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Rachel's Democracy & Health News #876
Thursday, October 12, 2006

From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #876 ..........[This story printer-friendly]
October 12, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Evidence is piling up to show that many chemicals can cause serious illnesses, which then can be passed on to our children and grandchildren.]

By Peter Montague

New evidence is flooding in to suggest that many industrial chemicals are more dangerous than previously understood. During the 1990s, it came as a surprise that many industrial chemicals can interfere with the hormone systems of many species, including humans. Hormones are chemicals that circulate in the blood stream at very low levels (parts per billion, and in some cases parts per trillion), acting like switches, turning on and off bodily processes. From the moment of conception throughout the remainder of life, our growth, development and even many kinds of behavior are controlled by hormones.

Now new evidence is piling up to show that some of these hormone-related changes can be passed from one generation to the next by a mechanism that remains poorly understood, called epigenetics.

Until very recently scientists had thought that inherited traits always involved genetic mutations -- physical changes in the sequence of nucleotides that make up the DNA molecule itself. Now they know that there is a "second genetic code" that somehow influences the way genes operate, and that by some poorly-understood mechanism can be passed along to successive generations.

Medical scientists hope to take advantage of the new science of epigenetics to manipulate the behavior of genes for beneficial purposes. But the dark side of this new understanding is that stress, smoking, and pollution can cause epigenetic changes -- including many serious diseases like cancer and kidney disease -- that apparently can be passed along to one's children and even grandchildren. For example, Dutch women who went hungry during World War II gave birth to small babies. These babies, in turn, gave birth to small babies even though they themselves had plenty to eat. "It changes the whole way we think about inheritance," says Dr. Moshe Szyf at McGill University in Toronto.

Just last month professor Michael Skinner at Washington State University in Spokane announced results of laboratory experiments showing that environmental pollution could permanently reprogram the genetic traits of a family line of rodents, creating a legacy of sickness. This research "highlights the long-term dangers from environmental pollution," professor Skinner said. Dr. Skinner showed that a single exposure to a toxic chemical in the womb could produce a sick litter of offspring, which in turn could produce its own sick offspring. "It's a new way to think about disease," Dr. Skinner said.

"A human analogy would be if your grandmother was exposed to an environmental toxicant during mid-gestation, you may develop a disease state even though you never had direct exposure, and you may pass it on to your great-grandchildren," Skinner said.

"It introduces the concept of responsibility into genetics," says Dr. Szyf. As a recent story in the Toronto Globe & Mail summarized, "Epigenetics may revolutionize medicine, said Dr. Szyf, and it also could change the way we think about daily decisions like whether or not to order fries with a meal, or to go for a walk or to stay in front of the television. You aren't eating and exercising for yourself, but for your lineage."

On average, 1800 new chemicals are registered with the federal government each year and about 750 of these find their way into products, all with hardly any testing for health or environmental effects.

Brominated flame retardants, phthalates, bisphenol-A, PFOA (related to the manufacture of Teflon) are the toxins that have gained our attention at the moment. By working overtime for 10 or 15 years in the traditional environmentalist way, we may be able to ban a half-dozen of them. But during that 10 or 15 years, the chemical industry (and the federal EPA) will have introduced somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 new chemicals into commerce, almost entirely untested. This destructive merry-go-round is accelerating.

Faced with evidence of harm, governments tend to respond initially by conducting "risk assessments" to show there is no problem. The main function of risk assessment is to make chemical problems disappear, almost like magic. As EPA's first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, reminded us, "We should remember that risk assessment data can be like the captured spy: If you torture it long enough, it will tell you anything you want to know."

So the bad news about chemical contamination is steadily mounting, while the number of new chemicals is steadily increasing. As we have been reporting regularly in Rachel's Precaution Reporter, the European Union has responded to this situation by trying to enact a new law called REACH, which requires that chemicals be tested before they can be sold. As they say in Europe, "No data, no market." The U.S. and European chemical industries -- and the White House -- have been working overtime to subvert the European effort to enact REACH. But now it looks as though REACH -- in one form or other -- will become law soon. It will be binding on any corporations that want to sell chemicals in Europe, including firms based in the U.S.


From: Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario) ................[This story printer-friendly]
March 11, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Scientists are still deciphering what has been described as the second genetic code. They know that a number of chemicals in our bodies act like dimming switches. They suspect this chemical switching system can be affected by diet, the air pollution we inhale, whether we smoke, and the stress we endure -- and the resulting changes can be passed along to offspring.]

