The Link Between Pesticides and Breast Cancer
This is a gem of an article, translated from the original Spanish by our sun-loving contributor, Vicky Hayward. Whilst it presents some exciting new medical research, we beg to differ about one point. The learned doctor suggests that mothers passing on pesticides to their babies via breast milk won’t harm them. His research team list these chemical pesticides as including such extreme ones as DDT and lindane.
We suggest the precautionary principle — in fact, we’d go so far as to say that feeding babies poisonous chemicals via breast milk is not a good idea if it can be avoided. Luckily it can. The most sensible option would be for the mother to eliminate her accumulated chemical toxins before getting pregnant. This way, she can breast feed her baby safe in the knowledge that she is not passing on potentially dangerous pesticide residues. Of course, even without the detox, breast milk really is Mother Nature’s idea of an all-in-one medicine, food, comfort zone and maternal bonding technique. Here at Orrganicfoodee.com we simply recommend that both parents-to-be have a thorough detox before conceiving their child if possible. But read on, and make up your own mind…
It’s been known for many years that certain environmental elements can encourage the development of breast cancer. However, figuring out what exactly these external factors are has turned out to be extremely complex. A team of Andalusian researchers have now established a strong link between oestrogen activity induced by organochlorine pesticides, and the risk of developing breast cancer. The results are significant. Patients with very high oestrogen levels due to pesticide residues run four times more risk of developing the disease than patients with undetectable or very low levels.
Nicolás Olea, Professor of Medicine at the University of Granada, and researcher at the city’s Hospital Clinico, ran this research project. The study was carried out with 198 patients from hospitals in Granada and Almeria. All the patients had traces of organochlorine toxins in their bodies. In some cases, up to seventeen different types of pesticide were found in a single patient’s breast tissue.
These were not isolated cases of the effects of pesticides on the endocrinal system. So far, 568 chemical products have been identified that affect our hormones. These are compounds that mimic, alter or modulate hormonal activity, and for this reason are known as endocrinal disruptors. They include organochlorine pesticides. One of their side effects is to raise the activity and quantity of oestrogens the human body produces. And this rise of oestrogenal activity directly encourages the development of tumour-forming processes.
Two years earlier, the same research team found traces of numerous pesticides in breast milk samples taken from women in Granada and Almeria, rural provinces in Spain. These included pesticides such as aldrin, dieldrin, DDT and its metabolites, lindane, methoxyclor (an organochlorine insecticide) and endosulfan. Nicolás Olea asserts that the patients in the new study are not a special case: “Everybody is exposed to the action of pollutants like these because they are absorbed involuntarily through foods.”
Although pesticides absorbed from eating non-organic food are digested in very small doses, they are accumulate over time. The body stores them, so they become more concentrated with time. Finally they are concentrated enough to alter our hormone levels, as this study reveals.
Many studies have indicated that three main factors can reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. These are: having children below the age of nineteen; having more than four children; or having breast fed for more than 36 months. Women who fall into these three categories generally seem to be protected from the disease. As yet no logical explanation has been given.
Nicolás Olea suggests that: “Women clean themselves of toxins when they give birth and breast feed. Since organochlorine compounds dissolve in fat, they are carried away via milk. This means the mother detoxifies during breastfeeding and passes on the toxins to the child.”
This happens to such an extent that on average, women eliminate 40-50% of their accumulated organochlorine pollutants during their first pregnancies. As a result, according to Olea, giving birth to and breastfeeding a number of children during a cumulative total of three years allows a mother’s body to detox sufficiently to produce an observable reduction of the danger of breast cancer.
This process implies that the child receives considerable doses of toxins in the first months of life. However, Olea considers that the benefit of lactating to the mother is greater than the child’s risk of exposure to toxins in maternal milk.
Another fascinating observation from this research is that women with university qualifications or executive jobs are three to six times more likely to develop breast cancer than women who don’t study at university or have executive jobs.
One explanation Olea suggests is that, “University graduates are generally working professionals and have few children, or none. If they have breastfed, it is for shorter periods of time, so all the risk factors coincide for them.”
This research highlights the relationship between environment and health once again. The World Health Organisation estimates that 33% of all illness is due to environmental causes, a figure which rises to 40% in the case of children. For cancer, specifically, genetic factors represent scarcely 10% of cases. The rest are due to “what we eat, drink, breathe…, our lifestyle,” according to Olea — although, as the study shows, some carcinogenic elements manage to incorporate themselves in our diet us giving them our permission to do so.
Copyright David Segarra, April 2003. All rights reserved.
David Segarra, who was born in Barcelona, is a biologist who writes about environmental issues for El País. He is also the content editor of www.elearningeuropa.info, a website focussed on the application of new technologies to education. This article was first published in El País.