The Search for Environmental Carcinogens

In the search for carcinogens, competing interests can complicate and compromise the case.

The news conference was held on Jan. 7, 1993, with breast cancer activists flanking Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-New York). The group was not satisfied with the findings of a study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which had just reported that elevated rates of breast cancer in Long Island could be explained by known risk factors. The women believed their illnesses had a deeper, more sinister explanation, perhaps a legacy of the agricultural roots of the now mostly affluent suburbs of New York City.

“We are taking matters into our own hands,” one of the women told reporters. And they did. With backing from D’Amato and other members of Congress, Public Law 103-43 was enacted later that year, directing the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to study “environmental and other potential risks contributing to the incidence of breast cancer” in Nassau, Suffolk and Schoharie counties in New York and in Tolland County, Conn. The law instructed the investigation of environmental exposures, and even, to an unprecedented degree, how the studies were to be carried out.

"It was quite miraculous," says Karen Miller, founder of the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition and a community advisor to the Long Island Breast Cancer Study Project. Few times in American history had ordinary citizens set the course of medical science. “There had never been a public outcry before,” she adds. But this was an era when advocates for breast cancer research were learning from AIDS activists about how to exert grassroots power over the scientific agenda.

“We each wanted to know, with a particular bent toward environment, why me?” Miller says. “What’s in the environment that contributed to my breast cancer?” In her view, and that of other Long Island women, government researchers were not looking hard enough or in the right places.

Almost 20 years later, the Long Island study and others have accumulated reams of data, yet experts remain troubled by the unanswered questions. The President’s Cancer Panel, appointed by President George W. Bush, concluded in 2010 “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.” It wasn’t just the statement, but the source, that got notice. Columnist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times wrote, “It’s striking that this report emerges not from the fringe but from the mission control of mainstream scientific and medical thinking.”

We each wanted to know, with a particular bent toward environment, why me?

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