• 04 MAY 05
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    The Cancer Epidemic – Symptom of an Unsustainable Society

       By Alain Brunel
        Le Devoir
        Tuesday 03 May 2005

       The number of new cancer cases is growing twice as fast as population in Canada: as of now, 44% of Canadian men and 38% of Canadian women will be affected during their lifetimes. The Canadian Cancer Society recently highlighted the urgency of establishing prevention policies to avoid a healthcare crisis in treatment of this disease. Yet its recommendations refer only to the adoption of “healthy” individual behaviors (regular physical activity, better diet, life without tobacco), as though no external factor had any influence on people’s health.

       That’s ostrich vision, which anachronistically obscures the exposure to environmental and professional risk factors.

       Of course, we all need to sweep our own doorstep, but the links between pollution and many illnesses, including cancer, are better and better documented, and the evolution is very worrying, not only in Canada. In this context, a significant growth in the number of cancers throughout the industrialized world has been observed for several decades (+35% between 1980 and 2000 among the same age groups in France, with very significant differences according to the type of cancer: 50% increase in lung cancers, a doubling of breast cancers, a quadrupling of prostate cancers).

       It’s important to note: these increases have occurred across the board for people of all ages. Some doctors are talking about an “epidemic,” even a “pandemic” of cancers.

       “The Human Race Is in Danger”

       Dr. Dominique Belpomme, cancer specialist and author of the book, Ces maladies créées par l’Homme [Man-Made Illnesses], (Albin Michel, 2004), deems that 70% of all cancers are of environmental origin in the largest sense of the term. He asserts that the norms set by governmental regulations as thresholds for doses of toxic products “are, in fact, too high to avoid the outbreak of cancers.”

       It must be emphasized that our knowledge is highly fragmented with regard to the toxic effects of the chemical cocktail conveyed in the air, the water, and food. In this regard, 150,000 industrially-used compounds are recorded in the Chemical Abstracts. Only several thousand of them have even been tested for toxicity. It goes without saying that the synergistic effects of these thousands of compounds are not generally studied before they are marketed.

       The healthcare situation is so alarming that a hundred of the most renowned scientists, including two Nobel Prize winners in medicine, launched an international appeal against the danger of chemical pollutants through UNESCO on May 7, 2004: “The human race is in danger,” they say.

       Some substances that accumulate in our bodies are hormone disruptors; they are carcinogenic, mutagens or reprotoxins. More and more men suffer from fertility problems: the number of spermatozoa per ejaculation has decreased by 50% in 50 years among Westerners. In Europe, 15% of couples are sterile; one child out of seven is asthmatic, very probably because of the pollution in cities and homes, and allergy cases are also rising rapidly.

       Given the combination of chemical products, the Paris Appeal emphasizes that “it has become extremely difficult to establish the absolute proof of a direct link between exposures to one or another of these manufactured substances and the development of diseases on an epidemiological level.”

       Nonetheless, the signatories have no doubt that “the development of many current diseases is consequent to the degradation of the environment” and that “chemical pollution constitutes a serious threat for the child and for the survival of Humanity.”

       Lung Cancer: The Québécois’ Worst Record

       In Québec, a study by the National Institute for Public Health (2003) compared the evolution of causes of death during the last twenty-five years with 20 other countries, including the rest of Canada. Québec seems to be fairly average in this jumble of causes and countries. That, however, blankets some large disparities depending on the disease. There are very bad results for mortality linked to malignant tumors, and among those, lung cancer has increased the most. In 1996-98, men from Québec “recorded the worst rate of mortality for lung cancer of all industrialized countries.”

       Yet Québec is only around average in this sample of countries for the proportion of regular smokers. Consequently, there are probably factors other than tobacco that intervene in this carnage due to diseases and tumors of the respiratory system (20% of deaths).

       The industrial fabric of Québec, with its asbestos scoria, wood dust and aromatic polycyclic hydrocarbons (products notably of aluminum refineries) certainly induces a significant part, all the more so as the real conditions of work – pressure to produce – too often incite company management, and workers, to neglect preventative measures.

       And what about the acid rain and photochemical smog imported in large part from the United States? What of air pollution and its cortege of carcinogenic particles? Why doesn’t the Canadian Cancer Society count these risk factors?

       It is obvious that, for any given population, several of these factors are likely to interact and to empower the cancer- producing process in the cells. Up until now, the neo-liberal thinking that favors a form of laissez-faire with respect to the environment, health, and workplace safety, by depending exclusively on individual initiative and companies’ good will, is demonstrably completely out of step with the actual public health and biosphere preservation stakes involved.

       The prevention of cancers and other diseases of civilization, symptoms of an unsustainable society, must start with a systematic vision of the stakes involved and a global policy of reduction in environmental and professional risk factors. Unfortunately, people have trouble in Ottawa and in Québec, as in other world capitals, developing an awareness that the health of the individual, the nature of social relations, and the health of the Earth are indivisible.

        Alain Brunel is an organizational sociologist, hygiene, security, and work conditions consultant for the Paris firm Technologia as well as a co-founder of the “Association québécoise de lutte contre les pluies acides” (AQLPA) [Québec Association to Fight Acid Rain] in 1982.

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