Overlooking Evidence: Media Ignore Environmental Connections to Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is now epidemic, affecting one in eight women, according
to the American Cancer Society and others. The leading cause of death
in women in their late 30s to early 50s, it’s estimated to have killed
40,000 people in 2008.

Known risk factors for breast cancer-such as age, genetics,
reproductive history and alcohol consumption-account for only half the
cases. (Genetics, the culprit du jour in the media, accounts for just 5
to 10 percent of all cases.) What about the other 50 percent?

In the 1950’s, women in industrialised countries were at a one in twenty risk of developing breast cancer over their lifetime. Today that risk has skyrocketed to one in eight.

A growing body of private, university and government environmental
health research on animals and human populations is implicating the
chemicals and radiation to which women are unwittingly exposed every
day. The suspects include scores of toxic and hormone-disrupting
substances that are listed as known, probable or possible
carcinogens-and thousands of others that (in the U.S., at least) remain
untested for their safety. Among others, they include pesticides,
plastics, consumer-product additives and industrial byproducts.

Moreover, science is finding the causes of breast (and other) cancers
are complex and multi-factored, and the timing and pattern of chemical
exposure are proving as important as dose. While these findings,
focused on causes and prevention, are relatively new and few compared
with much better-funded work on detection and treatment, they merit
further research and a place in the headlines.

Unfortunately, Extra! has found, the major media have downplayed and frequently overlooked this evidence.

Tracking the coverage

To track the extent of coverage of environmental factors in breast cancer causation, Extra!
used the Nexis database to examine a sample of the largest, most
influential news outlets-those with big enough budgets to do regular
science, health and environmental reporting. We studied four newspapers
(USA Today, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post), three newsweeklies (Newsweek, Time and U.S. News & World Report) and four TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN)
from 2002 through 2008, reviewing coverage of environmental factors in
breast cancer during an annual event, National Breast Cancer Awareness
Month – October – in each of the seven years. Since its inception in 1985,
this pageant of pink has brought special prominence to the disease.
While the month has been criticized by some as an exercise in corporate
self-promotion, it does provide a predictable news hook and an ideal
time to draw on recent findings to add cause and prevention to the
standard mix of items on cancer rates and risks, detection and

Extra! also looked for coverage of
two major scientific metastudies that aggregated numerous peer-reviewed
scientific studies on the environment/breast cancer connection:

State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment,
a summary and explanation of external scientific research plus policy
and research recommendations. First released in 2002 and updated in
2003, 2004, 2006 and 2008 to include new research findings, the latest
edition synthesizes the results of more than 400 studies, runs 147
pages long with 667 references, and was vetted by five independent
experts. It is published by the Breast Cancer Fund, a national
nonprofit focused on environmental and other preventable causes of the
disease, and Breast Cancer Action, a membership organization that
"challenges assumptions and inspires change to end the breast cancer

A veritable catalog of environmental villains, the ’08 edition explains
that the latest data "show that we need to begin to think of breast
cancer causation as a . . . web of often interconnected factors, each
exerting direct and interactive effects on cellular processes on
mammary tissue," and points to growing evidence that "exposure of
fetuses, young children and adolescents to radiation and environmental
chemicals [notably the pesticide DDT] puts them at considerably higher
risk for breast cancer in later life." Though disturbing, the report’s
underlying message is hopeful: "By decreasing exposures to carcinogens
. . . we may continue to lower breast cancer levels-and actually
prevent the devastating disease-in the future."

Environmental Pollutants and Breast Cancer: Epidemiological Studies,
a review of hundreds of existing studies and databases that identified
some 216 chemicals that induce mammary tumors in animals. Compiled by
researchers at the Silent Spring Institute, a nonprofit scientific
research institute that studies links between the environment and
women’s health, and three other institutions, including Harvard Medical
School, the report was published in May 2007 as a special supplement in
Cancer, the journal of the venerable American Cancer Society.

Stating that "laboratory research provides evidence that environmental
pollutants may contribute to breast cancer risk by damaging DNA,
promoting tumor growth or increasing susceptibility by altering mammary
gland development," the report cautions: "These compounds are widely
detected in human tissues and in environments, such as homes, where
women spend time."

Among other things, the paper found that the relative risks associated
with PAHs (largely from car exhaust) and PCBs were "comparable in
magnitude" to many breast cancer risk factors that have received more
attention, such as age at first full-term pregnancy and inactivity. The
good news: "If these mechanisms similarly affect humans, reducing or
eliminating chemical exposures could have substantial public health

The coverage: nearly nil

At no time since the State of the Evidence report began publication in
2002 did any of the major media examined cover or even refer to it.
Similarly, none covered the Cancer special report with the notable exception of the Los Angeles Times,
which published a thorough, nuanced, straightforward front-page article
of nearly 1,500 words by award-winning environmental reporter Marla
Cone ("Common Chemicals Are Linked to Breast Cancer," 5/14/07).

However, the Times seemed to back off Cone’s story a week later, publishing "A Closer Look: Chemicals and Breast Cancer" (5/21/07),
a special report by Mary Beckman in the Health section that appeared
intended not so much to debunk Cone’s article as to reassure a
frightened public. Subheaded "Suspects, but not all perps; a report has
linked chemicals to tumors in animals. But the risks to women are less
clear," it stated that the report’s findings do "not mean women should
stop cooking with canola or cower indoors for fear of getting breast
cancer, experts say."

Stories about or even mentioning breast cancer’s environmental
connections during Breast Cancer Awareness Month were extremely few.
Over the seven Octobers examined, only four articles (Washington Post, 10/23/02, 10/9/07; L.A. Times, 10/9/02 and 10/6/03), an isolated photo and caption (L.A. Times, 10/24/02) and portions of three TV news segments (ABC’s Good Morning America, 10/27/08; CBS’s Early Show, 10/4/06; NBC’s Today, 10/6/05) considered those connections, including the disease’s cause and prevention. There were three brief items (CNN, 10/18/04; L.A. Times, 10/19/04; NBC,
10/24/04) about the federal Sister Study, which is looking at the
environmental and genetic factors in the sisters of women with breast
cancer; CNN also made passing mentions in four segments over the seven years, USA Today made two and NBC one (most of these pieces were about topics other than breast cancer).

Though substantial and informative, both Post pieces and one of the L.A. Times’ had a note of blaming the victim. The Post’s
2002 article on exceptionally high breast cancer rates in wealthy Marin
County, California, noted that "experts say women here are most likely
vulnerable because of something in the county’s lifestyle, rather than
in its water," assigning the cluster most likely to "demographics."

The Post’s 2007 article
reported on findings that childhood exposure to DDT was associated with
a fivefold increase in breast cancer risk in adulthood-but "balanced"
this possibly lifesaving news with concerns that further restrictions
on the pesticide may hobble the fight against malaria. (See Extra!, 9-10/07.)

One L.A. Times story (10/6/03)
on California’s search for the causes of breast and other cancers
through "biomonitoring"-measuring toxins in the human body-gave
credence to the risks posed by chemicals such as flame retardants in
breast milk, but devoted about a third of the 2,000-plus-word piece to
concerns that the findings might scare moms away from breastfeeding
their infants.

ABC, to its credit, had a long
segment on breast doctor Susan Love’s "Army of Women" campaign to
recruit women for human trials to look at breast cancer’s
causes-including environmental ones. CBS and NBC’s
segments – mainly on other aspects of the disease – inquired about
environmental connections, but in both cases the physicians the
networks chose to interview downplayed them.

Notably absent was any coverage in the New York Times or any of the newsweeklies. Time
did have a lengthy cover story on breast cancer’s increase in
developing nations (10/15/07)-but when it suggested that adoption of
"U.S. and European lifestyles" may be behind it, the magazine pointed
the finger only at things like diet and "reproductive habits,"
sidestepping the issue of American-style increases in pollution and
chemical use.

Perhaps the New York Times’ lack of coverage shouldn’t be surprising, considering the historical skepticism of Times science reporter Gina Kolata. In a 1998 article in the Nation (7/6/98), environmental journalist Mark Dowie took a critical look at the Times’
science reporting, singling out Kolata’s many years of work on
controversial topics connecting the environment and health, including
breast cancer. As he told the journal Wild Duck Review (4/99),
her environmental reporting has taken "a hard, pro-technology,
pro-corporate line," noting that Kolata "took a strong position that
breast cancer has no environmental etiology at all."

In a companion video for her article headlined "Environment and Cancer:
The Links Are Elusive" (12/13/05), Kolata stated, "There are people who
say that there may be cancers caused by things in the environment, but
it’s a very small percentage of them, and the importance of them in the
public’s mind has been exaggerated." She later added, "One answer
people don’t want to hear is it’s random bad luck."

The dearth of media coverage was particularly perplexing in October
2008, when the major media missed a perfect news peg: On October 8,
George W. Bush signed the Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Act,
under which Congress funded the establishment of multidisciplinary
research centers to study the potential links between the environment
and breast cancer.

However, the influential outlets did make time and space for such news
as an item on breast cancer survivors getting beauty make-overs (NBC Today, 10/15/08) and an explanation (NBC
Today, 10/13/08) of how "you can shop for a cure. When you buy
everything from pink jump ropes to golf clubs, you can stay fit while
fighting breast cancer all at the same time."

Same old story

Evolving research discoveries may make theories about breast and other
cancers more robust over time, but the dearth of coverage of breast
cancer’s environmental links seems to have changed little since before
2001. That year, Brown University sociologist Phil Brown and colleagues
published their study Print Media Coverage of Environmental Causation
of Breast Cancer. The researchers looked at 40 years (1961-2001) of
coverage of breast cancer in two major papers, the three major
newsweeklies, four popular science magazines and eight women’s
magazines, and found that only 12 percent of science magazines, 10
percent of women’s magazines, 5 percent of newspapers and less than 5
percent of newsweeklies ever mentioned possible environmental
causation, focusing mostly on an individual’s personal responsibility
for avoiding the disease.

When it comes to breast cancer, why is it so hard to get the most
influential media to pay attention to the possibility that, in addition
to better-understood risks, unnatural substances entering women’s
bodies might also be a factor?

"It wasn’t for lack of trying," said Shannon Coughlin, communications
director for the Breast Cancer Fund. According to Coughlin, major
mainstream reporters seem to hold environmental health science findings
to an especially high standard of proof. "Chemical regulation goes by
the idea that a chemical is innocent until proven guilty, which places
a terrible burden on us to prove harm," she said.

Environmental health research is less certain by definition, added
Julia Brody, executive director of the Silent Spring Institute and lead
author of the Cancer
report: "The standard breast cancer risks [e.g., reproductive history
and diet] are things we can ask people about," whereas "people don’t
know what’s in their drinking water and in their air."

Thus journalists "say there’s no smoking gun," Jeanne Rizzo, the Breast Cancer Fund’s executive director, told Extra!. "If there’s no sensational, direct cause and effect, they’re not interested."

She added: "We need to change the conversation to see the
interconnectedness of things. The media need to be willing to go out on
a limb and talk about complicated [causality]."

Silent Spring’s Brody noted that even her institute’s hometown paper, the Boston Globe,
passed on the Environmental Pollutants story: "They said, ‘There’s no
proof.’ We say, ‘We don’t think we’ll find proof; we think we need to
act on the weight of the evidence as it evolves.’ . . . We waited too
long on tobacco smoke, we waited too long on lead."

Rizzo pointed to the Women’s Health Initiative study, which found a
direct connection between artificial hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
and breast cancer (Extra!,
9-10/02). "We should have learned from HRT that when you remove an
endocrine-disrupting chemical from women, we get less breast cancer,"
she said. "We need to extrapolate from that-what other exposures are
similar that we should study? It’s not rocket science." She added that
because that health study was government-issued, "the media jumped all
over it."

Consider the source

Indeed, science news – and spokespeople – with the imprimatur of large,
establishmentarian organizations are taken more seriously, said retired
journalist Arlie Schardt, founder of Environmental Media Services, a
nonprofit communications organization that until 2005 helped
lesser-known scientists gain media coverage. Schardt explained that for
efficiency’s sake, reporters tend to turn for sources to "the usual
suspects," who reflect "traditional viewpoints," particularly when
seeking feedback and "balance" on the validity of emerging science. 

This fallback position may be due to the general "lack of knowledge" of
environmental health science on the part of reporters and editors,
according to former L.A. Times reporter Marla Cone, who is now editor-in-chief of Environmental Health News.
She noted that breast cancer is typically the beat of medical
reporters, who tend to interview physicians – and neither these reporters
nor their sources are "accustomed to looking at this type of data."

Schardt, a former Newsweek
editor and later Al Gore’s press secretary, has found that scientists
tend to be very cautious when pressed by reporters to make "definitive
claims" about research findings. Not wanting to seem like advocates,
they "cloak their quotes with a lot of qualifications," reinforcing the
uncertainty or controversy of newer scientific ideas in the resulting
news stories.

Rizzo noted, "Reporters sometimes imply to us that our science isn’t
valid because we have a perspective. But so does the American Cancer

Then there is what Brody calls "the connection between this field of
science and the consumer economy." Magazines, TV and newspapers all
depend on advertising from companies that "produce the compounds
targeted in our studies," she pointed out.

Schardt puts it more bluntly: "Scientists are always attacked by
industries with a stake" in the science. In his experience, "They’ll
pull out all the stops to discredit the source." That makes journalists
more likely to shy away.

And there is something at stake: corporate power. Breast cancer
activists not only want more research dollars devoted to environmental
causes, they endorse strengthening consumer protection laws to ensure
the safety of the chemicals in question, as is now taking place in
Europe under the 2007 REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization
and Restriction of Chemicals) legislation.

Or as Cone, who observes that possible environmental angles are
typically left out of reporting on the many other forms of cancer, puts
it: "There is such a wealth of data on chemical exposures and their
relationship to disease. . . . It should be brought up in every story."

This article was published by Extra!, FAIR’s monthly magazine.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact press@rhrealitycheck.org.

  • invalid-0

    You overlooked some very huge variables in your story- abortion and contraceptive pills and the scientific proof of their connection to breast cancer. Maybe you’ll include that in your next article about this topic.

  • colleen

    The ‘connection’ between breast cancer and abortion is yet another fiction promoted by social conservatives. 


  • http://www.feministpeacenetwork.org invalid-0

    Miranda, Brava and thank you for this excellent and much needed analysis of the non-coverage of environmental factors in breast cancer. Really, I can think of no other issue that so illustrates the misogynist, profit-driven influence of the so-called news. Literally in this case, it is killing us and one can only hope that by calling the media out on this, perhaps changes will be made.

  • invalid-0

    Thanks for this – my sister was just diagnosed with breast cancer, and when doing the research, I found the studies that say that if you have breast cancer, your sister has a sixfold increase in her risk of breast cancer – and yet just a small percentage of breast cancers are genetic. So it would make sense that where you both lived, what you both were exposed to, what you both ate as children would be a factor here. We seem to have some pretty determined blindness on this issue as a culture.

  • invalid-0

    Poster, the connection between abortion and breast cancer has been completely debunked. Also, since I was focusing on the role of industrial chemicals and such, it’s not germane to my point.

  • invalid-0

    Somebody always brings up abortion on posts not related to abortion. Is this just something RHRC suffers from?

    Anyway, thanks for the informative post, Lucinda.

    • invalid-0

      Abortion is the only thing that is important in women’s health! Apparently. *eye roll*

  • invalid-0

    Thank you for this important article-of course breast cancer is caused by pollutants as is most cancer. It is hard to beleive that there is ANY controversy on this subject. It is scary because it is so hard to avoid most of the worst toxins but I believe that a study was done by the Environmental Working Group that showed you can reduce the toxic chemical load in your body by using all organic foods, cleaning products, avoiding lawn chemicals, fake perfumes(which are in everything these days!)and so on. What is good for the environment is good for you too! I also find it annoying that there is always someone who has to post on abortion even if it has nothing to do with the subject–even if it were connected (which it is not) I have never understood why the right wing anti-choice people are not up in arms about the toxic chemicals that are also one of the leading causes of miscarriage–look at any statistics on the rates around toxic dumps. High miscarriages are one way to see that something is really wrong in an area. What about all those babies that were wanted? THis shows that they are more anti woman than being pro-life.

