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Group Seeking a System to Track Cancer in Pets

By Lisa Capone, Globe Correspondent, Boston Globe 10/9/2003


They can't prove it, but Doug Haley of Salem, Chip Osborne of Marblehead, and Tina Cross of Swampscott think this is true:  Exposure to chemicals on a golf course near Haley's prior home, in Osborne's greenhouse, and on parks where Cross walked her poodles led to cancer that killed their dogs.  What's more, they and other members of a new North Shore group called PetLink think cats and dogs may serve as sentinels -- warning of everyday practices that could lead to human cancer, too.


Comprising local pet owners, veterinarians, and environmentalists, PetLink formed last summer to highlight potential causes for what some local vets say is a mounting incidence of cancer among younger animals.  Eventually, the group wants to establish a pet-cancer mapping system, similar to the Massachusetts Cancer Registry that allows the Department of Public Health to determine geographic cancer clusters by tracking human-cancer diagnoses community-by-community.


An offshoot of the Marblehead-based environmental group HealthLink, PetLink will launch a public awareness campaign with a walk along Lynn Shore Drive in Lynn next Monday and a forum Tuesday at Marblehead High School featuring a Cornell University researcher, and several veterinarians.  Topics likely to surface at the free symposium include health risks associated with pesticides, flea and tick treatments, nutrition, and vaccines.


"This is trying to protect human health. That's what we're trying to get people to realize," said Haley.  "With their shorter life spans, [pets] are telling us they are getting these problems from pesticides, and we're getting the same stuff."


Suzanne Condon, assistant commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, cautioned that, to be an effective public health tool, a pet-cancer registry would have to take into account the fact that certain breeds are genetically prone to developing certain types of cancer.


"Because of the limitations of these types of data, it has to be weighed in the greater context of what is going to give us more information sooner about the environment and cancer," she said, adding that the state might get more bang for its buck by adding a follow-up component to the human-cancer registry.


Cornell University oncology professor Rodney Page, the forum's keynote speaker, said that because animals have shorter life spans than humans the latency period between exposure to carcinogens and development of tumors is shorter, providing a potential early-warning system for environmental dangers in homes and neighborhoods. In addition, Page said, pets have "fewer confounding risk factors" for cancer – they don't smoke cigarettes, for example -- which could make it easier for researchers to link pet cancer with exposure to toxins in the environment.


Page is developing a pet-cancer registry on Long Island, N.Y. -- an area that was the subject of a federally funded study to evaluate whether environmental toxins contributed to elevated human breast-cancer rates, he said.


"The idea is to see if pet data is the same," said Page, who hopes to have preliminary data by the end of the year.  If the data sets are similar, "we may be able to make a stronger case for assigning cause."


At this time of year, said Christopher Mierswa, owner of Sea of Green Lawn Care Co. in Amesbury, most lawn-care companies are applying only fertilizer, not pesticides.  When pesticides are used, he said, "the pressure point is when the lawn is wet," so he never applies pesticides when pets are outside and recommends that they stay off the grass for a day until it dries.  Even that, he said, is "erring on the side of caution."


Dr. Diana Post, a veterinarian with the Rachel Carson Council in Maryland and a PetLink forum speaker, disagrees that lawn chemicals are safe, and said children, as well as pets, are most vulnerable to possible ill-effects.


"They share the lower level of the environment, where people apply pesticides," Post said, adding that toddlers play on the floor, putting fingers and toys that could contain pesticide residues in their mouths.  "These are the things pets do, too."


Dr. Nancy Crowley, a Beverly veterinarian, said she sees pets with cancer every day, and -- like her colleague on the panel scheduled for Tuesday, Dr. Arthur Freedman of Salem -- urges owners to cut cancer risks by reducing vaccines, feeding healthier diets, using natural flea and tick controls, and avoiding pesticides.


"We definitely see a large number of pets on one street or in one neighborhood where it definitely seems like it's not a coincidence.  We really need some group or somebody to keep track of these things so we can prove cause and effect, because right now it's all speculation," Crowley said.


C Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company


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