Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams

'Toxic Breast Milk?' is an article Florence Williams wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 2005. In Breasts, Williams examines more closely the stew of chemicals increasingly prevalent in our bodies, as well as many other aspects about women's breasts. Similar in style to science writing by Mary Roach, Breasts is both informative and entertaining.

Fun facts are included: "In the Middle Ages, French King Henry II reportedly had casts made of the 'apple-like' breasts of his mistress Diane de Poitiers for his wine cups. Marie-Antoinette's breasts were believed to inspire the design of shallow French champagne coupes (not the narrow fluted ones, heavens), as well as of some celebrated porcelain milk bowls made by Sevres." (One of these bowls was recently on display at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.)

Not so fun are the scary American statistics about increasingly earlier onset of puberty: "by 2011, one-third of black girls between the ages of six and eight were 'budding' breasts (that's actually the technical term) or growing pubic hair, along with 15 percent of Hispanic girls, 10 percent of white girls, and 4 percent of Asian girls. [...] Today, half of all girls in the united States start popping breasts by their tenth birthday." Plastics that mimic estrogen may play a role.

Williams looks at cultural attitudes and how women's vanity can be manipulated by drug companies and physicians, such as by "essentially inventing a new pathology called menopause, in the same way the surgeons had invented one called micromastia, for small breasts."

Breast cancer is the biggest topic in the book. It has been known for millennia: One [ancient Egyptian] papyrus recommends applying a plaster made from cow's brain and wasp-dung to tumors for four days. [...] The most advanced treatment [in the Middle Ages] was the application of insect feces."

The rate of breast cancer is steadily increasing, however. The disease now strikes "1 out of every 8 women who reach old age. Worldwide, a quarter of all malignancies are breast cancer."

Breast cancer is rare in men, which is why it is significant that there are growing numbers of cases connected to one place, Camp Lajeune Marine Corps base in North Carolina. High levels of toxic chemicals have been ingested by people living there, including children. "The legal drinking water level for TCE and PCE, long considered probable carcinogens, is 5 parts per billion. [In 1984] tap water at the elementary school contained 1,184 parts per billion [TCE]." A man "who, as an infant on the base attended a day-care center in the early 1980s that had been converted from a pesticide-mixing facility," is now deceased. "He underwent a double mastectomy when he was eighteen years old."

"Most of the major breast cancer organizations say there is no clear evidence that chemicals can cause breast cancer in humans. But in fact, there is little clear evidence that other things cause breast cancer, including the top favorites of obesity and smoking. If we look at all of the known red flags for breast cancer, such as reproductive and hormonal factors, family history, and radiation, they account for little over half of all breast cancers." The men currently diagnosed with breast cancer may help researchers shed light on the effect of chemical exposure.

"Twentieth-century medicine had us believe our DNA was our destiny. The pendulum of science is swinging away from the preeminence of the genetic code to the surprising power of our soil, air, water, and food. In this current cultural moment that worships technology and throwaway convenience, it's a good time to remember our physical interdependence with the larger world." Amen.

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