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Computers, chemicals and cancer

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First published in Chatelaine's October 1998 issue.
© Sarah Scott

See also: The path of the wary

To press their case, the Bell girls needed more than a theory, because in early 1996 they all applied for workers' compensation on the grounds that the low-level radiation in the workplace caused their breast cancer. But proof, they learned, was elusive. Evidence of a link between breast cancer and EMFs came nearly a decade ago when two male telephone workers out of 9,500 developed breast cancer, which normally strikes just one in 100,000 men. Since then, dozens of studies have examined the issue and have sparked nasty scientific disputes but no definitive answers. Still, just a handful of studies have zeroed in on the impact of EMFs on women at work, with mixed results. Although the early evidence and some studies pointed to a link between EMFs and breast cancer, later on bigger studies failed to repeat those results. So most scientists tend to dismiss the connection. As it stands now, the link between EMFs and breast cancer has not been proved or disproved, says Dr. Dimitrios Trichopoulos, professor of cancer prevention and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

None of this stopped the Bell girls from pursuing their detective work and workers' compensation claims. "No proof to me does not mean no harm," says Lorna, quoting Cindy Sage, a California environmental consultant who advises public and private clients on EMFs and other issues.

Searching for links between the workplace and their illness gave the Bell girls a new sense of purpose during a difficult time. Early in 1996, Lorna had a mastectomy and started chemotherapy. In a defiant mood, she let her 22-year-old son shave her head. He shaved his own head too. Lorna never bothered with a wig, letting the world know she had cancer. Trish and Maureen, the best friends, suffered recurrences and weathered the effects of chemotherapy. They both found wigs. And sometimes Trish wore a bandanna her grandmother made or a Mickey Mouse cap to the gym for her daily workout. Maureen continued to ferry her three boys to hockey practices. "Yeah, I've got cancer," she'd say. "Now get in the car. We need groceries!" In May 1996, Maureen and Trish took a Hawaiian holiday: in one snapshot they looked tanned and radiant, toasting the evening with tequila margaritas. Maureen wrote a caption poking fun at the chemotherapy: "Here's to Techemo."

Still, the three pressed Bell for answers. In June 1996, Bell hired an outside firm, Ontario Health and Safety Network Ltd., to test the third floor. Their conclusion: the average exposure level of EMFs was low--1.13 milligauss (mG), less than the levels in many kitchens. But the report could not assess how much exposure the Bell girls had, since the test was done after half the office was relocated to Toronto. What's more, much of the equipment had changed by the time they tested for EMFs. A subsequent test by the same firm showed that Lorna was exposed to 27 mG from the printer alone. According to Joel Carr, national representative of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, the Bell girls were exposed to more low-level radiation than 95 percent of office employees in Canada. But Bell company officials assured employees that the office was perfectly normal.

Far from being reassured, the other employees voted at a meeting to get off the floor. The company complied--not because anything was wrong, but to ease the women's fears. On the morning of November 27, just over two years after the first of the Bell girls was diagnosed, more than 100 frightened Bell employees gathered in a fifth-floor office space to hear the experts discuss the outbreak. Trish, Maureen and Lorna, all on sick leave, sat in the middle of the group. Gilles Thériault, a renowned McGill University epidemiologist, spoke first. He said the cancers were a cluster, all right: the incidence on the floor was 10 times higher than it should be. By that time, two cases of colon cancer had surfaced. But the cancers were not caused by computers or any other electrical equipment. Thériault told the group his own research into EMFs had convinced him that there's no link to breast cancer. The cluster of cases on the third floor was just one of those incredible coincidences. That expert opinion convinced Bell that nothing in that office had harmed the women, explains Michèle Parent, Bell's director of health and safety. Still, Thériault suggested that Bell establish a five-year monitoring program to track any future cancer cases among employees. Bell is doing so.

Then Trish did something she never would have dreamed of doing in her precancer days. She stood up to face the authorities: "I am not a mere coincidence!" she said. She was convinced that something had gone drastically wrong, and no experts were going to tell her otherwise. Her coworkers began to cry as Trish announced that she was going that afternoon for a stem-cell transplant, which involves massive chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant and three weeks in a hospital isolation room. In front of that group, she vowed to fight for safe EMF levels in schools.

And so she did. Trish walked out of the hospital just after Christmas 1996. She resumed a campaign she had begun just before the surgery to make sure computers in schools are set far enough apart to keep EMF levels low. If EMFs could give her cancer, she reasoned, it was important to keep children away from this type of radiation. Then came the bad news: the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board denied the Bell girls' demand for compensation in a letter: "There is no conclusive scientific literature at this time that supports a causal relationship between EMF exposure and the development of breast cancer." The setback didn't stop Trish and Lorna. They started giving speeches about EMFs at any public meeting that would have them and appeared in a union-sponsored movie about workplace hazards.

Meanwhile, Lorna joined the Breast Cancer Prevention Coalition, a network of breast cancer survivors and supporters who believe that environmental factors such as synthetic chemicals and radioactive pollutants are contributing to the increase in breast cancer. Now the treasurer and secretary of the group, Lorna attended the 1997 World Conference on Breast Cancer in Kingston, Ont. She met one of the big names in the campaign to link the environment to breast cancer, Washington, D.C., scientist Devra Lee Davis. Davis has published research in magazines such as Scientific American suggesting that certain pesticides, drugs, fuels and plastics may contribute to breast cancer by mimicking the hormone estrogen, which can promote the growth of malignant breast cancer cells. Believing there's enough evidence to merit further study, Davis advocates "prudent avoidance" of these chemicals. In Exposure, a 1997 Canadian documentary, she asked, "Do you wait until we have enough dead bodies before we take action?"

But Canadian toxicologist Stephen Safe at Texas A & M University in College Station, Tex., calls this type of work a "paparazzi-science approach" and says it has been discredited by scientific evidence. These estrogen mimics are weaklings--thousands of times weaker than the natural estrogen in our bodies and far weaker than alcohol, "the major known chemical factor for breast cancer," Safe says. "People go bananas over one part per billion of DDT and then go out and get drunk. Give me a break!"

The scientific debate seemed a long way off for the Bell girls in the spring of 1997, when doctors told Maureen that the anticancer drugs weren't working. "I don't want to look for any more cures. I just want to enjoy my family," Maureen told Trish. And she did. With money raised in a raffle, Maureen took her husband and four kids to Disney World that spring. In September, Trish was at Disney World with her family when she checked her message machine at home. The messages all said the same thing: Maureen is dying. Come home, fast. The Balons drove straight back from Florida, and Trish sat with Maureen on her porch, sipping coffee, just like in the old days. "I'm okay. Don't worry about me," said Maureen.

A week later, just before the kids came home from school, Maureen died.

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