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Putting the Breast Cancer/Chlorine Connection on Paper
A Few Thoughts from Jeffrey Hollender, President of Seventh Generation

In the 1980’s PBS television show Connections, scientist James Burke described how seemingly disparate events were not only related, but were also dependent on one another. He might show viewers, for example, how a minor medieval battle was ultimately responsible for the invention of super glue. Such strange relationships exist everywhere, especially in the area of human health and the environment, where things that appear unrelated quite often are anything but. Take the issue of breast cancer. Would you believe it’s connected to the kind of paper you use?

It starts with a simple fact: The incidence of breast cancer has reached epidemic proportions. According to the Breast Cancer Fund, it’s become the number one cancer among women around the world. Over the course of the last half century, the lifetime risk in the United States of contracting this disease has increased almost three-fold, from 1 in 22 in the 1940’s to 1 in 7 in the year 2003. That’s one out of every seven women! As you read these words, an estimated three million women in the United States are living with this difficult disease. In the last 20 years alone, female breast cancer rates have risen about 0.6% per year. I say female because men aren’t immune either. In the last quarter century, male breast cancer rates, while still a fraction of female rates, have increased 25%.

All of this alarming data begs a very serious question: Why is all this cancer happening? What’s going on today that’s different from what went on in the past? What’s changed to make us sicker?

The answer for increasing numbers of health and cancer experts is, simply put, synthetic chemicals and more of them. In our air, in our water, in our soil, in our food, and in our bodies. Though definitive correlating evidence can be hard to come by, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that cancer rates in general and breast cancer rates, more specifically, have risen steadily and concurrently with the rise in the numbers and quantities of synthetic chemicals being manufactured and used by the modern world.

In fact (and I’ve pointed this out in this space before), if you put a graph displaying rising cancer incidences from 1940 through today on top of a graph illustrating our increasing use of chemicals over the same time period, you’ll see a startling parallel. You’ll see cancer, once a relative rarity, fast becoming the industrialized world’s number one cause of death. At the same time, you’ll find some 70,000+ synthetic chemicals, none of which existed at the turn of the century, coming into production and experiencing a 30-fold increase in use. The trend lines of both are so remarkably similar, the graphs so interchangeable, that one cannot but conclude that there must be some connection.

Of particular concern is a class of chemicals called organochlorines, which are created when chlorine is combined with carbon-based substances like the hydrocarbons in petroleum. Organochlorines are classified as persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. POPs, like organochlorines, share a number of common traits. They persist in the environment for long periods of time and are highly efficient travelers capable of naturally migrating thousands of miles from their source. They also accumulate in animal fatty tissues, and once loose in the body many of them tend to behave like hormones.

There are thousands of different organochlorine compounds being produced for a nearly equal number of purposes. And if you were to look at the whole list, you’d be struck by the fact that most of the world’s most notorious toxins are among them. CFCs that eat the ozone layer. DDT that inspired Rachel Carson to write Silent Spring. PCBs that have been banned for 25 years but are still causing problems. And last, but not least, dioxin, the mother of all toxins and one whose mere mention recalls notorious places like Times Beach and Love Canal.

Interestingly, dioxins are not intentionally manufactured. Instead, they are pollution by-products of industrial processes, predominantly waste incineration and (wait for it) paper bleaching.

Paper mills bleach their product with chlorine to make it white. Approximately 10% of this chlorine reacts with organic molecules in the paper pulp to create organochlorines, including dioxins, a family of about 75 closely related compounds. The typical paper mill produces about 14 lbs of organochlorine pollution per ton of paper bleached. That may not seem like much until I tell you that organochlorines and dioxins are some of the most toxic substances ever created. In particular, the dioxin known as (and you’ll want to take a deep breath before this one) 2,3,7,8-tetra chlorobenzo-para-dioxin, or TCDD, has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the EPA as a known human carcinogen. Linked not only with cancer but with birth defects and other maladies, TCDD is the most dangerous compound in the most hazardous family of chemicals around, a family whose members are often harmful at levels hundreds of thousands of times lower than most other chemicals. Given a choice between sitting in a room with 14 lbs. of organochlorines and 14 tons of almost anything else, I’ll pick the anything else every time.

Many organochlorines and dioxins excel at mimicking hormones, especially estrogen. Estrogen, of course, has been implicated in breast cancer. A relationship between this disease and organochlorine pollution has been more difficult to prove. But there are some studies that offer tantalizing hints, and I know where I’m placing my bets.

One British study, for example, found a connection between dioxin exposure and mammary tumors in mice. Another recent study showed that prebirth exposure to dioxins in the womb disrupted the development of fetal rat mammary glands in a way that predisposed the rats to mammary cancer later in life. And a lifetime study of women exposed to dioxins as a result of an explosion in an Italian factory discovered that a 10-fold increase in dioxin exposure resulted in a 2.1-fold increase in the risk of breast cancer.

Do these studies represent proof positive? Of course not. But I’m unfortunately confident that there are and will be many more like them. And I’ve no doubt that medical science will one day confront a finally overwhelming body of evidence and declare with 100% certainty that organochlorines like dioxins cause breast cancer. And if these substances cause cancer then bleached paper does, too. Because along with waste incineration, it’s the leading source of organochlorines and dioxins.

That’s why Seventh Generation paper products, diapers and baby wipes are made from either unbleached paper or paper that’s been bleached with hydrogen peroxide, which adds only water and oxygen to the environment. That’s why we expend so much effort trying to educate the public that it’s not just recycled content that matters but how paper is bleached. And that’s why we believe fiercely in these products. Not just because they’re good for our bottom line, but because they’re good for the planet’s bottom line and the health of the women and children we love. Because it’s simple to do and sacrifice-free. Because if everyone decided to switch to chlorine-free papers today, it would have an impact so enormous that I cannot even calculate it.

And why not? There’s no meaningful difference between the quality of chlorine bleached paper and unbleached or non-chlorine bleached paper. So why isn’t all paper made with safe technologies? They exist, and they work. Why not change if so much can be gained? Why not switch, if that single, simple act produces a positive impact in the health of our kids and our friends and our lovers that’s out of all proportion to the effort it takes to create it?

Because, says the paper industry, it cannot be done economically. It will just cost too much. But we’ve heard that tired excuse before. They said the same thing about the use of chlorine dioxide (CD) bleaching twenty years ago, when all of Europe was switching to that technology. Now, 20 years later, under intense pressure from the EPA, U.S. mills have finally made the belated switch to CD bleaching while European countries, notably Germany, are hard at work transforming their paper mills into totally chlorine free (TCF) bleaching operations. The good news is that many recycled pulp mills in the US are using TCF processes and proving it can be done without creating the undue burden virgin paper companies keep crying about. It is time for these latter companies to wake up and realize that by focusing on a single and one-time expense they are missing the boat on the opportunity to create a product with increased value and to realize immense on-going savings in pollution prevention and improved health.

I don’t really know why they’re waiting. By and large, these foot draggers still seem not to have gotten the proverbial memo outlining how changes like this often produce so much in the way of immeasurable good. In the end, everything is connected to everything else, frequently in ways we cannot see. When we make sure our own connections to the world are as healthy and sustainable as they can be, that world becomes a sustainable place. And that’s the only kind I really want to live in.

For more information about breast cancer visit http://www.breastcancerfund.org

The Non-Toxic Times, July 2004
Jeffrey Hollender, President of Seventh Generation

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