Blair, the chief of the Occupational Studies section, which investigates groups that may have been exposed to workplace or environmental carcinogens. Dr. Blair says political pressure is only one reason the Institute has begun to focus on the environment.

BLAIR: Two papers that came out last year, I think, would have launched some investigatory effort relating to environmental chemicals just by themselves, but because there are some groups that felt this was a good avenue to pursue, that had some impact on the way the government operates.

WILSON: The two papers were among the first to look at the possible link between pesticides and breast cancer. Specifically, scientists in separate studies at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and the University of Michigan found significantly higher levels of DDT in the blood samples and fatty tissues of women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer than in women who were cancer free. There was also a weak link with PCBs. The New York study was careful to control for such risk factors as age, menopausal status, and socio-economics. The higher the levels of DDT, the greater the likelihood of breast cancer.

DDTs and PCBs are members of a huge class of chemicals known as organochlorines. They have been restricted in the US since 1972, but many others are still used in everything from pesticides and plastics to pharmaceuticals. Some have been known to cause cancer in animals, and they seem to have one important characteristic in common with the things that are known to cause breast cancer:

DAVIS: They all are related to the total amount of estrogen a woman is exposed to in her lifetime.

WILSON: Dr. Deborah Lee Davis is a senior policy on breast cancer at the Health and Human Services Department. Estrogens are hormones that are naturally found in the body and the environment that promote cell growth. But too much of them can lead to cancer-like cell growth. Davis and five other researchers in a recently issued paper argued that there are many compounds, not just organochlorines, found in the environment of industrial countries that mimic natural estrogens.

DAVIS: There are certain plasticizer compounds that are estrogenic, and they have been identified in both of these types of studies. There are also some volatile compounds such as the things you find out of automobile exhaust that have been found to be estrogenic.

WILSON: There are thousands of these chemicals. Most have never been tested to see if they mimic estrogen. Dr. Stephen Safe, a toxicologist at Texas A&M University, has no quarrel with what the Michigan and New York studies found, but he wonders about what they didn't find.

SAFE: Although it's true that there are lots of estrogens in the environment, in addition, there are a large number of anti-estrogens - compounds that, in theory, would protect against breast cancer. For example, in terms of organochlorine compounds, research in several labs, including my own, has shown that dioxin and related chemicals, including a number of PCBs are highly anti-estrogenic, and they would in fact counteract the activities of estrogens in the environment. Now what the balance is, I don't know. This is fact may help the situation in that at least some grant money's already been available for the studies and hopefully something good'll come of it.

WILSON: It seems that way, despite criticisms about the limitations of the two studies - their smallness, and lack of controls for all known risk factors. NCI's Dr. Aaron Blair cautions that they offer no proof of a connections between pesticides and breast cancer, but they provide promising leads.

BLAIR: So what we need is bigger studies that control better for all the other possible risk factors for breast cancer, so we can be pretty sure that if we see an association with, say, DDT and PCB, that it's not because these women consumed more alcohol or had a higher fat content in their diet. We have to make sure that it isn't due to things we already know that cause breast cancer.

WILSON: As a follow-up, Dr. Blair says NCI plans to investigate communities here and abroad where women are known to have worked with DDT or eaten foods contaminated by the pesticide, and it will survey communities to determine what risk factors may be contributing to clusters of high breast cancer rates.

Many women's groups and environmentalists don't want to wait for the final judgment. They want to see such pesticides banned altogether. Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency does not routinely screen pesticides to see if they are estrogenic, but the administration says that in a departure from previous administrations, it is already moving to reduce the use of these pesticides. Maybe, but for many women, the pace is not nearly fast enough. In Washington, for Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Wilson.

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Chlorine's Costs and Controversies

CURWOOD: Breast cancer isn't the only health problem linked to chlorinated chemicals, and pesticides aren't the only chlorinated chemicals linked to health problems. Dioxin, PCBs, and other organochlorines have been tied to cancer, hormone disturbances, birth defects and nervous system disorders. In fact many researchers now say there are no safe levels of these compounds in the environment, and they that should be banned from industry. Among those supporting a ban is the International Joint Commission, the official US-Canada agency which oversees the Great Lakes. The IJC will be meeting later this month to consider ways to implement a chlorine ban. We sent reporter David Baron to the Great Lakes region to examine the chlorine debate.

(Sound of eagles screeching)

BARON: Researcher Bob Crawford has come to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at Michigan State University in East Lansing. As he's done every Monday for the past few weeks, he dons heavy gloves and dives head-first into a large cage.

Crawford emerges with bird droppings on his clothes and a bald eagle in his hands. This bird hatched five months ago in a nest in northern Michigan. Since then it's grown as big and strong as an adult bald eagle. But it probably would never have lived to be an adult had it been left in the wild. Veterinarian Jim Sikarskie holds up the bird's face. It looks bizarre - the eagle's upper bill curves to the right, the lower bill curves left.

