Cancer is an environmental disease

February 26, 2012

Cancer, Environment, Health, Health Concerns

Approximately 41 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, and about 21 percent will die from it.

by Mary Budinger — 

Americans are facing “grievous harm” from chemicals in the air, food and water that have largely gone unregulated and ignored, according to an expert panel that advises the President on cancer. The panel released a watershed report in May calling for the government, industry, academia and medicine to “intervene in, ameliorate and prevent environmental health hazards” to relieve the national burden of cancer.

Approximately 41 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, and about 21 percent will die from it. A growing body of research documents that environmental factors are linked to genetic, immune and endocrine dysfunction that can lead to cancer and other diseases. Chemical contaminants are being passed on to the next generation, both in the womb and through breastfeeding.

The President’s Cancer Panel received testimony from 45 invited experts from academia, government, industry, environmental and cancer advocacy communities, and the public. The panel concluded that research on environmental causes of cancer has been limited by low priority, inadequate funding and undo influence by the chemical industry.

The report’s cover letter sets the tone for a surprisingly candid report: “The Panel was particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread. One such ubiquitous chemical, bisphenol A (BPA), is still found in many consumer products and remains unregulated in the United States, despite the growing link between BPA and several diseases, including various cancers.”

In 2008, Canada banned the sale of baby bottles with BPA. Meanwhile the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the American Chemistry Council continue to maintain that BPA is safe. In 2007, a consensus statement by 38 American experts on BPA concluded that average levels found in people are above those that cause harm to animals in laboratory experiments.

The prevailing regulatory approach in the United States is reactionary rather than precautionary. That is, instead of requiring industry or other proponents of specific chemicals, devices or activities to prove their safety, the public bears the burden of proving that a given environmental exposure is harmful.

The President’s Cancer Panel said, “Conveniences of modern life — automobile and airplane travel, dry cleaning, potable tap water, electricity and cellular communications, to name a few — have made daily life easier for virtually all Americans. Some of these conveniences, however, have come at a considerable price to the environment and human health.”

The panel zeroed in on contamination from medical imaging technologies and pharmaceutical drugs. “Americans now are estimated to receive nearly half of their total radiation exposure from medical imaging and other medical sources, compared with only 15 percent in the early 1980s. … Many referring physicians, radiology professionals and the public are unaware of the radiation dose associated with various tests or the total radiation dose and related increased cancer risk individuals may accumulate over a lifetime. … Moreover, the radiation dose for the same test can vary dramatically depending on the equipment used, technologist skill, application of dose-reduction strategies, and patient size, age and gender.”

More than half of all insured Americans take prescription medicines regularly for chronic health problems, according to a study released in 2008 by Medco Health Solutions Inc., which manages prescription benefits for about one in five Americans. Drugs have an unintended way of recycling, and all types enter the water supply when they are excreted or improperly disposed of. The panel concluded that the health impact is unknown.

The military is another major source of toxic occupational and environmental exposures that can increase cancer risk. The panel’s report points out that nearly 900 Superfund sites are abandoned military facilities or facilities that produced materials and products for or otherwise supported military needs. In some cases, contaminants have spread far beyond their points of origin because they have been transported by wind currents or have leached into drinking water supplies.

Weak laws and regulations, inefficient enforcement, regulatory complexity and fragmented authority allow avoidable exposures to known or suspected cancer-causing and cancer-promoting agents to continue and proliferate in the workplace and the community, the panel said. Existing regulations, and the exposure assessments on which they are based, are outdated in most cases, and many known or suspected carcinogens are completely unregulated. Enforcement of most existing regulations is poor. In virtually all cases, regulations fail to take multiple exposures and exposure interactions into account.

“Industry has exploited regulatory weaknesses, such as government’s reactionary (rather than precautionary) approach to regulation,” the panel wrote. “Likewise, industry has exploited government’s use of an outdated methodology for assessing ‘attributable fractions’ of the cancer burden due to specific environmental exposures. This methodology has been used effectively by industry to justify introducing untested chemicals into the environment.”

The requisite knowledge and technologies exist to develop alternatives to many currently used chemical agents known or believed to cause or promote cancer.

Jeanne Rizzo, R.N. and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund, the leading nonprofit organization working to eliminate the environmental causes of breast cancer, said: “After 40 years of war on cancer, [this] may finally signal a fundamental shift toward a winning strategy… the government — and institutions that advise the government — have been locked in a cancer-fighting paradigm that has failed to look at the complexity of cancer causation and, in so doing, have missed the opportunity to create a national campaign for cancer prevention. … It is now up to the President, to Congress and to the federal agencies who are responsible for public health to accept the truth in this report and carry out the revolution it calls for.”


Mary Budinger is an Emmy award-winning journalist who writes about complementary and alternative medicine. 602-494-1999.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 29, Number 3, June/July 2010.

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