  • invalid-0

    I have been working with plants since I was 15 and I remember much talk about pesticides and links to cancer as well as toxicity. For instance Cygon 2e has a very high toxicity rating, yet it is still sold in plant nurseries, and worse yet it is systemic which means it lingers in plant tissue for a very long time. I unfortunately was exposed by breathing fumes at a botanical garden as a volunteer. So far I have been ok but My best friend who died 2 years ago was in a military family and traveled world wide. She had an untreatable form of breast cancer.
    It is unbelievable that they do not talk about this! I bet if it were a male disease we would never hear the end of it. Maybe if all us women boycott cleaning products they would get the message.
    Reallly good article.

  • invalid-0

    Whether there is linkage between toxic Chemicals and breast cancer( or any other cancer) the fact remains that, we’re constantly moving towards a life that is full of comport and simplicity but certainly with attendant consequencies.
    Are we not crying of global warming and related problems?
    These are all prices that we must pay back as a result of our actions and inactions.
    Thank you for this article.

  • invalid-0

    Gasoline, Petroleum and the plastics made from it are the single largest cause of cancer in the world. This is a known fact, verified by thousands of studies which the oil industry counters by paying pundits to say: “Well, we just are not sure yet”. Now we are sure. The TPH array in petroleum and petroleum products exists as microscopic particles which leach off of plastic materials, (ie: the plastic in water and baby bottles) and float in the air as vapor, (ie: the fumes around gas stations). These particles are absorbed into the body and broken down to a cellular level and then to a DNA level. As the DNA replicates, a constant process, these TPH materials cause the replication process to make mistakes and create genetic mutations. TPH is a very particular array of items so the “mistakes” that it causes occur as the same thing over and over. We call this repeating mistake: “cancer”. Other materials in our environment cause other kinds of genetic mutations that do not manifest as onerous, or extremely negative, or obvious things. TPH manifests cancer.

    The TPH chemical array has killed more Americans than every terrorist since the beginning of time.

    The petrochemical bisphenol-a, or BPA, causes precancerous tumors and urinary tract problems and made babies reach puberty early.

    Every gas pump has a label on it that oil and gas causes cancer and a host of lethal medical problems.

    Archeologicial digs show that ancient peoples living near tar pits got cancer.

    When there is an oil spill, you are not allowed on the beach because most agencies classify oil as toxic.

    A study of childhook leukemia in England mapped every child with the diserase and found they all occurred in a circle, in the center of which was a gas station.
    Living near a petrol station could quadruple the risk of childhood leukaemia, research suggested today.
    The study in France found a link between cases of acute leukaemia among youngsters and how close they lived to a fuel station or a repair garage.
    Research has already shown an association between adults’ occupational exposure to benzene, a hydrocarbon derived from petrol, and leukaemia.
    The latest study is published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The French Institute of Health and Medical Research based their findings on 280 cases of childhood leukaemia and a comparison group of 285 children.
    They were drawn from four hospitals in Nancy, Lille, Lyon and Paris, with almost two-thirds of the children with leukaemia aged between two and six.
    The team found no clear link between the mother’s occupation during pregnancy or traffic levels around where they lived and the risk of child leukaemia.
    They also saw no link between leukaemia and living near manufacturers using materials such as aluminium or plastic.
    But a child whose home was near a garage was four times more likely to develop leukaemia than a child whose home was not.
    The risk appeared to be even greater for acute nonlymphoblastic leukaemia, which was seven times more common among children living close to a petrol station or garage. The longer a child had lived there, the higher their risk of leukaemia appeared to be.
    There are 6,600 cases of leukaemia a year in Britain. Although it is the most common form of childhood cancer, it affects three times as many adults as children.
    The authors admit the findings could be due to chance. “But the strength of the association and the duration of the trend are arguments for a causal association.”

