Tackling an
environmental disease

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Primary prevention is the answer

Ethics and prevention


Information on this webpage is drawn from our 2005 report: Breast cancer - an environmental disease: the case for primary prevention, available free as a pdf, see Downloads. For current statistics and data, see our homepage.

The deliberate and routine release of carcinogens into the environment is as unthinkable as the practice of slavery.
(Steingraber 1997)

Ethics and environmental hazards

The rationale for banning, reducing or eliminating man-made carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting chemicals from our environment is an ethical one. The release of such agents into the air we breathe, their presence in the food chain and the potential for their absorption in human blood, bone, body tissue and organs are the most compelling reasons for making ethically based decisions to safeguard both environmental and human health. The fact that
'Despite the implicit and potential hazards, chemical-manufacturing companies are not required to show that their products are safe before they are marketed.'
(WWF 2003)

The scientific community and ethics of prevention

Despite growing recognition in the scientific community of the impact of specific environmental factors on health, few from that community are seen or heard expressing interest in primary prevention or concern about its neglect.
'Independent, honest scientists are absolutely necessary in a present-day democracy, whether they are working within the Government, paid by the taxpayer, or in the commercial sector. Important decisions impacting on public health and safety, the environment, as well as the social and economic benefit to civil society, all hinge on the honesty of scientists and the reliability of scientific advice given there must be open debate when scientists disagree with one another conducted in terms comprehensible to the general public, so that the public can participate in making decisions.'
(Dr Mae-Wan Ho)
One example of the importance of independence in assessing health risks was a review of studies on selected chemicals (alachlor, atrazine, formaldehyde and perchloroethylene) that 'exposed industry bias in findings where 60% of studies conducted by non-industry researchers found these chemicals hazardous, while only 14% of industry-sponsored studies did so.'
(Fagin et al 1997)
It smells, doesn't it? When those who are assessing the danger of the (nuclear) industry are in the pay of the industry. It's like the fox guarding the hen house.
(Stewart/Greene 1999)

The particular obligation for chemists

'One of the most basic philosophical reasons that chemists must try to make the work they do and the substances they use as environmentally benign as possible is that we can. With knowledge of how to manipulate and transform chemicals, coupled with the basic hazard data that can be accessed readily from a variety of sources, chemists have it in their power to reduce or eliminate the risk posed to themselvesand society in general by the chemical enterprise.'
(Anastas & Warner 1998)

The precautionary principle

It is a truth very certain that when it is not in our power to determine what is true, we ought to follow what is most probable.
(Descartes, 1596-1650)
The precautionary principle is embodied in the very tradition of public health. A significant example was the control of cholera in the 19th century through improvement of public sanitation systems before scientific evidence could show any causal link between cholera and poor sanitation. To use the precautionary principle is to use the ethical and common sense approach to prevention by taking action to prevent illness and death in the face of incomplete evidence.

The two tests that underpin the precautionary principle are:

Who decides?

Final decisions regarding the protection of environmental and public health are bound to be political decisions because 'weighing the relative importance of protecting public health and economic interests in the face of uncertainty is a public policy judgement, not a scientific one.' (National Academy Press 1999) The importance of establishing the precautionary principle as the universal standard in both old and new policies pertaining to health and environment cannot be over-estimated.

If the prospect of enough profit comes in through the door, precaution often flies out of the window.
(Humphrys 2001)

Human rights and primary prevention

The Right to Know (RTK)

Access to information is the cornerstone of democracy all over the world. It allows people to make informed decisions about their lives.
(International Centre Against Censorship 1997)
The need to be informed about anything that has the potential to affect our health is regarded as a right. The internationally recognised term 'right to know' refers to the right of people to have access to information that is of concern to them. The right of workers to know about hazards in the workplace is written into occupational health and safety laws i.e. the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. There is no equivalent right to know outside the workplace. Extension of this right to the general community is fundamental to attaining reduction and prevention of any disease.

RTK consumer and community information

We have to persist in claiming this right because 'governments of every persuasion use censorship to conceal their policies on the environment, and to silence protestors. The dumping of toxic waste, exploitation of agricultural land by multinational companies and the long-term effects of chemicals and nuclear accidents are often shrouded in secrecy.'
(Defending Free Speech Article 19 International Centre Against Censorship London 1997)

The right to live and work in a clean environment

Every family should be able to obtain water, food and air free from chemical and radiological contamination.
(Sherman 2000)
International endorsement and promotion of this right is found in:

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Reg. address: Breast Cancer UK Ltd, Solva, Southwick Road, Denmead, Waterlooville, Hants. PO7 6LA UK | last updated: 05/10/2006