The Cancer Epidemic, Part I

Against the Current, No. 27, July/August 1990

James Morton

IN THE UNITED STATES the most profound consequence of the environmental crisis is the epidemic rise in the incidence of cancer. This epidemic indicates more than an ever increasing occurrence of a fatal disease; it indicates that the body chemistry is being so disrupted by environmental toxins that our abilities to resist disease and reproduce healthy children are also failing. Cancer is for us what hunger is for the people of El Salvador, the cutting edge of the survival issue. It is our revolutionary issue.

If our children are to survive we must have a comprehensive analysis of the epidemic. First, we must understand and be able to articulate in common English the empirical data that define the parameters of the epidemic and their full range of implications. The debate on cancer cannot continue to be confined to the world of the epidemiologist and oncologist Second, we must understand the social forces that propel the epidemic and the implications for political action. To fail to understand ether the physical or social nature of the epidemic will be suicidal.

It is significant that you are likely to be first reading about the epidemic of cancer in a small journal of the revolutionary left. The National Cancer institute and the American Cancer Society, the primary state and private institutions responsible for representing the interest of the public in these matters, contend that the disease is only rising in response to cigarette smoking. The bourgeois press follows the official line. Even the liberal and left press has been unable to confront this issue.

While the failure of the left to confront the epidemic of cancer is more problematic and will be discussed in a subsequent article, it is obvious why the institutions of the right must deny the epidemic of cancer Capital, or at the least its 1eadin sector, can only stop the cancer epidemic by committing suicide as a class. This is because the aetiology (cause and origin—ed.) of the epidemic is found in the petrochemical transformation of the postwar economy.

The use of these synthetic, chemical poisons plays an irreplaceable role in the process by which capital extracts surplus value and maintains control over the process of production. That they can be manufactured, employed and disposed of with little or no concern for the toxic consequences to the environment is an essential condition for the use of petrochemicals in the capitalist world system.

Consequently, when intrepid academics, bureaucrats, and journalists begin to sense that they are pursuing an issue which is in fundamental conflict with the interest of the most powerful men in the world—they would be better off avoiding the epidemic of cancer. Their investigative exploits in this area are not likely to be rewarded.

There are three reasons why the cancer epidemic represents the single greatest threat to our lives. First is simple arithmetic Humanity cannot continue to endure an ever increasing incidence of a fatal disease. For instance the most conservative estimate has cancer incidence increasing at .9% annually, with approximately 965,000 new cases reported in 1987. With this rate of increase that within 400 years over 10% of the U.S. population would be contracting cancer each year.

The second reason is that any compound that is capable of promoting an epidemic of cancer is also likely to disrupt the entire process of cellular reproduction. Thus arithmetic alone is too vulgar a tool to measure the impact of cancer At the current rate of increase we could as species essentially be dead—that is, unable to reproduce—very soon, even within decades.

Cancer is a disorder in the process of cellular reproduction, propelled to epidemic rates by the introduction into the environment of new agents which disrupt that process. Cellular reproduction is the signature process of a living creature. In a human it is the reproduction of arterial walls, blood, nerve cells, organ tissue, skin, sperm or ova, and the genetic material that will determine the physical evolution of humanity. It is also the reproduction of the body’s defense against “foreign” invaders: the immune system, that “complex network of specialized organs and cells…which equals in complexity the intricacies of the brain and nervous system” and whose success depends on an “incredibly elaborate and dynamic regulatory-communications network. Millions and millions of cells, organized into sets and subsets, pass information back and forth like clouds of bees swarming around a hive.” (Understanding The Immune System, National Institute of Health, 1)

The success of the immune system or the reproduction of organ tissue relies on chemical messages which originate within the nucleus of each cell. Petrochemicals are capable of penetrating the protective membrane of the cell wall and causing a rewrite of the message by which the twin strands of DNA (basic genetic material) coiled within the cell direct its reproduction.

A petrochemical that is capable of scrambling the cellular message to cause some of the cells that reproduce the tissue of the liver, testes or ovaries to run amok and produce a cancerous tumor can also damage the genetic material that was being passed to future generations, cause sterility, miscarriages, birth defects and a weakened immune system which can itself lead to cancer This same chemical may also influence the biochemical mechanisms that are part of thinking, making love and feeling good. An epidemic of cancer is indicative of a failure in the life process.

The third reason why the cancer epidemic is our greatest threat is the pervasiveness and durability of petrochemicals. In the forty years since they have come into common use our lives have been saturated in petrochemicals. Every day every person in the United States breathes, eats, drinks, and absorbs petrochemicals through the skin.

Residents of industrial cities “live under a bubble of toxic gasses.” Those who enjoy a more bucolic existence inhale a wide range of dioxin compounds via the incineration of municipal garbage. Even arctic wildlife is contaminated by air-born petrochemicals. A single carrot may have five different pesticide residues on it, a tomato three and a meal of a salad, baked potato, green-beans and meat will contain a hundred or more different petrochemicals and synthetic hormones, most of which were introduced to nature the last twenty years.

The typical American city’s water supply is contaminated by a thousand or more organic compounds. When you bathe you breathe chemicals in the water vapor and absorb them through your skin. Hundreds of billions of pounds of these chemicals are dumped into our environment each year and one way or another they move into the sea, the source of all terrestrial life.

Petrochemical compounds also accumulate throughout the human body. They can do this because they are produced from oil and thus have a carbon base and the ability to bond with other carbon-based compounds. The cellular structure of any life form has a carbon base, but because these compounds are oil soluble they have a particular affinity for an oily substance such as human fat. The highest concentrations are found in fat tissue or the part of breast milk that is richest in fat. As the National Adipose Tissue Survey shows, you can determine a person’s approximate age and geographic residence by the range and volume of contaminants found in fat tissue. They are also routinely found in blood, urine and semen.

The cancer epidemic then is not a discrete process, simply one of many fatal diseases, but an unequivocal signal that the life process of humanity is failing. Every aspect of our environment becomes each day more saturated with the agents of our extinction. What we see is an unsustainable accumulation of quantitative change: too many poisons in the environment, too much poison in our flesh, too much cancer. We can anticipate a qualitative change long before simple quantity overwhelms us. The evidence and the political imperative is clear.

Arsenic, asbestos, radiation and various heavy metals have all been causing cancer since at least the turn of the century and today they are killing a lot of people. But there is only one event, one aspect of the modem environment that is capable of propelling an epidemic of cancer the petrochemical transformation of the world economy began after the Second World War.

Chemicals that were byproducts of petroleum refining began to be substituted for fertility, genetic resistance and labor in agriculture and forestry; and for wood, steel, hemp, rubber, cotton, glass, wool, natural oils and labor in manufacturing. In 1940 annual production of petrochemicals in the United States was I billion pounds, by the 1950s the figure was 30 billion, by 1960 it was 100 billion and today over 400 billion pounds are produced each year.

Cancer really occurs as a series of small epidemics, most often bound in place and time to the production and use of petrochemicals. While everyone in the United States is more likely to contract cancer at a variety of sites than they were ten years ago, the working class bears the brunt of the cancer epidemic. The highest rates occur among folk who live around the places where organic compounds are manufactured, dumped or applied and among the workers who make them or employ them and their children.

There is a dose relationship: the workers who use the chemicals the most or the people who live closest to the dump suffer the very worst New Jersey, capital’s environment of the future, sports the nation’s highest cancer mortality rates, ranging form 50% above normal to 150% in the counties with densest concentration of petrochemical waste. Another geographic analysis finds excess of all sorts but particularly of the bladder, liver, and lung in the 139 counties where the chemical industry is most concentrated.

The epidemic of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, which is showing striking increases among the general population, is 60% more likely to occur among Kansas farmers who use the dioxin tainted phenoxy herbicides. If the farmers use it for more than twenty days per year, there is a 600% excess cancer rate. And if they mix and apply it—as well as frequently use it—they suffer an 800% excess of lymphoma.

Children have their own type of occupational exposure, as their parents bring the chemicals the workplace home on their clothes, skin, and in their breath. The risk of leukemia, which provides almost a third of the cancer aggregate for white children, is 3-1/2 times the national average for children whose fathers worked with chlorinated solvents, 4-1)2 times if the fathers worked with dyes or pigments and twice as high for those whose fathers worked with spray paints while their mother was pregnant with them. In each instance the risk grew with duration and intensity of exposure to the organic compounds.

To understand the relationship in time between petrochemicals and cancer, one must bear in mind that cancer is a disease which typically has a 15-30 year gestation period. Today’s cancer rates are primarily responding to the conditions of the 1960s and early 1970s. Consequently cancer among the working class today gives an indication of what will follow in the general population as the overall chemical contamination of the environment continues to accelerate. (See accompanying article, Tracking the Rise of an Epidemic, for some details.)