SIKARSKIE: See, its mouth doesn't close all the way. See the air space in here. And in the winter, when this bird is flying, the tongue would freeze. And if the tongue freezes, there's no way it can swallow, even if it could catch mouth-sized fish.

BARON: The researchers are trying to determine what caused this young eagle - and three others in their care - to be born deformed. The abnormalities could be natural, genetic defects, but the scientists believe the deformities were probably caused by pollution in the food eaten by the eagles' parents - food that includes fish from the Great Lakes.

GILBERTSON: We're here standing on the Detroit River. There's Lake St. Clair upstream, beyond that there's Lake Huron.

BARON: Mike Gilbertson knows the waters of the Great Lakes region and what's in them better than just about anyone. He's Secretary of the Great Lakes Water Quality Board - a US-Canadian environmental advisory body.

BARON: If we were to dig down into the sediments, in the bottom of the river, what would we find?
GILBERTSON: Oh, DDT, PCBs, dieldren, dioxins, dibenzofurans.

BARON: Organochlorines such as these can persist for decades without breaking down. Even when the chemicals are found in the environment at low levels, they can become highly concentrated as they move up the food chain from plankton to fish to fish-eating predators.

Biologists in the Great Lakes region blame organochlorines for birth defects - and in some case, immune system, neurological, and sexual development abnormalities - in many species that eat fish...not only eagles, but also terns, gulls, cormorants, herons, osprey, turtles, mink...and - possibly - people.

Psychologist Joseph Jacobson of Wayne State University in Detroit studied more than 200 children born to mothers who regularly ate fish from Lake Michigan. He found that those children exposed prenatally to the highest levels of PCBs - which he presumed came from contaminated fish - tended to be small at birth and remained small through at least age four.

JACOBSON: We found also a series of deficits in short-term memory or attention. None of these children seemed to be mentally retarded or severely disabled in any way. We characterize it as diminished potential.

BARON: Environmentalists and biologists have long argued that particular organochlorines are dangerous, but a growing number of people now believe the entire class of compounds - which includes more than 10,000 chemicals in current use - should be banned. Lisa Finaldi heads the International Chlorine-Free Campaign for Greenpeace.

FINALDI: We've already seen how many of these products have caused serious problems. And we have to start looking at these chemicals as a group. It is almost impossible to look at them on a substance-by-substance approach.

BARON: The call to ban chlorine has gained the support of some influential governmental advisory bodies, including the Paris Commission, an international organization that oversees environmental issues in the North Sea, and the International Joint Commission, which oversees environmental issues along the US-Canadian border. Last year the IJC called for a near-total chlorine ban, making exceptions for chlorination of drinking water and chlorine-based pharmaceuticals.

US chairman of the IJC, Gordon Durnil, points out he's no knee-jerk environmentalist - Durnil is former head of the Republican Party in Indiana.

DURNIL: If just because of where I live or what I eat, my grandson can't perform in school the way he should, or if the immune system was destroyed, or I know that his sperm count's not going to be as high as mine, those kinds of things aren't liberal or conservative issues. Those are human health issues.

BARON: But phasing out chlorine use would not be simple or cheap. Brad Lienhart, a spokesman for the Chemical Manufacturers Association, says chlorine's uses permeate modern society, and he adds one industry-sponsored study found banning it would cost almost 100 billion dollars annually.

LIENHART: We do provide safe water to most of the homes in North America by chlorination. 85% of the pharmaceuticals in the world are manufactured from chlorine chemistry. 95% of the crop protection chemicals are made from chlorine chemistry, about half of the plastics are made from chlorine chemistry. All of the computer chips are made from chlorine chemistry. Toothpaste has chlorine chemistry in it. The list goes on and on.

BARON: Lienhart acknowledges some chlorine compounds may be harmful, but he says they're already being phased out. For instance, the pesticides DDT and dieldren were banned in the US in the 1970s. PCBs are still used in electrical equipment, but the chemicals can no longer be manufactured or imported.

One of the largest users of chlorine is the paper industry. Jo Cooper, vice president of the American Forest and Paper Association, acknowledges that chlorine bleaching can create unwanted dioxin, but she says in the past five years the industry has cut dioxin emissions dramatically.

COOPER: At this point in time, it's four ounces industry-wide on an annual basis, and that four ounces in from 105 mills in this country.

BARON: Cooper says a complete chlorine ban in her industry isn't feasible given current technology.

But Greenpeace officials argue any emission of dioxin is unsafe, and they say a chlorine ban can be accomplished more easily than the paper and chemical industries admit. Many paper mills in Europe have switched to chlorine-free bleaching. A few dry cleaners have moved away from chlorinated solvents. And the auto industry is voluntarily reducing its use of chlorine compounds.

(Sound of assembly line)

BARON: At a Chrysler Corporation assembly plant in Detroit, more than six and a half miles of conveyor belt snake along the floor and overhead. The greases that lubricate these conveyor belts used to contain chlorinated compounds. Chrysler spokesman Mark Bindbeutel says when the company decided to replace the old greases recently, it discovered a more effective substitute.

