Panel Says Environmental Causes of Cancer Should Be Priority
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, and experts at the National Cancer Institute say that at least two-thirds of cases are due to environmental factors. The President’s Cancer Panel believes this to be “grossly underestimated” and eradicating the threats should be a priority for President Obama.
The President’s Cancer Panel was established by the National Cancer Act of 1971 when President Richard Nixon declared a war on cancer. The advisory panel issues an annual report to the President describing the progress and barriers to continued advances in reducing cancer rates and curing existing diseases. This year’s report is entitled “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now” and contains testimony from more than two dozen experts in cancer, chemicals, and environmental toxins.
“The Panel was particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated,” the authors Dr. LaSalle Leffall Jr of Howard University and Vivian Smith of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center write. "The panel urges you most strongly to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our Nation's productivity, and devastate American lives.”
Environmental factors, according to the National Cancer Institute, include lifestyle factors such as smoking and diet, but the report by the presidential advisory panel focuses on chemical agents and other toxins present in the air and water, including pesticides, pharmaceutical byproducts in the water supply, household chemicals, radiation, and vehicle emissions.
The American Cancer Society disagrees with some of the panel’s findings. "We agree that there are many important issues here … but a reader would come away from this report believing that pollutants cause most cancer," said Dr. Michael Thun, of The American Cancer Society. In fact, he said, most cancers are caused by tobacco, alcohol, overexposure to ultraviolet light, radiation and sexually transmitted infections. The report "presents an unbalanced perspective" of the relative importance of these various factors, he said.
According to the report, there are about 80,000 chemicals that Americans are exposed to each year, but only several hundred have been safety tested. The panel singled out three chemicals as dangerous and an immediate priority: formaldehyde, benzene and radon.
Almost all homes contain formaldehyde, considered a probable human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. The chemical is used in plywood, particle board, foam insulation, carpet and draperies, furniture, permanent press fabrics and toiletries. An estimated 2 million Americans are exposed to formaldehyde at work, raising their risk of dying from Hodgkin’s lymphoma and other cancers, according to the report.
Exposure to benzene is also widespread. Exhaust from cars and other vehicles contain benzene, listed as a known human carcinogen by the EPA.
Radon, which forms naturally and can collect in homes, is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, behind smoking, resulting in an estimated 21,000 deaths annually. The report recommends periodically checking the radon levels at home.
Leffal said he hoped the report, if nothing else, would raise awareness that chemicals and other environmental toxins may be causing cancer and that more studies are needed. They encourage physicians who diagnose and treat cancer to collect more information about workplace and living environment to help pinpoint more substances that may be harmful.
The authors also recommend creating a more coordinated and transparent system for enforcing environmental health standards, increasing funding for federal research, and to involve the Environmental Protection Agency for improved guidelines for cancer-causing substances.
About 1.5 million Americans develop cancer each year and 560,000 die from it. About 41% of the population will develop cancer at some point in their lifetimes. To lessen cancer risks, the 240-page report recommends:
* Removing shoes before entering the home to avoid tracking in toxic chemicals such as pesticides.
* Filtering tap water.
* Using stainless steel, glass or BPA-free plastic water bottles.
* Microwaving in ceramic or glass instead of plastic containers.
* Minimizing consumption of food grown with pesticides and meat raised with antibiotics and growth hormone.
* Minimizing consumption of processed, charred or well-done meats, which contain carcinogenic heterocyclic amines and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.
* Reducing radiation from X-rays and other medical sources.
Other tips for reducing cancer risk from the National Cancer Institute include: