Richmond, California, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, have little in common—other than a high incidence of breast cancer. Who would know? The residents of Richmond, an urban community bordered by oil refineries and a major freeway, are mostly black and Latino. Cape Cod’s residents, on the other hand, are mostly white and are not exposed to any known outdoor toxins.
Their dissimilarities make the two groups ideal for a study examining why some communities have unusually high cancer rates. Brown community health researcher Rachel Morello-Frosch, herself a breast-cancer survivor, and sociologist Phil Brown recently received a million-dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health to test the air quality inside Richmond and Cape Cod homes.
The researchers, working with two health advocacy groups (the Silent Spring Institute and Communities for a Better Environment), are examining the effects of endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs), which can mimic estrogen, a known breast-cancer link. EDCs are found in household cleaning products and pesticides and can be emitted by certain carpets and upholstery fabrics.
Preliminary results indicate that such chemicals, including some long banned, are indeed present in the Cape Cod houses. Whether the same chemicals will be found in Richmond has yet to be seen.
Might a cancer study co-led by a breast-cancer survivor and involving health-advocacy groups be less than objective? “I’m not on a mission to prove an environmental link to breast cancer,” says Morello-Frosch. “My experience as a breast-cancer survivor helps ground the research in reality and puts me in a useful position to be able to communicate to people [involved in the study] what this study can and can’t say about possible links to breast cancer.” The research, she notes, only measures exposure, not causality, and “could be useful for generating hypotheses for future studies. People spend 80 percent of their time indoors, and we know very little about what goes on in the indoor environment.”
As for the advocacy groups, Morello-Frosch says they are essential to the study. “It isn’t mixing advocacy with science,” she says, “it’s engaging community groups who have a concern about these issues in the research process. It’s important when you’re doing studies in communities that you work with organizations that have deep links with them, so you’re not just a carpetbagger coming in from the outside, collecting data, and bailing.”This kind of community involvement is precisely what qualified the study for NIH funding. “This approach is quite common in the field of public health,” says Morello-Frosch, “and it is becoming increasingly more common in the sciences. In some ways, it democratizes the scientific process, so it’s not just an insular process within the purview of the experts.”