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Francis Koster: We can reduce breast cancer by reducing pollution

By Francis Koster 

This is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Here are some facts about breast cancer you may not know.

Sadly, around 40,000 women die from breast cancer each year. Of these, only about 30 percent of cases can be explained by known risk factors like genetics. Research now tells us that pollution accounts for a large number of the rest.

As our nation recoils in horror from the scenes of the massacre in Las Vegas, we will be reminded over and over that (not counting suicides) around 14,000 Americans were killed annually by guns fired by other people. We will all hear cries for various forms of gun control.

You are not likely to be reminded that almost three times that many woman die annually as a result of breast cancer — and you are not likely to hear cries for pollution control to prevent more senseless death.

October is national breast cancer month, full of fund-raising marches of people noting their concern by wearing pink ribbons.

Shouldn’t we also be asking why we march for a cure, and not for prevention?

When pollution and contamination are discussed, they are frequently illustrated with images of polar bears on shrinking icebergs, or references to dying forests or fish kills. We do not talk about the reality that pollution kills and maims everyday people.

Studies from all over the world show that women who live in areas of high air pollution develop twice as much breast cancer as women who live in areas with clean air. As China has become more industrialized, its air and water pollution have become legendary — and its breast cancer rates are skyrocketing.

The key suspect in the polluted air is nitrogen dioxide — created by burning fossil fuels, mostly automobile gasoline. Several Canadian studies have found that the chances of developing breast cancer at a relatively young age increased by 20 percent if a woman lives in an area with high nitrogen dioxide. The higher the amount in the air, and/or the longer the woman lives in areas with high pollution, the more her chances of developing breast cancer rise.

They found an increased risk of developing breast cancer for approximately 25 percent for every increase of 5 parts per billion in exposure.

There is another factor associated with air pollution that increases the risk of breast cancer. Doctors know that women who have what is called “dense breast tissue” are at higher risk for breast cancer than other women. In studies done around the world, dense breast tissue has been found to be caused in part by air pollution.   

A lot of this research has been done in countries with national health insurance, because the governments are searching hard for ways to invest in the prevention of disease, instead of just healing it.  America is not behaving this way.

In 2017, U.S. government spending on cancer research, adjusted for inflation, is at its lowest rate since 2001. On top of that, the current administration has submitted a 2018 budget calling for an additional $1 billion in cuts. If that is not bad enough, that same budget calls for a 30 percent cut in funding for the Environmental Protection Agency.   

When we talk about pollution, in addition to pictures of polar bears on melting icebergs, or fish kills, we must also display the images of the bare chest of a woman with the scars of a breast removed — because that is also a problem that must be solved. If we control the pollution, not only will the polar bear and fish be saved, so will our loved ones.

Maybe the horror of those images would make people ask why the North Carolina legislature ordered the removal of half of all bought and paid for air quality monitors in the state over the last three years.    

It is time to recognize that the cost of prevention is far cheaper than the cost of curing — and that if our society regulated pollution more, we would spend less on healthcare.   

Do you want to fix the federal deficit by lowering health care spending? Stop pollution. One in eight American women (the number who get breast cancer) will thank you.

And we will need fewer pink ribbons.

Francis P. Koster of Kannapolis is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Association of Health Care Journalists.