A Reaction to Terrifying Women for Profits and Politics

January 01, 1999  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Cancer

Your article from the American Outlook (Terrifying Women for Profits and Politics), Fall issue contains a number of misstatements.

I agree that American women are being subjected to propaganda regarding breast cancer, with regard to the ability of mammography screening of women prior to menopause to save lives, as well as whether such screening saves lives in women over age 69...See recent Karlikowski paper in JAMA, 1999, earlier papers by the same author, and an editorial by Love and Davis, 1994 all in JAMA.

Devra Lee Davis

With respect to the evidence on environmental exposures and breast cancer, if you are interested in learning more about the basic science relevant to breast cancer and environmental exposures, please look at www.wri.org for a slideshow that includes some detailed information from peer reviewed studies indicating that 50 different compounds produce mammary tumors in experimental animals, accelerate the growth of human breast cancer cells, and alter hormonal and genetic functioning under a variety of controlled conditions.

While the evidence on hazards of breast cancer in humans from enviromental exposures remains inconsistent, it is not accurate to state that "DDT, dioxin, and PCBs..repeatedly get clean bills of health in huge epidemiological studies."

See my recent publications on this subject, one of which is posted on our web site and was written with clinicians Drs. Deborah Axelrod and Mitchell Gaynor — both of whom are listed as among the top doctors in Manhattan; also, Env. Health Perspectives, supplement 3, April, 1997, vol. 105, a journal of the NIH, NIEHS.

As to cancer patterns in the U.S., see Dinse et al., Annual Reviews in Public Health, 1999, which uses Poisson modelling of age and birth cohorts and shows the young men of generation X have from 3 to 4 times more cancer cases not tied to cigarette smoking, than did their grandfathers.

Researchers seeking clues about the high rate of breast cancer among wealthy women have found potential environmental factors, including professional lawn care services and dry cleaning. Focusing on the Boston suburb of Newton, the researchers found women in areas hit hardest by the disease used such services more often than those in less-affected neighborhoods.

"Obviously, neither money nor schooling cause breast cancer," said Dr. Nancy Maxwell, the lead researcher. "With the Newton study we tried to see if there might be environmental factors." Maxwell cautioned there is no definitive evidence that chemicals or pesticides cause cancer. But she said the research points to the need for further investigation of possible connections.

The rate of breast cancer in Newton was 13 percent higher than the statewide rate between 1982 and 1992, state health officials said. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health department funded the study. The researchers from Silent Spring Institute, a nonprofit research organization, randomly questioned 1,350 women — not necessarily cancer patients — ages 35 to 75. The study showed that women in neighborhoods with higher rates of breast cancer typically had higher incomes and education levels than women in areas with lower breast cancer rates.

Known risk factors for breast cancer, such as delayed childbearing and family history of the disease, accounted for only a small part of the difference between areas with high and low rates of breast cancer. But the survey did suggest possible environmental factors. For example, 65 percent of the women in the area with higher breast-cancer rates had used a professional lawn service, compared with 36 percent of the women in the low-incidence neighborhood. In addition, 30 percent of those in the high-incidence area reported routine use of pesticides, compared with 23 percent in the low-incidence sector. And 45 percent of those in the high-incidence area used dry cleaning at least once a month, compared with 32 percent in the less-affected neighborhood.

Devra Lee Davis
World Resources Institute

Michael Fumento responds:

Michael Fumento

It’s interesting that to counter my assertions about breast cancer and the three chemicals the environmentalists most love to hate, Davis finds herself resorting to her own data.  By carefully choosing the words "repeatedly get" instead of "always get" I allowed for exceptions provided by such advocacy epidemiology.  Her oblique reference to an entire issue of a medical journal, _Environmental Health Perspectives_, makes it appear as if it supports her position.  In fact, it’s a collection of 22 different papers with a variety of perspectives on a variety of topics.  Notably, one states, "occupational exposure to relatively high levels of PCBs and DDT/DDE [DDE is what DDT becomes in the body] are not associated with an increased incidence of breast cancer."  

I proffer data from the National Cancer Institute, also used by the American Cancer Society, to show cancer rates aren’t going up but have actually been in decline of late. Davis claims she has better information, humbly refraining from informing us she co-authored the paper in question. In any event, she’s abusing her own study by engaging in what’s called data-slicing. It means ignoring the data as a whole, while just slicing off a piece to make your point. Specifically, she ignores all the female data and the cases outside of an arbitrary class called "Generation X". Even this Davis co-authored study found only an 0.1 percent annual increase in white female cancers from 1975-1994. That hardly contradicts the NCI data I presented which goes all the way up to 1996 and shows steady overall cancer increases through 1992 with a steady decline since then.

That Nancy Maxwell works for something called the "Silent Spring Institute," named after the mother of all environmentalist books, is indicative of a study with an agenda. Sure enough, the Institute claims it found what just what environmentalists would expect. But it didn’t. Maxwell states, "Obviously, neither money nor schooling cause breast cancer," but that obscures the fact that both are associated with breast cancer, just as obviously being born with the last name of Polaski doesn’t cause you to be of Polish descent but it’s indicative that you are.

Women with more money and education tend to have fewer children and children later in life, both of which are strongly believed to be causative factors in contracting breast cancer as I stated in my article. As for Newton’s disproportionately high rate of cancer, Davis fails to point out that it has an exceptionally large Jewish population. Given the known genetic risk of breast cancer associated with Ashkenazi Jewish women, Occam’s razor would dictate that in lieu of evidence to the contrary we should assume that it is this, and not their use of dry cleaners or lawn chemicals, that is responsible for that high rate.

Michael Fumento Hudson Institute