Right now I know five people who are undergoing cancer treatment: Two men with prostate cancer, two women with breast cancer, and one man who has now had surgery for a slow growing brain tumor. Perhaps one should expect, when you reach your late fifties, that some of your contemporaries might sicken and die, but somehow this many people in my immediate circle seems too many.
In our house, we shrug and say, "It's the chemicals." That may be too quick an assessment, but it's the one we can't suppress. We know we live, all of us, in a chemical-laden environment, that the paper mills upstream on the Columbia, for example, dump dioxin in the river as a byproduct of the paper-bleaching process.
Dioxin is why Sweden, roughly 15 years ago, went to unbleached paper. The Swedes acted on the precautionary principle: Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing action.
Of course, that's just the opposite of our own society's approach. A substance or activity is deemed harmless until proven guilty. With complex issues like cancer, however, it is difficult to isolate the triggers that lead to disease. Notice that the organizations that ask for your money to "fight cancer" ask for money to find a cure, not the cause. Not every segment of society is satisfied with this approach, however. San Luis Obispo County on the central California coast passed a resolution last year, "Stop Cancer Where it Starts," which makes some key points:
"Detection methods, such as mammography, can only find cancers that already exist, and thus have no impact on the rising numbers of people developing cancer ... Childhood cancer rates increased 20 percent in the 20 years from 1975 to 1995, making cancer the second leading cause of death in children in the United States after accidents ... Invasive breast cancer in women increased 25.3 percent between 1973 and 1996, 70 percent of people with breast cancer have none of the known risk factors, and only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are hereditary ... The incidence of testicular cancer rose 41.5 percent between 1973 and 1996 ... Prostate cancer rates rose 4.4 percent a year between 1973 and 1992 and killed 31,900 US men in the year 2000 alone," and "Pesticide use increased from 153 to 215 million pounds in the period from 1991 to 1998, with particularly steep increased use of pesticides which are carcinogens [126.6 percent increase] and reproductive toxicants [20.4 percent]."
The resolution goes on to state that, "health and environmental policies, as well as industrial and other business practices, should be guided by the precautionary principle ... the proponent of an activity or substance, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof of harmlessness."
The SLO board of supervisors then resolved to "proclaim October 2002 as 'Stop Cancer Where It Starts Month' in order to bring awareness not only of the incidence of and possible cures for cancers, but also of the environmental links to cancer," and to encourage "businesses and agriculture ... to contribute to the health of its workers and all residents by implementing ways to attain the desired level of zero toxic emissions."
Pretty courageous stuff for a county that is mostly rural with an economy dominated by agriculture. Grape vineyards have been coming in wholesale, with their attendant herbicides, pesticides and deer fencing. These are not boutique vineyards lovingly maintained by extended families and wine connoisseurs. These are plantations with absentee owners. None of this is very popular with local folks who have seen acquifers, wild life habitat, oak groves and traditional cattle ranches damaged by expanding vineyards.
You may think the link between agricultural chemicals and the rising cancer rate is spurious, but I'm reminded that recent scientific studies have identified deformed frogs with extra legs or without eyes in Midwestern water bodies. You may have heard that PCBs, another deadly carcinogen, are found in human breast milk. You might have read, also, about salmon that change sex, born male but taking on female sex characteristics, seeming to be capable of procreation, but in fact sterile. All these conditions have been linked to chemicals in our country's waterways.
I note that four out of five of the cancers among my friends involve reproductive organs. I wonder if this is a human variation on changes in the reproductive organs in fish. I also wonder how much courage it took for SLO County to adopt its "Stop Cancer Where It Starts" resolution. Maybe very little. Maybe it wasn't courage, but a community consensus.
Victoria Stoppiello is a free lance writer from Ilwaco where she has deep roots in our area's fishing tradition.