By Anne Mcilroy

Scientists are rewriting the laws of heredity as they learn more about a mysterious second genetic code that turns our genes on and off.

The traditional idea that we are the passive carriers of our genes is being challenged by the notion that we are their custodians. Our lifestyles -- what we eat, how much we exercise, whether we smoke -- may play a role in a chemical switching system that activates or deactivates our genes. There are signs that our behaviour may program sections of our children's DNA, and that how we live may even affect our grandchildren's genes.

"It introduces the concept of responsibility into genetics," said Dr. Moshe Szyf, a researcher at McGill University in Montreal and a pioneer in the field of epigenetics, the study of genetic changes that don't involve mutations in DNA.

"It changes the whole way we think about inheritance."

If DNA is the hardware of inheritance, the epigenetic operating system is the software, controlling the 30,000 genes that carry instructions for the proteins that make up our bodies and keep them running.

Scientists are still deciphering what has been described as the second genetic code. They know, Dr. Szyf said, that a number of chemicals in our bodies act like dimming switches and determine whether every gene in each cell produces a lot of a particular protein, very little or none of it.

They suspect this chemical switching system can be affected by diet, the air pollution we inhale, whether we smoke, and the stress we endure. It may be a mechanism through which our environment affects our genes.

In mice there is proof some of these changes can be passed down from generation to generation. There are signs this may be the case for humans, as well, if the environmental changes affect genes in sperm or eggs.

A recent study found that found men who started smoking before puberty are more likely to have overweight male children. Dutch women who went hungry in the Second World War gave birth to small babies, but their children also had small babies, even though they had enough to eat.

There is also evidence, at least in rats, that a mother can turn genes on and off in her offspring. Mothers who lick their pups activate a gene that restricts the production of the stress hormone cortisol. As a result, their babies are more laid back.

Canadians scientists in Montreal and Hamilton are now doing an unprecedented experiment in humans, and want to find whether a mother's behaviour affects similar genes in young children. They should have preliminary results by the fall.

A recent study in Spain found that as identical twins get older, they become genetically less similar. They start out with the same genes, but as they age, the switches that control their genes start to look different. The changes are barely noticeable in three-year-old twins, and most pronounced in elderly twins, especially those who have spent less of their lives together.

This helps explain why, in the Spanish study, a 35-year-old woman developed breast cancer but her identical twin didn't. It may also explain why when one identical twin develops schizophrenia, it is estimated that the other one has only a 50-per-cent chance of developing the mental illness.

Pamela Spiro Wagner started hearing voices the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Carolyn Spiro, her identical twin, became a psychiatrist. She was on call at a Boston hospital when her sister was admitted in a catatonic state, one arm extended into the air.

"This can't be my twin," she recalls thinking at the time. The two wrote a memoir, published last year, called Divided Minds: Twin Sisters and their Journey through Schizophrenia.

Identical twins can look less similar as they get older, and often act very differently. Epigenetics may help explain why.

Connie Millar, 31, says she began noticing more physical differences between herself and identical twin Kendra four or five years ago.

The sisters share a home in Welland, Ont.

"My hair is nice and full," Connie said. Kendra, younger by 11 minutes, conceded her hair is little thinner.

"Hers is more curly."

Their noses are a little different. Connie's turns up a little more, Kendra said. Connie weighs about 30 pounds less than her twin, and likes to curl and dance and go to the racetrack. Kendra is more of a homebody, and is fascinated by royalty.

Darrick Antell, a plastic surgeon in Manhattan, began doing face lifts on identical twins so he could compare the two surgical techniques. But he found that one twin was always an older version of the other. Smoking, sun exposure, diet and the amount of stress they had endured took a toll on their faces. But some of the differences were not so easily explained. One set of twins lived together, but one smoked and the other didn't. The smoker had much more grey hair than his twin.

"I think there is more at work here," said Dr. Antell, who has performed plastic surgery on more than 30 sets of twins, more than anyone else in the world.

But epigenetics may help explain more than the differences between people who are genetically identical.

Scientists are also looking at many common diseases to see if they might be caused, at least in part, by problems with the switching system that activates and deactivates genes. In Canada and around the world researchers are looking at the role epigenetics plays in various kinds of cancer, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, lupus and other illnesses.

Genes seem to play a part in all of these diseases, but not always the starring role. One patient with Alzheimer's can't recognize the faces of their loved ones, while someone else with the same gene linked to the disease is lucid at the age of 90.

The difference is not a mutation, or a change to the four chemicals -- known as nucleotides -- that make up the long strings of DNA in our chromosomes that we inherited from our parents. The problem may be an aberration in the operating system that controls which genes are turned on and off, and how much protein they produce.

In a number of kinds of cancer, a gene that suppresses tumour growth appears to get turned off, Dr. Szyf said. He and his colleagues believe they have discovered a way to turn it on again, with one of two epigenetic cancer drugs now being tested in clinical trials by the Montreal company MethylGene.

They aren't alone. Researchers say dozens of new epigenetic cancer drugs are now being tested around the world, almost all attempting to turn on genes that stop the growth of tumours. One, azacitidine or Vidaza, has been approved in the United States, but not yet in Canada. So far, however, it is not a miracle drug. It appears to help 16 per cent of those who take it.

Dr. Szyf is also exploring what role the switching system plays when cancer metastasizes, or spreads from the original site to other parts of the body.

He is also interested in the role gene switches play in behaviour, including suicide. He is working on epigenetic profiles of men who committed suicide, studying cells from their brains to see if there is a pattern in the genes that are turned on or off. So far, he has studied cells from 14 men who killed themselves, and says the preliminary results are promising.

Arturas Petronis, at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, is working on the epigenetic profiles of both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which used to be known as manic depression. He is studying the brain cells of people with those mental illnesses who died, and comparing them with cells from the brains of people who didn't have either disease. He is looking for a pattern of on-off switches that is distinctive in schizophrenia and in bipolar disorder.

There is no evidence that lifestyle factors -- like drug use -- play a role in switching genes on or off in people who suffer from mental illness. Neither is there proof that lifestyle causes epigenetic changes that lead to other diseases, like cancer. But it may that be that smoking, for example, alters the activity of genes in lung cells.

Dr. Petronis characterizes the epigenetics explanation as a promising theory, one that may answer many perplexing questions about cancer and other diseases.

But first, he and other researchers caution, many mysteries need to be solved. No one knows how the switches in all our cells are controlled. Also unknown is to what extent changes in them are passed down from generation to generation.

Some researchers, however, believe epigenetics holds enormous promise for treating disease. It may be possible -- eventually -- to turn genes on or off, to increase or decrease the production of protein that is part of a disease. It may prove easier than conventional gene therapy, where new genes are inserted into a patient's genetic code.

"Epigenetics will completely change the face of medicine," Dr. Szyf predicted.

It also may change the way we think about pollution, or the chemicals in many products we use every day.

A number of scientists suspect that heavy metals, pesticides, diesel exhaust and tobacco smoke and other chemicals in the environment may be interfering with the human genetic switches. They fear that endocrine disrupters, the so-called gender-bender chemicals, may somehow be switching genes on and off, resulting in fish with both male and female sexual organs and male alligators with shrinking penises.

Michael Skinner a professor at Washington State University, briefly exposed pregnant rats to high levels of two endocrine disrupters, and insecticide and a fungicide. He and his colleagues found that their male offspring had lower fertility and sperm production for not one, but four generations.

Dr. Syzf said that in the future, chemicals should be evaluated not only for whether they cause changes to DNA, but whether they affect the amount of protein a gene produces.

He is working on a way to do this, and said the first step is to identify the sites in the genome that are most vulnerable to these changes.

Scientists are also intrigued about the role epigenetics may play in evolution. Switching genes on and off may be a way for animals, including humans, to adapt to the environment more rapidly than the glacial speed allowed by evolution, which depends on relatively rare mutations to DNA.

"You inherit DNA, but it doesn't tell you if you are living in a rich or a poor environment. If it is rich, you don't have to store fat, don't need to be anxious," Dr. Szyf said. "But if you are going to be thrown in a ghetto, that is a different thing."

Take the mother rats that don't lick their pups much. They tend to be at the low end of the rat social hierarchy, and as a result lead more stressful lives. It is probably a good thing that their pups produce more cortisol -- a stress hormone -- and are more uptight. Cortisol makes rats less aggressive, and less likely to get into fights they can't win.

Researchers in Montreal have found that the boys in neighbourhoods with high crime rates who don't get in much trouble tend to have higher levels of cortisol than boys who join gangs or steal cars. Their higher stress level seems to make them more fearful, and less likely to engage in risky business.

As for our modern lifestyles, exercise is good, but not just for burning calories. It may reprogram our genes, Dr. Szyf said.

Fat may do more than add extra body weight and clog arteries; it may also switch a number of genes on and off that in the past were helpful in preparing humans for a long winter without much food.

Epigenetics may revolutionize medicine, said Dr. Szyf, and it also could change the way we think about daily decisions like whether or not to order fries with a meal, or to go for a walk or to stay in front of the television. You aren't eating and exercising for yourself, but for your lineage.

Loosening the strands of DNA

Flicking genes on and off.

It would mean chaos -- and probably death -- if every gene in every cell of our body were active at once. Brain cells would get clogged with the proteins the kidneys, liver, heart, lungs and skin need to function, and vice versa.

The body needs a way to orchestrate our genes -- especially when an embryo is developing. Scientists are learning more about the chemical switching system that determines what genes get turned on or off, and when.

Most genes carry instructions about what cells they will be used in, says Tom Hudson, a researcher at McGill University in Montreal. But they still need to be activated or deactivated.

Scientists know that for easy storage, the DNA in cells is tightly wrapped around blocks that are called histone proteins. Think of string around a grapefruit, says Michael Meaney, a McGill researcher who found that mother rats can turn a gene on in their pups by frequently licking them.

For a gene to work, and make a protein, the string has to loosen, or the grapefruit has to move or change shape. So far, scientists know of at least five ways this happens, and are exploring how the different chemical reactions that turn genes on and off may be linked. The process they perhaps understand the best is called methylation, in which chemical tags are added to the DNA, tightening the string around the grapefruit so that a gene is silenced, or partially silenced.

Scientists are now mapping these tags, much as they mapped the human genome. They are marshalling resources for an international effort, similar to the human genome project. So far, scientists have mapped the differences in 25 genes that suppress the growth of tumours, says Manel Esteller, a Spanish researcher who did an experiment that showed identical twins become less genetically similar as they age.

They say the human epigenome project will produce profiles of diseases, a map that would show which genes are turned on or off in people with various forms of cancer, as opposed to people who don't get the disease.

Canadian researchers are working on their own on similar epigenetic profiles of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other diseases.

It most cases, it seems that epigenetic changes are not passed from parents to their offspring. Scientists aren't sure how -- but genes seems to be wiped clean after a sperm fertilizes an egg.

But they are intrigued by the notion that some changes may be passed on from generation to generation, and may be influenced by our diet or behaviour.

There is proof this sometimes happens in plants, yeast flies and mammals. Researchers in Australia and the U.S can get yellow mice to have brown babies if they feed them nutritional supplements like folic acid and vitamin B12 during pregnancy. But genetically identical yellow mice not given the supplements had yellow babies.

All of the animals had the same gene that helps determine fur colour, known as the Agouti gene. But in the mothers who were fed the dietary supplement -- and their babies -- the gene had extra chemical tags attached. It was methylated, and produced much less of the protein that colours mouse hair.

It has not been proven that changes to the epigenetic switching can be passed from generation to generation like this in humans, but there are signs it may happen, especially as it relates to diet. Swedish researcher Gunnar Kaati and his colleagues have looked at records from 1890 to 1920. They found that boys who matured in times of plenty had grandchildren with a higher rate of diabetes.

Copyright Copyright 2006 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.


From: Spokesman Review (Spokane, Wash.) ..................[This story printer-friendly]
September 15, 2006


Study finds link during pregnancy

[Rachel's introduction: Pregnant rats were exposed to high levels of a fungicide commonly used in vineyards. In male offspring and three subsequent male generations of the rats, 85 percent of the animals developed cancer, prostate disease, kidney disease, premature aging or other problems.]

By Shawn Vestal

New research by Washington State University scientists suggests that a single exposure to environmental toxins during pregnancy can cause cancer, kidney disease and other illnesses for future generations.

The research, led by WSU professor Michael Skinner, suggests that environmental pollution could permanently reprogram genetic traits in a family line, creating a legacy of sickness. It follows previous studies in Skinner's lab that showed similar long-term effects from toxins on the reproductive systems of successive generations.

"It's a new way to think about disease," Skinner said in a WSU news release. "If this pans out, it gives us a host of new diagnostic and therapeutic tools."

It also provides possible explanations for increases in some diseases, as well as spikes in illness that are tied to a geographical region. And it highlights the potential long-term dangers from environmental pollution, said Skinner, the director of WSU's Center for Reproductive Biology.

In the research, pregnant rats were exposed to high levels of a fungicide commonly used in vineyards. In male offspring and three subsequent male generations of the rats, 85 percent of the animals developed cancer, prostate disease, kidney disease, premature aging or other problems. Most of the rats developed more than one illness.

The research was published in two papers Thursday in the journal Endocrinology.

Skinner's lab has been working on the question of "epigenetic inheritance" for years, and published research last year that showed toxic exposure during embryonic development could hurt fertility over several generations. Epigenetic inheritance involves chemical modifications in the operation of genes from parent to offspring - changes in which the DNA itself isn't modified, but the way the genes "turn off" and "turn on" is affected, WSU said.

The new research suggests an environmental toxin can permanently reprogram an inheritable trait.

Skinner and a team of WSU researchers exposed pregnant rats to the fungicide vinclozolin during a period when the sex of the rats' offspring was being determined. It's a state of development when embryos are susceptible to genetic reprogramming, WSU said in its news release.

The rats were exposed to higher levels of the toxin than are normally present in the environment, and more research is needed to see if lower levels show the same effects.

Pregnant rats exposed to the toxin produced male offspring with low sperm counts and high rates of disease. When those rats mated with females that weren't exposed to the fungicide, their male offspring had the same problems -- a situation that persisted through four generations.

"A human analogy would be if your grandmother was exposed to an environmental toxicant during mid-gestation, you may develop a disease state even though you never had direct exposure, and you may pass it on to your great-grandchildren," Skinner said.

Skinner said the findings might be applicable to the study of breast cancer and prostate disease, which are increasing faster than would be expected from genetic changes alone.


From: Seattle Post-Intelligencer ..........................[This story printer-friendly]
October 9, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Puget Sound -- Washington State's unique inland sea -- is rapidly approaching an ecological tipping point.]

By Robert McClure and Lisa Stiffler

Peter Lang and his buddies like to go diving by Blake Island, just across Puget Sound from West Seattle, where they can scoop up delectable Dungeness crabs.

But when they showed up last spring, the lush meadows of eelgrass where crab like to hide were nearly gone. In the sandy expanse below, they could pick out just a cell phone and an old car radio.

Where they normally spotted scads of crabs and fish, they saw just one sick-looking Dungeness -- with only one claw. It didn't bother to run from them.

The place -- within sight of Tillicum Village, where tourists savor salmon and celebrate the Sound's bounty -- had turned into an underwater desert.

In three other places where Lang and his friends expected to chase after bountiful sea life, they instead found a barren expanse.

"The shallows of Puget Sound are mostly dead," asserts Lang, who has been diving here since 1988. "Something's drastically changed in the last two years."

Lang's story and similar anecdotes match the findings of scientists who study the Sound. Their conclusion: Marine life is disappearing, and fast.

Seabird populations are plummeting. The state's largest seabird- nesting colony last year saw a catastrophic failure. In the south Sound -- years after fishing was cut way back for Pacific cod, whiting and walleye pollock -- populations are still in critical condition.

Salmon stocks stand at perhaps 10 percent of their historic abundance, and individual fish are much smaller.

The orcas that eat those salmon are the highest predator trying to eke out a living in Puget Sound. The federal government last year awarded local orcas the strongest protection available for species slipping toward extinction. Later this year, federal scientists will announce which areas of the Sound must be preserved to keep the population afloat. Whale lovers wonder if the effort will be enough.

The orcas are victims of decades of politicians' broken promises, industries' resistance to stricter regulations and -- perhaps most damagingly -- the inability to convince residents to live and work more gently on the shores of the Sound. It all has resulted in a failure to turn the environmental tide in favor of the salmon on which the orcas depend -- much less launch the broad-based rescue of Washington's unique inland sea that scientists say is necessary to prevent the loss of species.

Warnings are dire.

Recent studies show that Puget Sound's herring -- a key link in the food chain -- contain higher contamination levels than those in Europe's highly polluted Baltic Sea. In May, leading federal and state scientists reported that the "food web of Puget Sound appears to be more seriously contaminated than previously anticipated."

And orcas now are among the more chemically contaminated marine mammals in the world's oceans.

What's causing the disappearance of the eelgrass and crabs, the birds and fish? Hard to say.

