When Wealth Becomes A Curse

Seeking clues about the high rate of breast cancer among wealthy women, researchers have come up with some possible leads involving chemical exposure.

Focusing on the Boston suburb of Newton, the researchers found women in areas hit hardest by the disease used such services more often than those in less-affected neighborhoods.

"Obviously, neither money nor schooling cause breast cancer," said Dr. Nancy Maxwell, the lead researcher. "With the Newton study we tried to see if there might be environmental factors."

Maxwell cautioned there is no definitive evidence that chemicals or pesticides cause cancer. But she said the research points to the need for further investigation of possible connections.

The rate of breast cancer in Newton was 13 percent higher than the statewide rate between 1982 and 1992, state health officials said.

The study "has taken us one step further in trying to understand why socioeconomic status is a factor," said Suzanne Condon, director of environmental health assessment at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The department funded the study.

The researchers from Silent Spring Institute, a nonprofit research organization, randomly questioned 1,350 women - not necessarily cancer patients - ages 35 to 75.

The study showed that women in neighborhoods with higher rates of breast cancer typically had higher incomes and education levels than women in areas with lower breast cancer rates.

Known risk factors for breast cancer, such as delayed childbearing and family history of the disease, accounted for only a small part of the difference between areas with high and low rates of breast cancer.

But the survey did suggest possible environmental factors.

For example, 65 percent of the women in the area with higher breast-cancer rates had used a professional lawn service, compared with 36 percent of the women in the low-incidence neighborhood.

In addition, 30 percent of those in the high-incidence area reported routine use of pesticides, compared with 23 percent in the low-incidence sector. And 45 percent of those in the high-incidence area used dry cleaning at least once a month, compared with 32 percent in the less-affected neighborhood.

A spokesman for a national association of pesticide manufacturers stressed that studies have shown no conclusive links between breast cancer and environmental chemicals.

"We are concerned, however," said Chris Klose, a spokesman for the American Crop Protection Association in Washington, D.C. "We want people to use pesticides correctly."

A call seeking comment to the International Fabricare Institute, a trade association for dry cleaners, was not returned.