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Congress Should Prioritize Prevention

by Karen Towne, RN

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I was born and raised in northeastern Ohio where, at age 16, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer is an endocrine cancer that typically occurs in post- menopausal women, not teenage girls. It is a deadly cancer that I was lucky to survive.

Fortunately, I was diagnosed early and my treatment was effective. Today, my cancer has been in remission for 16 years. As a young survivor whose own experience was an epidemiological riddle, I have spent my career in the health field— first as a cancer advocate, dealing with the many complex financial, emotional, and medical issues cancer patients face.

Eventually, I realized that the best way to fight cancer is to prevent it from developing in the first place. Now I work in northeastern Ohio as a public health nurse to prevent the causes and spread of disease in our communities. Scientific experts agree that ovarian cancer is likely a result of a combination of genetic, hormonal, and environmental factors. We also know that ovarian cancer occurs at much higher rates in industrialized countries.

“Eventually, I realized that the best way to fight cancer is to prevent it from developing in the first place.”

A number of different environmental factors are under investigation for their role in ovarian cancer, including solvents, dyes, organic dusts, herbicides, talc, and endocrine-disrupting compounds. As I learned about the potential environmental causes of my cancer, I also researched what our country does to help protect Americans from these toxic chemicals.

The answer I found was unsettling: Our current law allows thousands of chemicals to be used in consumer products without basic testing for their health impacts or safety. Under current U.S. Law, enacted in 1976, dangerous carcinogenic and endocrine- disrupting chemicals like asbestos, formaldehyde, phthalates, and parabens are used in consumer products without oversight. These chemicals are found in children’s products, lotions and shampoos, plastics, furniture, electronics, cosmetics, food packaging, fabrics, and more.

There is a common-sense measure before the United States Senate right now called the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 that would enact basic reforms of this outdated chemical safety system. This measure will immediately begin protecting children, adults, and generations yet unborn. Some of the cancer statistics of the past thirty years are staggering.

“Since 1975, childhood cancers have increased by 20%. Breast cancer incidence increased by 40% between 1973 and 1998.”

Since 1975, childhood cancers have increased by 20%. Breast cancer incidence increased by 40% between 1973 and 1998. Other health conditions are also on the rise, including diabetes, autism, and reproductive problems.

What’s worse, the toxic chemicals found in consumer products have been linked in scientific studies to these statistics. Even the President’s Cancer Panel cites a “growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures to cancer,” and recently asserted that our broken federal chemical policy is impacting cancer rates and costing Americans their health.

Consumers can’t solve this problem and protect the health of their families simply by shopping smarter. As Americans, many of us have an implicit trust that the products we purchase and use every day are safe. Unfortunately, our trust is misplaced.

We lack basic information about the chemical contents and risks of most products we buy. You shouldn’t have to be a toxicologist to shop safely for your family.

For the thousands of people who will be diagnosed with cancer this year in Ohio, and for the few teenage girls with ovarian cancer who will mystify their healthcare providers, I am hopeful Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman will step up and co-sponsor the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011. It is a crucial step toward preventing thousands of cases of cancer and other illnesses each year.