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UML studies cancer and environment

By From the Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan said that $250,000 in state money will establish research that hopefully will provide answers between the possible links of breast cancer and environmental exposures.

The research will be conducted at UMass Lowell and done in conjunction with the Silent Spring Institute and the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition.

"We know that Massachusetts has one of the five highest incidence rates of breast cancer in the nation," said Meehan in an announcement this week. "We also know that some communities have rates well above the state average, including Westward and Andover. This project will provide some answers."

Breast-cancer lifetime risk has increased from 1 in 20 women in 1940 to higher than 1 in 8 women today. Massachusetts has taken the lead among states in investigating the causes of the disease and reducing the use of carcinogenic chemicals.

State Rep. Kevin Murphy, House chairman of the Committee on Higher Education, praised UMass Lowell for its leadership in innovative research, especially in environmental causes of illness.

"The increase in cancer has affected women more than men," he said, adding that it is an issue people can take personally. "We all know people who have battled breast cancer."

The state has made "a visionary investment in prevention," said Julia Brody, executive director of the Silent Spring Institute, the research organization dedicated to finding and breaking the links between the environment and women's health issues, especially breast cancer.

"Massachusetts was the first," she added.

Brody led the first comprehensive study of women's exposure to harmful substances -- endocrine disrupters -- in their homes on Cape Cod, a so-called "hot spot" of breast-cancer incidence.

State Rep. Cleon Turner, representing Cape Cod, and state Rep. Stephen D'Amico, representing Seekonk in Bristol County, spoke at the press event and supported the legislation.

David Wegman, dean of the UMass Lowell School of Health and Environment, is a nationally recognized leader in occupational health and epidemiology.

The School's Center for Sustainable Production will direct the research, led by Richard Clapp, adjunct professor, epidemiologist and founding member of the Massachusetts Cancer Registry.

"How do we live our lives in an environment that increasingly is contaminated in ways we don't understand?" said Wegman. "We want to use chemicals, be we want to do so knowingly and responsibly."

"In facing this epidemic, we need more than awareness -- we need answers," said Deborah Shields, executive director of the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, the education and advocacy arm of the project.