    Alberta’s oil sands are one of the world’s biggest deposits of oil, but the cost of extracting that oil may be the health of the people living around them. High levels of toxic chemicals and carcinogens have been found in the water, soil, and fish downstream of the oil sands. The local health authority of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta comissioned the study in response to locals’ claims that the oil extraction projects upstream were damaging the health of citizens. Petrochemicals and their byproducts, such as dioxin, are known to cause an array of serious health problems, including cancers and endocrine disruption.Total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH) is a term used to describe a large family of several hundred chemical compounds that originally come from crude oil. Crude oil is used to make petroleum products, which can contaminate the environment. Because there are so many different chemicals in crude oil and in other petroleum products, it is not practical to measure each one separately. However, it is useful to measure the total amount of TPH at a site.TPH is a mixture of chemicals, but they are all made mainly from hydrogen and carbon, called hydrocarbons. Scientists divide TPH into groups of petroleum hydrocarbons that act alike in soil or water. These groups are called petroleum hydrocarbon fractions. Each fraction contains many individual chemicals.

    Some chemicals that may be found in TPH are hexane, jet fuels, mineral oils, benzene, toluene, xylenes, naphthalene, and fluorene, as well as other petroleum products and gasoline components. However, it is likely that samples of TPH will contain only some, or a mixture, of these chemicals. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that one TPH compound (benzene) is carcinogenic to humans. IARC has determined that other TPH compounds (benzo[a]pyrene and gasoline) are carcinogenic to humans.

    Benzene causes leukemia. Benzene as a cause of leukemia had documented since 1928 (1 p. 7-9). In 1948, the American Petroleum Institute officially reported a link between this solvent used in many of their industries used and cases of leukemia in their workers. Their findings concluded that the only safe level of benzene exposure is no exposure at all (2).

    The largest breast cancer incidents are in Marin County, California which is tied to the air, water and ecosphere of the Chevron Oil refinery right next door. New studies of microparticulation and transprocess nano components show that TPH materials can travel opposite of tides and wind via secondary carriers.

    The oil industries spend tens of millions of dollars on fake pundits and disinformation to make sure the above information is never known by the public. Cure Cancer: Stop oil. It is a national security need in more ways than one.

    • invalid-0

      This is amazing information. Thanks for sharing it. I’m going to keep my eye on this BC link. If you can, please contact me at mirandasp@comcast.net, I may want to ask you more about this topic and how I can learn about it.

  • invalid-0

    Also are made with petroleum products.
    Great I bet all the fish in the ocean are saturated in this stuff!

  • http://www.coloncleanserspace.com invalid-0

    It’s really educational to read about the impacts of the environment on breast cancers. I’ve always thought breast cancer is largely hereditary. Awesome article, Miranda

  • http://www.goodcreditco.com invalid-0

    Great post, loving this site now that I discovered it, thanks! Can the statistics be applied to male breast cancer with little variance, do you think?

  • http://musicdownloadvia.net/blog/ invalid-0

    Thanks for this article.
    Good comparison and straight forward arguments.
    Best regards.

  • http://www.golflaserrangefinders.info invalid-0

    Good stuff, Miranda! I think while knowing the relation between the detrimental effects of the environment versus breast cancer, it’s also important for us to review the procedures in place to detect the disease early. It’s particularly sad to know that many forms of cancer can be cured if detected early and yet people are suffering because of late discovery.

  • http://fatloss4foridiots.com/ invalid-0

    Well, I agree, breas cancer is not a problem which can be ignored nowadays. I think that this theme is very actual, however, it makes people sad and this is the reason why media ignores it.

  • http://www.dietalight.net invalid-0

    Thats bad. 1/10 to 1/8 since 1950. We have to find some ways to reduce the chances of breast cancer. Regards. Maria.

  • http://www.qualitybabycarriers.com invalid-0

    Its good to know that more and more women are being aware of what causes breast cancer. It really shouldnt be ignored specially today that its becoming the most popular sickness for women..
    Thanks for this article.. very enlightening..


  • farhaj

    Every year the symptoms of this cancer seems to increase than the previous year. there has to be a solid conclusion and remedy for this disease. Media shoud propagate the symptoms that lead to this and make aware of the precautions .

    sea weed

  • http://www.esnips.com/user/advallora invalid-0

    There are so many factors in the picture for example, genetics. Unfortunately my family has a such history of getting it, it’s potentially a death sentence for the latter generations. Nonetheless, I’m glad to say that I’m still on the “safe side”.

  • http://www.yogibotanicals.com invalid-0

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.