Putting the Breast Cancer/Chlorine
Connection on Paper
A Few Thoughts from Jeffrey Hollender, President of Seventh Generation
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.
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
dioxins are not intentionally manufactured. Instead, they are pollution
by-products of industrial processes, predominantly waste incineration
and (wait for it) paper bleaching.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
Times, July 2004
President of Seventh Generation