The Wellesley Townsman - February 21, 2021

Cancer Forum Emphasizes Precautionary Principle In Assessing Risks of Chemicals by Valentina Zic (Townsman Staff)

When Sharon Koshar was pregnant she wanted to be sure to be sure her baby was healthy. Even though she was a vegetarian, she decided that protein would be good for the baby and began eating fish.

But her son was born with a learning disability and she will always wonder if it may have been because of she may have eaten contaminated fish.

With this anecdote, Koshar, project organizer at the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, began her Feb. 7 talk at a forum in the Wellesley Community Center called " In Our Own Backyard: Environmental Toxins, Our Health, and Precaution. "

More than 30 people attended the forum, which was presented by the Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project, the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, and The Wellesley Pesticide Awareness Campaign.

The main topic of discussion was the " Precautionary Principle, " which, said Koshar, is an international effort or movement.

The main idea behind the Precautionary Principle is that there are tens of thousands of chemicals now in use in society in a variety of products. According to the Breast Cancer Coalition's documents, many of these chemicals are potentially harmful, but have not been adequately tested to determine if they really are safe for humans.

Potential toxins can cause a variety of problems for human beings, from cancer to learning disabilities to other health issues., according to the coalition and to other organizations devoted to implementing the Precautionary Principle.

If the Precautionary Principle were implemented, a product would not have to be proven harmful in order to be taken off the market. Instead, society, in particular manufacturers of products, would have to take extra precautions to prove that a chemical or product is safe before introducing it into the environment and into society.

Implementing the Precautionary Principle would change how the money that is currently used for cancer treatment research and for finding cures for other diseases is used, said Viola Morse, chairman of the Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project. With the implementation of the Precautionary Principle, more of that money would be channeled into research and precautionary measures that would prevent disease-causing toxins from being introduced into the environment in the first place. That way, people like Koshar would not have to worry about whether or not something about their lifestyles had caused them harm. They could simply be more certain that they were living in a safe environment.

At the meeting, Koshar, the Precautionary Principle coordinator for the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, gave an overview of the principle. She explained why it is particularly important for people throughout the United States and in Massachusetts and Wellesley, in particular, to care about cancer and disease prevention and about possible toxins in the environment. She also invoked the help of her audience in implementing the Precautionary Principle in Massachusetts.

Among other statistics, Koshar cited the fact that Massachusetts has the highest incidence of breast cancer in the country, that 182,000 women in the United States were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, and that breast cancer had killed 40,500 women in the U.S. in 2000.

The overall cancer rate in the U.S. has risen, she said. It is now at 40 percent of the general population compared to 25 percent in 1950. That means one in two men will develop cancer in their lifetime, as will one in three women.

" People are getting cancer a lot more than they used to, " she said. In addition, ADHD, autism, and other learning disabilities are becoming increasingly common, Koshar said.

All of this is occurring at a time when more and more untested chemicals and possible toxins are being introduced into the environment, she said. Disease is on the rise. It is clear that people need to be more and more careful about what goes into their environment and what toxins they are exposed to, she said.

Joel Tickner, Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, gave other reasons for implementing the Precautionary Principle. He traced the principle's origins to the German principle of " Vorsorge, " or foresight, which Germans had instituted to protect their environment. He stressed how limited scientific knowledge is, and how difficult it is to determine with certainty which chemicals are harmful, and which are not.

" What we don't know can hurt us, " he said. Because it is so difficult to determine the harmful effects of certain chemicals, extra precaution needs to be taken before introducing new ones into the environment, he said.

At the end of the session, Koshar asked audience members to join " a coalition, " a campaign to help implement the Precautionary Principle in Massachusetts, especially as it relates to children's' health and development. Audience members could sign an endorsement form and to take a number of actions, including writing letters to the governor and to other legislators, writing letters to newspapers, and helping to organize events.

" Suddenly, with the Precautionary Principle, we can say, 'We don't know, we need to be careful,' " Koshar said.

Some of those who attended the event seemed convinced of its usefulness and of the necessity of taking extra precautions with people's health and with the environment.

" People need to be better educated [about this subject], " said one audience member later.

" It was just useful because it heightened people's awareness, " said another.