BINDBEUTEL: We have come up with a new conveyor lubricant that sprays on, is nonchlorinated, and actually behaves better. It's lasting weeks as opposed to days.

BARON: The company is also phasing out its use of chlorinated solvents for cleaning engine parts. Bindbeutel says the alternative - soap and water - is less effective, but that's not necessarily bad.

BINDBEUTEL: What that forces you to do is go upstream and find out how did the part get dirty you're trying to clean, does it really have to be this clean. You start asking yourself a lot of basic questions that are good for business.

BARON: But even Chrysler has no plans to eliminate all chlorine compounds from its plants. For instance, the company will continue using chlorine-based plastics.

MIT policy analyst John Ehrenfeld who examined the chlorine controversy for Norwegian government and industry says before an across-the-board phaseout is imposed, the risks and benefits of each use of chlorine should be evaluated separately.

EHRENFELD: There's no argument that there are substitutes in lots of areas, but I can't tell you that there aren't critical uses of chlorine that would get thrown away with the bathwater if we make this monolithic move.

BARON: Supporters of a ban - including Boston University public health professor Lew Pepper - say exceptions could be made, at least temporarily, while substitutes for critical uses are found. But Pepper says the burden of proof should be on industry to show that a particular use of chlorine is necessary and safe.

PEPPER: Chemicals are not innocent until proven guilty, we think that they need to be proven innocent and the evidence to date suggests that they are not innocent at all.

BARON: Those on both sides of the chlorine issue will be watching closely as events continue to unfold this month. The American Public Health Association will be voting on whether to lend its support to calls for a chlorine phaseout. And the International Joint Commission will hold its biennial meeting. Supporters of a ban hope the Commission will move beyond its recommendation of last year to phase out chlorine, and begin figuring out how to do.

For Living on Earth, I'm David Baron.

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Chemical's "Dirty Dozen"

CURWOOD: Some chlorinated compounds are among what the International Joint Commission calls the "dirty dozen" of "persistent toxic chemicals" that linger in the environment. The IJC has called for the "virtual elimination" of these chemicals from the Great Lakes basin. Dr. Anders Andren is a water chemist at the University of Wisconsin and the co-chair of the IJC's virtual elimination task force. He's with us now on the line from Madison, Wisconsin. Hello, Dr. Andren.

ANDREN: Hello there.

CURWOOD: I'd like to ask you, first of all, what is a "persistent toxin" and how is this different from your garden variety toxic?

ANDREN: Well, we recognize that there are 60,000 to 70,000 commercial chemicals in use right now. Some of them are toxic, and again another fraction of them are persistent. And so we define persistence as a substance that has a half-life in water, air, sediment, soil, or [?] of greater than eight weeks and a substance that bioaccumulates in tissue of living organisms.

CURWOOD: What are some of the ones that you're most concerned about?

ANDREN: Those substances of particular concern right now are those substances like PCBs, polychlorinated dibenzodioxins, furans, toxifene, lead, mercury, especially the methyl-mercury form in some of the pesticides.

CURWOOD: How does chlorine fit into this group of chemicals?

ANDREN: There are approximately 15-20,000 chlorinated organic compounds, many of which have been shown in the laboratory to be quite toxic and to bioaccumulate. Because they comprise such a large fraction of toxic substances, they have received particular attention.

CURWOOD: Why virtual elimination? Is it your view that there is no safe level of these substances in the environment?

ANDREN: The view of the task force is that there might be for some of them, but we do not have the capability at this time to know where the safe level is. Secondly, in the past we used death as an endpoint. We find that's not the way to do it now. We are using neurotoxicological symptoms, we used immune deficiency type of defects, and more and more of these have been unravelled every day. We will not know for a long time what the safe level is; therefore, we prescribe a cautionary principle for those substances that in the laboratory have been shown to be exceedingly toxic.

CURWOOD: In sum and in brief - the twelve compounds that you've named here - basically what is their threat to us and the environment?

ANDREN: It is very clear to most people that the wildlife in the Great Lakes basin have been harmed by these substances. We see immune deficiency problems, we see crossed bills, we see poor hatching success, and so forth, and I think the weight of evidence clearly indicates that it's a combination of these substances that cause these problems.

CURWOOD: And the threat to us as humans?

ANDREN: That is much more controversial and there are studies right now underway. In particular, there is a fairly energetic research program underway to see how these substances attack the human immuno-deficiency systems.

CURWOOD: What implications beyond the Great Lakes do you think your work has?

ANDREN: We believe that these principles will be adopted not only nationally by the US and Canada, but globally. We believe that we are now recognizing, as our DDT example tells us, that setting standards and limits in just one country is not enough. There is a very often-quoted sentence that says something to the effect that air pollution observes no national boundaries. We are, in our report, also saying that you have to look at this in a global sense.

CURWOOD: Thank you. Dr. Anders Andren is the co-chair of the virtual elimination task force of the U-S-Canada International Joint Commission.

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