Toxic Tide: No Place to Hide

Part 3: What we found

We found a great deal of general information on cancer incidence and carcinogens, so much in fact that we have not been able to read and digest it all for this report. We found some information specific to Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties, but not nearly as much as we had hoped for. The lack of more geographically specific information in the aggregate cancer information collected by the government severely limits the ability of the public to identify cancer clusters in our region.

1. Cancer incidence

Cancer incidence in the US

Cancer incidence in St. Lawrence and Jefferson Counties

2. The environmental connection

General findings on cancer and carcinogens

We found ample evidence that environmental pollution causes cancer. The World Health Organization stated in 1964 that 80% of cancers are caused by human-produced carcinogens. According to the textbook, Human Genetics: A Modern Synthesis, cited in Steingraber (p. 261), "As much as 90 percent of all forms of cancer is attributable to specific environmental factors." Furthermore, the textbook states: "Because exposure to these environmental factors can, in principle, be controlled, most cancers could be prevented. ... Reducing or eliminating exposures to environmental carcinogens would dramatically reduce the prevalence of cancer in the United States."

Cancer occurs when a cell's genetic material, its DNA, is damaged repeatedly. Cancer is a multi-step process, requiring perhaps 5 or 6 or more separate attacks on a cell before cancer develops. Peter Montague, writing in Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly #575, compares cancer "to a rope hanging from a tree branch. If the rope is cut, then you have a cancer. You can think of carcinogens as bullets being fired at the rope. Most bullets miss the rope completely. A few hit the rope and damage it. As time passes and more and more carcinogens are fired at the rope, eventually the rope may be cut and cancer develops."

Following are some of the known and suspected bullets--the carcinogens found in our environment:

  • Organochlorine pesticides including HCHs, DDT, DDE, dieldrin, chlordane, heptachlor, heptachlor epoxide, toxaphene and mirex
  • PCBs
  • Chlorinated Dioxins and Furans including 2,3,7,8-TCDD
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) including benzene, trichloroethylene and chloroform
  • Metals including lead, cadmium, nickel and mercury
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Ionizing radiation from nuclear facilities and X-rays,
  • Non-ionizing radiation from electro-magnetic fields created by power lines may increase leukemia in children.
  • Ultra-violet radiation causes skin cancer, which is increasing due to thinning of the ozone layer caused by releases of CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals into the atmosphere.
  • Certain drugs including supplemental estrogens, steroids and tamoxifen.
  • Insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) found in the milk of dairy cows injected with genetically-engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH).

    Carcinogens enter our bodies through the air, food, soil and water. They are found in tobacco smoke, petroleum products, pesticides, plastics, paints, paint removers, solvents, cleaners, foods and food packaging (especially plastics), drugs, chlorinated water, waste contaminated water, smoke and ash from barrel burning and incinerators, coal smoke, caulking compounds, lubricants, sealants, pulp and paper mill effluents, chlorinated wood preservatives, some building materials, ... the list goes on.

    In preparing this work, we collected a lot of information about carcinogens and the pathways through which these "bullets" enter our bodies. We have not, however, managed to organize this information into a concise, useful information sheet. Our aim was to make the links between carcinogens on the one hand, and the specific products and places they are found on the other. This task turned out to be more complicated and time consuming than we had expected.

    While such a chart showing the links between known carcinogens and their pathways will be useful, it will by no means tell us everything we need to know. There are about 75,000 different chemicals now in use and only 1200 to 1500 of these have been tested for carcinogenicity. No one knows how many of the 75,000 contribute to cancer in humans but a recent estimate concluded that we should expect 5% to 10% of these (3750 to 7500 different chemicals) to be carcinogenic in humans. Currently, the US government regulates fewer than 200 chemicals on the basis of their carcinogenicity. Roughly 2000 new, untested chemicals are brought into commercial use each year (Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly #573).

    Findings specific to St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties

    3. What some other communities and organizations are doing

    Following is a very brief sampling of some of the cases we came across that yielded useful information: