Web Features

Remembering Eco-Feminist Rosalie Bertell

December 27th, 2012     by Frieda Werden     Comments

Transcription by Vidhya Elango

Rosalie Bertell, an eco-feminist, biometrist and mathematician who did groundbreaking work in health promotion relating to breast cancer and its social and environmental factors, recently passed away. In remembrance, Frieda Werden, host and creator of the Women’s International News Gathering Service (WINGS), a weekly radio series by and about women from all over the world, produced a program which looks at some of Bertell’s contributions to public health. Today we bring you a condensed version of that story, one of many pieces we encourage you to explore from WINGS .

Take a listen here:

For a transcription of ‘Remembering Eco-Feminist Rosalie Bertell’ read on:

Sarah Feldbloom: Hi, I’m Sarah Feldbloom, Shameless Magazine’s Web Producer. Today on the podcast we’re featuring a piece produced by WINGS - the Women’s International News Gathering Service. Every week WINGS, which is captained by producer Frieda Werden, broadcasts news by and about women from all over the world on community radio stations across Canada, and the PACIFICA network in the United States. This piece is about an amazing woman who did groundbreaking work in health promotion related to breast cancer, her name was Rosalie Bertell.

Over the course of this piece (which has been condensed from its original version), you’ll hear about how environmental factors contribute to cancer and breast cancer, and what Bertell attempted and accomplished fighting for community health improvement. According to a 2011 Huffington Post article, Cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada, and according to the Canadian Cancer Society breast cancer is the most common form of cancer for women. Perhaps you’ve known someone who has been diagnosed with cancer and have seen firsthand what it looks like. It’s important for us to make sure we educate ourselves, as early in our lives as possible about social and environmental factors that could increase our chances or the chances of people we know and love of developing it.

In this piece Bertell puts into focus that like many other battles we face cancer is not something that we can fight solely through physical fitness and individual treatment of patients since the development of the disease is largely provoked by social and environmental issues relating to industry and economy. There are ways we can invest in our world now to make ourselves, our communities, and future generations healthier. Take a listen to hear what Bertell discovered through her research. More about what we can do to fight this problem after.

[Choral singing/The WINGS theme song]

Frieda Werden: Welcome to WINGS, a series of news and current affairs programmes, by and about women around the world, produced and distributed by the Women’s International News Gathering Service.

FW: On June 14th, 2012, with shockingly little attention from the press, one of the world’s most modest, public-spirited, and quietly influential scientists passed away. Dr. Rosalie Bertell was a biometrist, a mathematician who studied biological phenomenon. She was born in the US and did her early work there.

Rosalie Bertell: I was a math major for both Bachelor’s degree and the Master’s degree. When I wanted to go on for a doctorate, I was offered a scholarship from the National Institute of Health.

FW: Bertell was a senior research scientist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and a consultant to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the US Environmental Protection Agency and Health Canada. In 1984, she founded the International Institute of Concern for Public Health in Toronto, Canada. Ten years later, she gave this interview about her work:

RB: Now I’m working to develop what I’m calling a new layer of medical care, which is care for the community, developing ways to say whether or not the community is in a health problem. If it’s abnormal, then what intervention can we make on a community level that will improve the, the health – just to give you an example, in the Metro area of Toronto, we found one community where 60% of the people had respiratory problems. Now, there’s something radically wrong there. I mean, they were downwind of a big incinerator, which probably was a major contributing factor, but, you know, we did look at other things. People’s socioeconomic status, and measure that impact. We look at the impact of lifestyle and hobbies, indoor pollution, even floor wax and roach spray. And we look at outdoor pollution and we rate all of these both on the hazard to the individual and impact in terms of ill health on the whole community, so they can be then approached by the community in a rational way.

FW: In 1986, Rosalie Bertell received a Right Livelihood award for her research on factors that damage the biosphere and the human gene pool. From the WINGS archive, you’re listening to mathematician and epidemiologist Dr. Rosalie Bertell, interviewed in 1994 by Laura Flanders:

Laura Flanders: I’d like to go on to the topic of breast cancer and the work that you’ve done on breast cancer. Maybe you could start with an idea of what leads you to believe that radiation plays a role in the increased rates of breast cancer that we’re seeing these days.