Research "has not been as robust or as consistent as it should be," said Tracy Collier, manager of the National Marine Fisheries Service's ecotoxicology program in Seattle.

"Saying why things are happening is difficult because we haven't been spending enough time and effort on it."

For example, systematic state eelgrass surveys were started just five years ago. They cover just 3 percent of the shoreline and one-fifth of the bays where eelgrass might be found.

The tale told by Lang and his diving buddies is one of several recent anecdotes that raise questions about whether we are witnessing a widespread decline in the Puget Sound ecosystem.

Jenny Black came back from college for summer break to find greatly reduced numbers of sea anemones and sea urchins off Bainbridge Island. Where many types of sea stars once thrived, a single species has taken over.

"It's definitely changed a lot. It's drastic," said Black, a Brigham Young University junior who scuba dives and studies marine biology. "I'm kind of bummed out. When you have too much of one thing, you know something's going wrong with the ecology."

These anecdotal reports from central Puget Sound raise the specter of the "dead zones" that have turned up in recent years off the Washington coast and in Hood Canal.

The news is not all bleak. Some sewage pollution and industrial contamination spots have been brought under control, at great cost, in Seattle. Tacoma's Commencement Bay is cleaner than it has been in decades. And state and federal officials have started spending millions to unravel reasons behind the increasingly desperate decline of Hood Canal -- which saw its most extensive fish kill in history last month.

But progress is slow. Despite promises to clean it up, the foul concoction known as stormwater flows into the Sound after every good rain. Shorelines crucial to marine health continue sprouting docks and waterfront owners reinforce walls that wreck the shallow-water ecology, despite a shoreline protection law that dates to 1971. And an ambitious federal effort to help Puget Sound's shoreline has been routinely underfunded.

Politicians have promised for years to save Puget Sound, starting with the chinook salmon that are orcas' main food source.

"We're concerned about the future of marine life in Puget Sound," former Gov. Gary Locke said in 2003, at least five years after he started promising to save the salmon. "We... need that road map of things we can do that will make an immediate and substantial benefit in the health of Puget Sound."

Nearly three years later, that road map still isn't finished. The sweeping actions that experts say are needed to save Puget Sound are still in their infancy.

Laws dealing with many of the problems are on the books, but enforcement is spotty.

"In our meetings with the citizens, we found out the first thing they want us to do is enforce existing law," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., a leader in efforts to save the Sound. "They don't think existing law is being enforced."

Gov. Chris Gregoire is credited by longtime observers with trying to bring a sense of urgency to the effort, prodding extra money from the Legislature and appointing an all-star, bipartisan committee to devise a way to save the Sound. But well-intentioned plans in the past have flared and then fizzled.

"The whole system is under stress," activist Stephanie Raymond told representatives of the Puget Sound Partnership, the high-powered group organized by Gregoire to map out a Sound rescue plan. "This isn't the first or the second or even the fourth time a set of people got together and said, 'How can we help Puget Sound?'

"So I urge this group to look at it with fresh eyes."

Time is critical. WHAT YOU CAN DO

You live, work, play here. You can help.

* Buy seafood that's sustainably harvested. * Fish responsibly. Avoid overfished species. * Help collect scientific data on the Sound through scuba surveys. * Maintain vegetation on shorelines to slow erosion and provide shade and food sources for small fish. * Build away from bluffs. Prevent erosion with log barriers instead of concrete walls. * Volunteer for beach restoration projects. * Support the creation of marine protected areas where fishing is restricted.


The Puget Sound Partnership: Gov. Chris Gregoire-appointed group with 21 members representing diverse public, private and non-profit interests. Their purpose is to craft a plan for recovering the Sound's health by 2020. Draft plan to be released Friday for public comment.

Puget Sound Action Team: State agency overseeing the protection and restoration of the Sound. Issues biannual report cards on progress.

People for Puget Sound: Non-profit group dealing with marine-related education, restoration projects and lobbying.

Puget Soundkeeper Alliance: Non-profit group with strong focus on stormwater pollution and patrols of marine industrial activities.

P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or P-I reporter Lisa Stiffler can be reached at 206-448-8042 or

Copyright 1998-2006 Seattle Post-Intelligencer


From: Toronto Globe and Mail .............................[This story printer-friendly]
October 12, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: A new study from Canada links farm life to an increased likelihood of breast cancer.]

By Martin Mittelstaedt

A team of researchers who studied the occupations of nearly all the Windsor, Ontario women who developed breast cancer in a period from 2000 to 2002 found they were about three times more likely to have worked on farms than women who didn't have the disease.

What's more, those who farmed and then later worked in the automotive industry were four times more likely to have the disease, according to a paper about the research being published Thursday in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

The new study is one of the most detailed investigations undertaken in Canada into the occupations of women who developed breast cancer, and it indicates that something about farming increases the risk of the disease, the most common cancer to afflict females in the country.

Although the researchers didn't determine what these risks were, they speculated about pesticides, many of which are able to mimic or block the normal functioning of estrogen and other hormones.

"If you were going to hypothesize about the No. 1 most likely cause of this elevated risk, I think you'd have to look at the whole chemical exposure that exists on farms," said Jim Brophy, head of the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers in Sarnia, and lead author of the paper.

A staggering 99 per cent of all those treated for the disease at Windsor's cancer centre during the period of the research agreed to participate. Dr. Brophy said there was an enormous desire among women, who typically are not asked about the role their jobs may have played in their illness, to be part of a study that might help explain their cancer.

That desire has a resonance with Tricia Pletsch, who worked on her parent's farm near Chatham as a teenager and developed breast cancer two years ago, at 39. Her family doesn't have a history of the cancer, but she worries about the heavy chemical use on the farm while growing up.

"Pesticides were really popular in the seventies," she said.

Like most women with breast cancer, her doctors never asked about her occupation when trying to explain her illness and were at a total loss to explain why she was afflicted.

"No one asked me what I did, and when I asked them why I got it, no one had a clue," she said.

Scientists around the world are struggling to explain the recent epidemic of breast cancer in industrialized countries because fewer than 10 per cent of those with the disease have a known genetic predisposition for it.

Rates for the cancer in Canada are among the highest in the world, with the lifetime risk of about one in nine. During the past 30 years, there has been a largely unexplained 25-per-cent increase in the country's age-adjusted incidence rate.

Previous research has found an association between breast cancer and a woman's socioeconomic status, diet, age of first pregnancy, and several other factors, but the majority of cases have no known risk factor.

It is also not known why women with higher socioeconomic status are more at risk, but Dr. Brophy says occupation should be investigated more closely because it might provide clues on cancer-causing substances and new prevention strategies.

"If you would capture the lifetime [work] histories of people with cancer, it might be very revealing in terms of risk factors that we're not currently addressing. That could have an enormous preventative effect," Dr. Brophy said.

He said there has to be a major risk in farming to cause the research results. "It's very dramatic, in the most common cancer among women where 50 per cent of the cases are unexplained, to have a three-fold excess," Dr. Brophy said.

In Canada, none of the provincial registries track cancers by occupation. About 22,000 women in Canada will develop breast cancer this year and an estimated 5,300 will die from it.

Up until now, little research on occupation and breast-cancer risk has been done in Canada, although researchers at the British Columbia Cancer Agency looked at work histories and the disease in 2000. They also found an association with agriculture, although they looked at far fewer women farmers than the current study, whose results were considered statistically significant.

An official with Canada's largest cancer registry says he thinks it would be a good idea to study the occupations of those with the disease, although he said this effort would require millions in funding and a political will to implement.

"I certainly don't dispute that it's a neglected area, particularly with women coming into the work force and the nature of work changing," said Eric Holowaty, an epidemiologist at Cancer Care Ontario.

In Windsor, the researchers compared the work histories of 564 woman treated for breast cancer over a 21/2-year period ending in 2002 against a similarly sized random control group of women who didn't have the cancer.

Those with the disease were 2.8 times more likely to have worked on farms. This rate jumped to four times more likely if the women worked in agriculture and then the automotive industry and fell to 2.3 times if they worked on farms and then in health care.

There was no extra risk of breast cancer for women who never worked on farms and then went into the auto industry or into health care, suggesting that agriculture somehow primes women to get the disease.

The Windsor area has large numbers of women employed in agriculture because it is one of the most intensively farmed regions in Canada, with major fruit and vegetable crops. The area also has one of the largest car-making sectors in the country.

About 300 women in the study worked in agriculture.

The researchers found little difference between the women who got breast cancer and the control group with respect to hormone replacement therapy, breast-feeding history, smoking, oral contraceptive use, having a mother with the cancer and previous pregnancies.

Copyright 2006 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.


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