Dr. Julia Brody wants Americans to know that reading the labels should be a practice that extends beyond food products. Brody, executive director of the Silent Spring Institute, spoke Thursday, July 23, at the Community Library in Ketchum about breast cancer research, hormone-affecting chemicals and the dangers posed by everyday household products.
Silent Spring is a nonprofit research foundation that studies the links between environmental chemicals and women’s health. The institute focuses on breast cancer—for which the hereditary risk is less than 10 percent. Silent Spring is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. It was named for author Rachel Carson and her groundbreaking environmental advocacy book “Silent Spring.” Carson died of breast cancer in 1964.
Chemicals can affect hormones and cell growth, Brody said, and federal regulations are soft on preventing harmful chemicals from making their way into everyday products. That’s why Silent Spring tested and continues to test household products for known cancer-causing toxins, she said.
In this country, Brody said, companies can put almost any chemical they want into a household product. She said the policy is “innocent until proven guilty”—unlike in Europe, which bans more than 1,300 chemicals from use in lotions, soaps, toothpaste, cosmetics and other personal care products. The U.S. bans 11, she said.
Silent Spring identified some 17 chemical groups that it says humans should stay away from. According to a May 2014 Time magazine article, the institute took chemicals connected to the growth of mammary tumors in animals and compared those studies to human data. Suspect chemicals include those found in flame retardants, dry cleaning solvents and stain-resistant textiles.
There are synthetic chemicals that mimic estrogen, Brody said, which prompt cell growth. Exposure to these chemicals is “widespread,” she said—but can be very preventable. She’s testified before President Barack Obama’s cancer panel, asking the government to focus more dollars on prevention.
Some 80 percent of women who develop breast cancer have no family history of the disease, she said. Because Brody believes environmental effects are hugely connected to breast cancer, she said a woman’s early life matters when it comes to breast cancer prevention.
“One study found the umbilical-cord blood of 10 newborns to contain an average of 200 contaminants—including a range of pesticides, flame retardants, and other pollutants—a chemical inheritance from time spent in the womb,” the Silent Spring website states.
The risk of breast cancer is higher for girls who start their periods at a younger age, women who hit menopause at an older age and women who give birth later in life.
Silent Spring is currently developing a meter that can detect the level of toxic exposure in a given environment. Brody said the organization is still testing the product, but soon hopes to send it to people so they can monitor rooms in their homes for exposure and mail it back to the institute for testing.
To learn more about the Silent Spring Institute, go to www.silentspring.org.