As would be expected with a petrochemical propelled epidemic, cancer incidence rises at most body sites (18 out of 25), attacks the immune system (Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma up 41.8%), the renal system (bladder up 93%, kidney up 17.5%), and the nervous system (up 173%). But the best evidence for the epidemic and the most alarming implications for our species comes from two sites associated with reproduction. While both testicular and breast cancels can now be diagnosed earlier, the ability of the physician to ultimately diagnose them correctly has not changed since 1950. The incidence of cancer at these sites, both of which show heavy petrochemical accumulation, has increased dramatically and in step with the production of petrochemicals.

Testicular cancer has risen by 27% over the last decade and by 90% since 1950. The rate of increase and the current incidence rate of 4.4 per hundred thousand per year are an average for the entire white male population, but testicular cancer only begins to be a major problem at the age of 15 and by age 44 it is well into a steep decline. However, within the 15-44 year old age span it is the most common malignancy.

In the peak years of 25-34 the incidence rate rose from 3.8 in 194748 to 11.6 per hundred thousand in 1979-80, approximately a 300% jump among the population most severely affected. Among 55 and older males the incidence rate has remained stable since 1950.

While the Black incidence rate is a fraction of that of white males, Blacks show an identical pattern of age distribution indicating that something new is happening to young Black men; either it happens less or it doesn’t affect them as much. Similar rates of testicular cancer among U.S. whites and French, Germans and Swiss reinforce the validity of U.S. data, as do similarly low rates among U.S. Blacks and Africans, Japanese and Puerto Ricans.

Testicular cancer is associated with occupational hazards, the incompetence of the medical/pharmaceutical industries, and the chemical residues that typify the environment of the cancer epidemic Working around the crude petroleum, or natural gas extraction industries, or the production of crops and livestock significantly increases a man’s risk of testicular cancer A finding consistent with the severe reproductive problems experienced by men working in the production of the pesticides Kepone and DBCP

PCBs, phenoxy herbicides, fire retardants and other assorted carcinogens, mutagen and terratogens accumulate in seminal fluid and possibly in sperm cells. All of these industrial, weed, insect and fungus poisons are becoming part of the biochemistry that recreates the genetic material of the species as they freely intermix in this process of ultra rapid cellular division and reproduction where millions of spermatozoa are being produced each day, a thousand each second–each reproduction governed by a chemical message. The weight of evidence on reproductive disorders does not approach the unequivocal nature of the SEER data. However what data we have does suggest that the types of problems in the reproductive system we would expect to encounter with an epidemic of cancer are becoming more common.

From 1938 (when it was first possible to do accurate sperm counts) until about 1960,.05% of the male population was functionally sterile and the average sperm count was about 100 million to a milliliter of semen. Today there is evidence to suggest that throughout the industrialized world 20% of men are sterile and the average sperm count is around 60 million to the milliliter of semen.

Today, no one is threatened by cancer more than women are by breast cancer. Even though the incidence rate for lung cancer among women has climbed by over 50% in ten years, it has done so on an incidence base that is one-third that of breast cancer.

As bad as the 133% increase over the thirteen years of SEER is, we know that we have been witnessing a horrifying 3.8% annual surge in breast cancer for women above and below the age of 50 since 1980. Among the young women of the Seattle-Puget Sound area there has been a 22% increase over the ten year period and among Swedish women 30-39 there has been a 27% increase between 1972-1981.

An analysis of incidence data for white women collected from areas common to the Second and Third National Cancer Surveys and SEER show a 6% rise between 1950 and 1971, and a 23% rise between 1971 and 1984. Now breast cancer strikes one out of every eleven American women.

Millions upon millions of dollars of grant money have been funneled into attempts to prove that women are contracting more breast cancer because they are eating too much fat. The bulk of the fat theories rely on geographic comparisons that purport to show a high correlation between nations with high fat consumption and breast cancer, which then ignore data that shows extremely high fat consumption among Inuit (Eskimo), Spanish and Italian women but a low incidence of breast cancer. The Inuit women and the Mediterranean women consume fat,, blubber and olive oil respectively, that is extremely low in petrochemical contaminants.

