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‘Healthy building ordinance’ on agenda

By Josh Parr Daily Planet Staff
Tuesday October 10, 2000

Prevention before detection. For victims of breast cancer and health workers, it seems like an obvious emphasis. “Detection of breast cancer is after the fact,” said Katherine Porter, of the Berkeley-based Women’s Cancer Resource Center. “We need to eliminate cancer at the root.” 

To do so, Porter and Diane De Lara want to reinvent “Cancer Awareness Month”, which they say is now a corporate-sponsored advertisement for pharmaceutical companies. 

To support Porter and de Lara, Councilmembers Margaret Breland and Kriss Worthington will introduce a resolution tonight to the Berkeley City Council, a first step in implementing several prevention-based ordinances.  

The resolution would require the city of Berkeley to develop a “healthy building ordinance” for all city renovations and new buildings, which would include the elimination of polyvinyl chloride and formaldehyde, which produce the known carcinogen dioxide. In addition, the resolution would have the city obtain fact sheets on the links between cancer and industrial pollution and distribute them to all clinics, hospitals, nurseries, and other health related sites in Berkeley. A city representative would be asked to regularly attend the Association of Bay Area Governments taskforce on dioxin pollution prevention. 

The city would purchase paper products that are totally chlorine free whenever possible. Lastly, the resolution would reaffirm the ban of pesticides in Berkeley parks, and place signs inside them announcing “You have entered a pesticide-free zone.”  

Further, “We are encouraging Berkeley industries to attain zero level emissions,” said Worthington, adding that the city will provide educational materials to businesses so that owners understand the link between the emissions and cancer. “This could lead to voluntary cooperation from businesses and set a trend, especially in a town like Berkeley, where people would say, “I’m not buying from anyone that doesn’t take into account dioxin emission.” 

Porter said that such a policy would make Berkeley a leader in the elimination of cancer causing agents, but that is just a small drop in the bucket. It is, however, a good way to raise awareness. 

“People need to know about the corporate nature of the breast cancer issue,” said Porter, who founded the Women’s Cancer Resource Center after being diagnosed with breast cancer herself and was dissatisfied with the way that the health industry was approaching the disease. “Money continues to pour into early detection centers, people donate millions of dollars every year, including polluter industries which contribute to the problem. It’s difficult to get a word in edgewise against these pharmaceutical companies which have so much more money and access. But this,” she said, pointing to the declaration, “is how we try to build our grassroots movement for prevention. One city at a time.” 

“Pharmaceutical companies...started cancer awareness month in 1984 and they emphasize early detection, but never mention the industrial causes of cancer,” said de Lara. “When pharmaceutical companies do consider prevention before detection, they advocate for prescriptions. Last year they made $573 million in ‘prevention’ sales to wealthy women. But real prevention does not come in a pill,” added de Lara. 

Studies have linked breast cancer to the presence of carcinogens, often the byproduct of heavy industry and pesticides. Between the years of 1991 and 1998, more than 1.5 billion pounds of pesticides were applied in California, an increase of 127 percent. Of the nearly 75,000 chemicals in commercial use today, nearly two-thirds have not been tested for carcinogens, according to Breast Cancer Action literature. 

Similarly, between 1983 and 1997 the incidence of ductal carcinoma in situ, a condition which could lead to invasive breast cancer, has increased 214 percent among women under 50, and 329 percent in those aged 50 and older, according to a report from the American Cancer Society. 

The Berkeley resolution comes a week after the Oakland City Council approved a similar prevention resolution. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is also mulling its own version of the resolution. The Berkeley breast cancer resolution, however, is more extensive and far reaching than the others, said Worthington. 

“Ours has more therefores, and whereas’es,” he joked. 

Polly Armstrong, however, calls it a boiler plate with a lot of “shoulds” and “will try’s.” 

“We’re really just doing what some other cities have already done,” she said. “It’s motherhood and apple pie. No on is going to say that getting people to pay attention to cancer and make changes in their lives to live a healthier existence is a bad thing,” she added.  

“Most of the substance we already have. We don’t use pesticides in parks, and Diane Woolley already asked for a healthy building ordinance.” 

In short, “it’s politically correct and isn’t going to hurt anything,” said Armstrong. 

Lingering beneath this image of Berkeley as a leader in cancer prevention, however, is that the root problems of cancer-related illness remain unaddressed. “African-American women, as a whole, don’t have the same purchasing power as white women,” said De Lara, referring to the various treatment modalities available to people with money to pay for the. One study by the American Cancer Society found that while white women are more likely to get breast cancer nationally, black women are most likely to die from it.  

Berkeley numbers seem to replicate this trend.  

A health study released last year showed that the incidence of breast cancer in white and black women in the city is markedly different. In 1997, 34 out of 100,000 white women died of breast cancer, while 48 of 100,000 African-American women died in the same manner.  

South and West Berkeley, where the population is predominantly African-American, is also home to Berkeley’s last remaining industrial zone, and is closer to the freeway, said Worthington. “It’s also the least served in terms of health care,” he added.