by Whit Gibbons

October 15, 2006

Do you think environmental issues only concern snail darters, spotted owls, and other feathered, finned, scaled, or furry animals? Think again. If you're a woman, or if you have a mother, sister, wife, or female friend you care about, here's an environmental concern you should be interested in: the growing incidence of breast cancer. "Think before you pink" is a slogan that relates to this issue.

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The traditional emphasis is on teaching women how to detect breast cancer in the early stages and to get the proper diagnosis and treatment. Annual mammograms are recommended for women over 40 or for younger women with a family history of breast cancer. The Breast Cancer Action (BCA) Web site ( also considers the problem from another angle.

Almost everyone knows that pink is the color associated with breast cancer. Besides making a verb out of a noun, "to pink" refers to wearing pink ribbons, contributing financially to breast cancer research, and buying products that help support efforts to eradicate breast cancer. The BCA appeal to "think before you pink" urges people to give in-depth consideration to how to reduce breast cancer in the country rather than simply wearing something pink or contributing money to the cause and giving it no more thought. In other words, think about how we might reduce fundamental sources of breast cancer.

A 2002 worldwide survey identified breasts as the most common site in the body for cancer in women, twice as high as the next most common, uterine cancer. Even more alarming is that, according to one source, one in 20 women was at risk of getting breast cancer 50 years ago. Today the odds are one in eight! The BCA Web site mentions increasing evidence "that various environmental toxins are contributing to our high rates of cancer and other diseases." The site advocates decreasing "the use and production of environmental pollutants in an effort to stop the increasing rates of cancer."

The BCA promotes education programs to alert the public, including local elected officials, to the link between environmental pollution and cancer and to inform them of ways to minimize exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment. Resistance to banning the use of certain environmental pollutants can be expected for economic reasons. A company making a high profit margin in sales does not want to concede that their product does more harm than good. An agricultural endeavor having higher productivity because of a specific chemical does not want to hear that it is no longer available.

Nonetheless, certain chemicals probably do more harm to the many than they do good for a few. The BCA cites a report that identifies certain known, probable, or possible causes of cancer that we all recognize. Fumes from combustion of diesel fuels, compounds in pesticides and prescription drugs that disrupt hormone function in the body, and antibiotics or growth hormones used on poultry, cattle, and pigs are a few of them. Any one of these has a low probability of causing a particular incidence of cancer. But the cumulative effect of synthetic chemicals that we inhale or consume cannot ultimately be good for us.

Some cities are identifying potential industrial sources of environmental pollution linked to cancer and attempting to curtail or limit their production. A major thrust of the "think before you pink" campaign relates to retail sales that feature pink ribbons with the promise of contributing to the cure of breast cancer. BCA suggests we ask a merchant selling products under the pink ribbon banner several questions Two seem particularly pertinent: "To what breast cancer organization does the money go?" Second, "What is your company doing to assure that its products are not contributing to the breast cancer epidemic?"

A final question is, "Before I buy these products, can you assure me that they are as beneficial to women with breast cancer as they are to your company?" Learning to detect, diagnose, and treat breast cancer in the early stages will always be critical. But it's also important to "think before you pink": ask whether a particular product is benefiting society overall or just making a profit for the company, and perhaps causing cancer.

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