The animal data that the fat theorist concocts is based on stuffing a mouse with massive amounts of cotton, corn or safflower oil, which bears a considerable burden of carcinogens. The proposition is never considered that those sad rodents possibly suffer more cancer not because their diet is 40% corn oil as against 10% but because they receive four times the dose of carbaryl, methomyl, pennetherin, methyl parathion, carbofuran, captan, diazinon, lindane, alachlor, and atrazine. Moreover, best evidence suggests a substantial reduction in fat intake for everyone since at least 1960.

Chemical reactions are not confined to the laboratory. They occur as organic compounds mix in water systems, fields, salad bowls, smokestacks and bodies. No one understands very much about the content or consequences of these interactions–particularly when they occur within the confines of our flesh. Cancer is also a poorly understood process. However, we know that it is a complex event often involving a combination of agents over a period of time. In humanity cancer occurs within a very diverse genetic pool and among a population that is consuming a wide variety of cancer-causing agents. Thus it is difficult to pinpoint a specific agent as causing a cancer at a certain body part in the general population.

The female breast is essentially fat tissue and milk glands. In the fat of everyone in the United States can be found at the very least PCBs, DDT, Chlordane, Heptachlor, Aldrin, DDE, BHC, PentachIorophenol, and many of the compounds of the ultra toxic dioxins including PCDFs and the most toxic of all, TCDD.

The presence of the PCBs and dioxin compounds is particularly frightening. In a survey of human milk, blood and fat in Europe and the United States, Alan Jensen found that dozens of variations of these chemicals contaminated almost everyone, but TCDD had a preference for women. The residues were unbelievably small, about 2 parts per trillion (ppt); a ppt on a plane of 183 square miles would cover the area of a quartet However, when given to a pregnant mouse at 10 ppt, TCDD damages the fetus rats develop excess cancers at 5 ppt and toxic affects are seen in the offspring of pregnant monkeys at 2.5 ppt.

In any part of our body fat there are a continuing series of biochemical reactions, but unlike other sites where there are heavy accumulations of fat (such as the buttocks or upper thigh) the fat of the female breast sur rounds the chemically complex milk producing organs. Thus, within the breast there are the uncontrolled chemical reactions of what easily could be hundreds of organic compounds, the most toxic known to science, many mimicking or enhancing the effects of estrogen and interacting with the normal cellular reproduction of the milk glands. The potential extent of this interaction can be measured by the list of synthetic chemical poisons in the mother’s milk.

“In an overall assessment it may be wrong to look at one contaminant at a time, because these organohaolgens have similar targets in the body, indicating a potential for toxicological interactions” (Alan Jensen, The Science of the Total Environment, 1986).

Women who breast feed have, by a factor of about one-half, a lower incidence of breast cancer, with longer and more frequent the periods of lactation making it less likely they will have that cancer. We know that when the mother lactates she expels many of the petrochemical poisons in her system at a higher rate than the rate at which she absorbs them from the environment In one study the levels of PCBs and DDEs (a byproduct of DDT) in breast milk dropped by 20% over six months and by 40% over 18 months.

Could women who breastfeed be less likely to develop cancer because they are expelling carcinogens from their systems into the rapidly developing nervous, immune and reproductive systems of their infants? The class structure of breast cancer rates in the Seattle-Puget Sound area reinforces that contention. There is a 53% rise among low income women, (those least likely to breast feed), a 27% rise among middle-income women and no rise among upper-income women, (the most frequent breast feeders). Also the lower the income group the more likely the individual is to work around chemical poisons, live near where they are produced and to drink contaminated water.

Among dioxins, insect poisons, fungus poisons, high-temperature lubricants, weed killers mixing and reacting, who can say which carcinogen in what combination triggers this terrible reaction in women’s flesh. But suddenly more women in the industrialized world begin to develop cancer of the breast, and in their breasts we find chemicals introduced over the last forty years which are known to cause cancer in monkeys, rats, mice, gerbils, hamsters, dogs, fish and humans.

What an analysis of testicular and breast cancer shows is an unequivocal epidemic rise that marches in lockstep with the introduction of petrochemicals. The reproductive cycle is in imminent danger of becoming irreparably harmed, with sperm too heavily contaminated to create a fetus and women’s breasts so toxic that babies cannot survive. The poisons in the mother’s womb and milk—made worse by a contaminated food and water supply—endanger our survival as a species.

If we do not stop this process that moment will come. The cancer epidemic is the most important single issue for the First World; it represents the most pressing danger in our lives and the lives of our children, a crisis with revolutionary implications to be discussed in the second part of this essay.

July-August 1990, ATC 27

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