RB: I had worked for nine years on the analysis of the Tri-State Leukemia Survey - that was a major survey done in Maryland, Minnesota and New York State. It was a study that, as soon as the person was diagnosed, they had to report to the state authority, and then a public health nurse would go and interview the person and the family, collect a lot of information and 50 different possible exposures, and then, we also had several sets of controls for each person. It was a study both of childhood leukemia and adult leukemia.

So I spent about four years screening the data for the factors that looked like they were connected with the increase of leukemia, and then evaluating how many of the cases that could be attributed to this factor. And it became obvious that the most important factor of the 50 that were looked at was the medical diagnostic x-ray. So, then I spent another five years just to study the effect of the medical x-rays including dental and chest and GI series, and intravenous pyelogram, all the things that people get, and that general effect on leukemia in particular, and I started looking at the non-lymphatic leukemias, because those leukemias go up with an astonishing regularity with every year of aging.

They had put on our site committee, Seymour Jablon, who was head of all of the atomic bomb studies, and we were also attacking his research, because we were finding risk estimates for leukemia that were much higher than they were saying based on the Hiroshima data. And there was certainly a lot of politics going on, because after having been funded for 10 years by the National Cancer Institute, the funding was stopped, and we got a letter saying, “If you would like to change your line of research, we would be glad to consider a resubmission of your program”. So, I was really angry at that, but it was my first contact with this breast cancer mammography program, and right from the beginning in the 70s, I’ve always had a really bad feeling about it.

LF: Now we’re at a situation where the breast cancer rate is somewhere between 1 in 9, 1 in 8. And there are all sorts of explanations, many of the ones we see most often in the press have to do with diet, have to do with genetics, have to do with exposure to pesticides. What is your reaction to the state of the debate so far, and what do you think is being left out of the picture?

RB: Well the risk factors that have been identified so far, for breast cancer, explain less than 10% of the cases, so they’re obviously not the overall explanation. Eating fatty foods is an interesting one, because fat never really hurt anyone, it’s that a lot of the carcinogens are fat-soluble, not water-soluble, so instead of going after the polluters, they go after the people, and make the people feel it’s their fault if they ate fat [chuckles], you know, fat’s part of a normal diet.

Most of the cancer-related programs right now are what I would characterize as “blame-the-victim” programs. The big ones are “don’t smoke”, “don’t eat fatty food”, and “don’t sit in the sun” [laughs]. You know, well, it’s not my fault that the military’s up there ruining the ozone layer [laughs]. Or the carcinogens - why not go after the people putting the carcinogens that are fat-soluble in the environment, instead of telling people not to eat fatty foods? Also, the cigarettes, North American cigarettes are among the worst in the world, and a lot of the pollution in the cigarettes is from the phosphate fertilizer that’s being used on the tobacco, which incorporates radioactive material into the tars, and any other substance that’s there. So, I do think that we need to go into our cancer and health questions more deeply. You certainly are not going to solve all the health problems in this country by jogging.

And again, I’m not against jogging, I’m just saying that it’s too superficial and there’s too much blame and responsibility put on the individual. That’s why I’m trying to work with communities. I think there are aspects of your health that can only be dealt with on a community level, like the community water supply, or the community air-pollution level. There’s nothing you can do, in fact, you can make your health worse, if you have air-pollution, by jogging, because you breathe more deeply, and you bring more of it into your lungs. So, we have to become more sophisticated in health, and we have to begin to deal on community, regional, national and international levels, with the major threats to health, and not just have a physical fitness class.

FW: Dr. Bertell’s mathematical analysis of the breast cancer epidemic led her to serious conclusions about the effects of nuclear testing. The US conducted above-ground nuclear tests from 1945 to 1963.

RB: I started looking at the data very carefully when Mothering magazine approached me to write a feature article on breast cancer. I spent a good bit of time looking at the detailed data, and I found one of the best articles was in the journal of the National Cancer Institute in 1990. It was done by the Kaiser Permanente, which is a health maintenance organization in Oregon.

