A recent report, 'State of the Evidence, What is the connection between the Environment and Breast Cancer?' states that radiation is the best-established cause of breast cancer. Two San Francisco-based organizations, Breast Cancer Action and Breast Cancer Fund, released the report in October 2004.
When the truth comes out, it seems as if we already knew it. Yet, radiation is hardly ever mentioned as a cause of cancer. "It's the elephant in the room," Nancy Evans, one of the authors of the report acknowledges. "It's not talked about."
The report, based on experimental, body burden and epidemiological studies, summarizes the evidence of multiple environmental factors, and finds the evidence that radiation causes breast cancer, as "indisputable."
The female breast is two to three times more sensitive to radiation than any other organ. Yet, highly reputed authorities like the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute downplay any environmental connection, especially radiation, focusing instead on "risk factors" within the woman's control.
Her condition, it seems, is her fault. It's her genes, her hormones, her lifestyle, her lack of children or late mothering, her insufficient exercise, her diet.
The fact however, is that risk factors don't explain all breast cancers. "Even when all known risk factors and characteristics including family history and genetics are aggregated, as many as 50 per cent of breast cancer cases remain unexplained," the report states.
Both radiation and chemical toxins are implicated, but while some are "initiators" of cancer, and others are "promoters," radiation is both. That means it facilitates cancer easily. Yet only two pages in the 78-page report are about radiation, mainly from X-rays and other medical treatments.
"It's not to say you shouldn't have X-rays, but let's treat them the way we treat prescription drugs," says Evans, "put the dosage in the record, instead of telling the patient that having an X-ray is like flying to Denver." One would need to fly 3,300 hours to receive the equivalent of one chest X-ray. Even a mammogram, the smallest dosage, is equivalent to 1000 hours of flying.
"Standards of mammography are now tightly regulated, but that's only thanks to patient advocacy," Evans says. "Ten years ago, technicians were not properly trained to read them so they often had to be repeated."
The biggest offenders in the medical realm are CT scans and fluoroscopy. But these processes are not monitored for radiation, and the radiation dosage is never stated. CT scans make up only 10 per cent of radiological procedures but account for 65 per cent of the radiation dosage we receive, says Evans. They are becoming increasingly popular, particularly for children. But kids are much more susceptible to damage from radiation, and scans "may be setting them up for the possibility of cancer twenty years down the line."
And what of the steady accumulation of radioactivity in our environment - from power plants, nuclear waste, decades of bomb tests, and now depleted uranium weapons? It's hard to tell, says Evans, because background levels have not been measured since the 1970s.
Janette Sherman is a doctor of medicine and a toxicologist. In 1952, she worked at the secret National Radiological Defence Laboratory (NRDL) in San Francisco, where undetermined quantities of radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project and radiation experiments were buried in a ditch that feeds into San Francisco Bay. Sherman believes that radiation is the primary cause of cancer.
The genes said to be implicated in breast cancer - BRCAI or BRCA2 - explain less than one in every 10 cases. In her book, 'Life's Delicate Balance', Sherman says BRCA1 is "a suppressor gene, meaning when it is functioning as nature intended, it repairs damage to the DNA of a cell... when mutated, the altered gene allows for runaway growth." The question that scientists should be asking is - what caused the gene to mutate in the first place?
If scientists can't explain the rise in breast cancer (in the US) - from one in 22 women in 1940 to one in seven now - it could be because they aren't asking the right questions, says Sherman.
Radiation continues to pour into the environment from nuclear power plants. A nuclear power plant discharges 200 radioactive isotopes every moment into the atmosphere. "If it didn't, it would blow up," says Sherman. Although these isotopes decay, they may decay into equally damaging - or more damaging -isotopes. In the case of strontium-90 for example, which was discharged during bomb tests, the next isotope formed as it degenerates is itrium-90, which, unlike the parent isotope, "seeks soft tissue".
The use of depleted uranium (DU - like DU tipped bombs and DU shells) since the 1991 Persian Gulf War is also of concern. Geoscientist Leuren Moret has said that these radioactive alpha particles will travel all around the world in one year.
In California's Bay Area, which has the highest breast cancer rates in the world, canisters of radioactive materials stored at the bottom of the ocean are known to be leaking. The area is also within 50 miles (the radiation zone) of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which has discharged radioactive isotopes of plutonium and uranium into neighboring creeks.
Radioactive isotopes may be in the fish, says Dr Sherman, and also distributed by wind and fog. "You don't have to do a million dollar study," she says. "You just have to go down to the shores of the Bay and take samples of mud and water."
In 2005, breast cancer is expected to kill more than 40,000 American women and more than 370,000 women worldwide.