Monday, 12 November 2012

BREASTS: A Natural and Unnatural History by FLORENCE WILLIAMS

BREASTS: A Natural and Unnatural History
Text Publishing, 2012, 338 pages, $34.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

The reason women have evolved breasts, says science journalist, Florence Williams, is for feeding and protecting the health of infants and not as sexual objects, the usual reason advanced in a field of science for so long dominated by breast-fancying men.  The natural history of the breast, however, is threatened by an unnaturally toxic world.

Breast milk, for example, contains a suite of industrial additives, many of them known or probable carcinogens, never meant to be ingested by mothers or passed onto their infants.  These include flame-retardants, perchlorate (a jet-fuel ingredient), DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls (industrial solvents), mercury, lead, benzene and arsenic.  From paint thinners and toilet deodorisers, they come.  From electronics and furnishings.  From food and from cosmetics.

Phthalates, which guarantee cancer in mice, are ubiquitous in human lives.  Used as scent binders in personal hygiene products, and as a softening agent in plastics, phthalates migrate into human tissue, with a special fondness for the fat-laden breast.  Their partner in cancer is Bisphenol A (BPA), an ingredient of polycarbonate plastic which is perpetually to hand in plastic bottles, plastic toys, rubber gloves, food cans, CDs, mobile phones, shopping receipts and dozens more household objects.

This deadly duo saturate the breast, the site of most tumours in women, and they are amongst the prime chemical suspects for the doubling of the incidence of breast cancer since the 1940s.  Better diagnostics and other post-1940s risk factors (such as oral contraceptive use, ageing, obesity, early puberty, older age of first birth and a smaller number of pregnancies) explain only a small part of this increase.

Left in the frame is the increase in chemical exposure, especially to chemicals which mimic oestrogen and other hormones and which increase vulnerability to cancerous mutation or errors from breast cell replication.  Breast cancer is most common in the developed world which has the highest household presence of toxic chemicals.

This breast-hostile environment pits health against capitalist profit and its government guardians.  BPA, for example, generates annual profits in the US of $6 billion as well as breast cancer.  “The phenomenal power of the chemical industry”, says Williams, ensures a lax regulatory environment allowing the 82,000 different chemicals in use, with 800 more added each year, virtually free reign from government oversight.

Standard business and government policy is to assume that all chemicals are safe until proven otherwise.  Adequate testing is not required whilst food, drugs and cosmetics are exempt from labelling for biologically-active synthetic chemicals.  The long latency between chemical exposure and cancer, allows a chemical industry to cynically “sow seeds of scientific doubt” about the link between chemicals and cancer.

Government reluctance to harm corporate profit also smooths the way for tumours through public health crises.  Obesity, and a diet high in fats and low in fibre, increases the risk of breast cancer but little government action, if any, is taken against the food industry to counter the five thousand commercials, half about junk food, which the average American girl will watch during her childhood.

The same irresponsible corporate and government attitude has marked the rest of the unnatural history of breasts.  For post-menopausal women, the ill-fated Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) assisted only around 10% of menopausal women whose symptoms were clinically serious whilst the other 90% were subjected to HRT’s dangerous dose of synthetic hormones because it is “more profitable to do so”.  The 26% increase in breast cancer associated with HRT use was the human cost of greedy pharmaceutical companies doing business.

As with menopause, so too is ‘micromastia’ (small breasts) a concocted ‘disease’ requiring a profitable technology (a global market of $800 million for breast implants) in a tale of “marketing and mass hysteria” over breast envy.  Mastectomy patients account for only 20% of silicone gel injections or implant surgery but the ‘vanity’ majority bear the health burden of complications such as toxic ruptures (especially if the implant is secretly made from cheap industrial-grade silicone), plus a recipe of re-operations, costly MRIs and reduced ability to detect early breast cancer.

Infant formula rounds out the depressing theme of corporate greed and government negligence.  Breast is best for infant nutrition, for disease protection, for cognitive development (formula milk is as detrimental to child IQ as lead in gasoline and paint) and for immunological future-proofing (the 800 species of bacteria in human breast milk establish essential colonies of pathogen-fighting gut flora).  Formula companies, however, seek to crash this monopoly by exploiting the guilt that can arise from mothers who give up breast-feeding because of soreness and mastitis.

Williams concludes that it is folly to try to individually safeguard one’s family from chemicals and from synthetic breast components.  Government, and chemical and medical companies, she says, “need to change the way they test, manufacture and market” their potentially lethal products.  She is right - keeping abreast of the profit motive is the biggest challenge to women’s health under capitalism.

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