So, they had very detailed information on 2000 women with breast cancer, and their information was really quite startling, because the increase, it’s not gradual, it’s not something that’s been happening slowly over a long period of time. If you look at their data, you’ll see that, as different cohorts of people, people born in different years, move into the, say 40-59 year old, or the over-60 year old group, there’s a sudden jump. These are big jumps, as many as an increase in 100 cases per 100 000, which is a, that’s a monumental increase. If you have a solid tumour like that, you figure it hits observable size in around 30 years, so you start saying, “What was going on 30 years ago?”

So, when you start looking back, it’s pretty clear that these numbers are being affected by the fallout period from 1951 to 1963, when most of North America was blanketed with fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing. And it’s interesting, because when the people that were in their 20s moved into the 40-59 group, there’s a big jump. When the younger people moved in to the over-60, there was another jump there. So, there are several very discrete jumps, and it looks to me as if this epidemic will continue now until – I think we’ve now gotten to the ones that were 11 or 12 years old at the time that the testing started – they’re now getting into the breast cancer age, but the younger ones have still to come.

So this epidemic, I think will be with us for a while, until this whole cohort that was affected by the atmospheric testing moves through. Now, I don’t think that’s the only factor. And given the fact that the underlying epidemic can be due to radiation exposure at an early age, I have serious questions about routinely using mammography on people, because radiation can cause cancer, but it also can stimulate a cancer that’s caused by other factors, and cause it to develop more rapidly. So, I don’t see any justification for routine use of mammography for screening. I’m not objecting to it as a diagnostic tool when there’s a good reason to use it.

LF: So the information that you’re giving suggests that there is a damaged generation, who are now visible and countable, as those who are victims of this breast cancer epidemic. You’re also challenging the conventional wisdom with respect to treatment and screening, or at least screening.

RB: I think women are going to have to make up their own minds. I don’t think they should listen to me anymore that they should do exactly what their doctor tells them, or do what the press is telling them. It’s a very personal decision. And I think if you refuse the mammography, then you also have an obligation to undertake frequent self-examination, to learn how to self-examine, and to do it very faithfully, because, certainly, the breast cancer problems are real.

FW: The late Dr. Rosalie Bertell, mathematician and epidemiologist, researched many issues affecting the health of people on the planet. She was director of The International Medical Commission on Bhopal and organized The International Medical Commission on Chernobyl. After age 70, she published two books for a general readership – No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth and a survey of military uses of geoengineering titled Planet Earth: The Latest Weapon of War. For more information, visit the website of the International Institute of Concern for Public Health, iicph.org. WINGS thanks all our supporters, including your local radio station, Suzette Cullen and Genevieve Vaughan, editor of Women and the Gift Economy. The Wing’s sound logo is from Libana’s album A Circle is Cast. I’m Frieda Werden. This is the Women’s International News Gathering Service.

[Sound up on extro]

SF: I’m Sarah Feldbloom, Shameless Magazine’s Web Producer. You’ve been listening to an episode of the Women’s International News Gathering Service, featuring public health researcher Rosalie Bertell. As Bertell alluded to earlier on, there are ways we can fight the spread of cancer - we can make sure to do regular breast-self-examinations, we can initiate conversations with our friends about environmental and social issues that contribute to cancer, we can critically consider social questions like who has access to education and decision-making power, and how is that effecting the health of the communities we belong to? One might find that this is often tied to race and privilege.

On a community based level we can organize to show that we are aware of how inequity negatively affects individuals from all walks of life, including those who are born into wealth, and high social class - in this way we may be able to engage those who are not normally motivated to support social justice. If you’re interested in finding more information and ideas for action you can take one place to visit is thinkbeforeyoupink.org. Another great resource is the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. It’s based on a book by the same title, try your local library for that one!

To hear an extended version of this program, and other pieces produced by WINGS, visit www.wings.org, they also have a newsfeed on Facebook at www. Facebook.com/wingsradio. The theme of our current issue is health, and it’s on stands now. Pick it up at a bookstore near you, or subscribe at shamelessmag.com and have it delivered to your door! You can also check it out through the Shameless iphone app. That’s all for today. Thanks so much for joining me for another edition of the podcast. Talk to you again soon!


« Media Action Media sparks a Canadian conversation on media representation of women

The Idle No More movement »