Cancer: ‘It’s Not Beyond Us’

written by Elise Miller, MEd

Hundreds of events were organized worldwide in recognition of World Cancer Day last week. The theme this year: ‘It’s not beyond us’. CHE Partner Génon K. Jensen, Executive Director of Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) gave the keynote address at Malta’s World Cancer Day event, noting that few countries are currently calling for strengthened environmental policies to help prevent cancer. Jensen also observed that only within the last 18 months has “the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) cancer agency (IARC) officially recognized air pollution as a contributor to lung cancer…and a positive association between higher levels of air pollution and an increased risk of bladder cancer.” Given the scientific evidence that has been mounting for decades linking pollution and other chemical exposures with various forms of cancer, this acknowledgement of environmental contributors to cancer seems a terribly long time in coming, particularly for those who are debilitated and die from these conditions every year.

Sadly, worldwide statistics regarding cancer only continue to look worse in the coming years. WHO states that deaths from cancer are projected to rise to over 11 million by 2030, up from 8.2 million in 2012, and the number of new cases each year is expected to increase by 70% in the next two decades. In the US, federal research dollars for cancer have remained essentially flat in recent years (and are likely not to increase given current Congressional priorities). Most of those funds go to study cancer treatments and screening technology, not prevention.

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Preventing Cancer: A Call to Action

Ted Schettler, MD, MPH
Science Director

reprinted with the author’s permission from the Science and Environmental Network’s Networker

Identifying the causes of cancer, in order to help develop preventive strategies, has been of great interest for a long time. Almost 30 years ago, the Office of Technology Assessment of the US Congress commissioned two British epidemiologists, Richard Doll and Richard Peto, to quantify the avoidable risks of cancer in the US. They limited their evaluation to cancer deaths in people under age 65 and, using epidemiologic data, estimated the largest contributors to be tobacco (30%) and diet (35%). Far down on the list were environmental pollution (2%) and occupational exposures (4%).

Doll and Peto were fairly confident about their estimates for tobacco and less so about diet. They acknowledged that estimating other factors, including pollutants, was hampered even more by a number of assumptions, data gaps, and uncertainties. Despite these limits, which other analysts have repeatedly pointed out over the ensuing years, many scientists and policy makers continue to accept Doll and Peto’s estimates as fact. Their numbers have supported arguments against spending time and resources to reduce exposures to environmental contaminants, emphasizing instead the importance of personal lifestyle choices.

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President’s Cancer Panel Report on Environmental Contributors to Cancer

Elise Miller, MEd

Rarely has anyone told me that they felt teary-eyed with joy when reading a newly published government report. But at least three prominent environmental health leaders I know said they felt just that when reviewing the President’s Cancer Panel report, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, released last week. The report provides a multi-layered analysis of over 450 scientific studies linking chemical exposures to various forms of cancer and suggests action steps we can take on both personal and policy levels. Its publication garnered immediate press attention, with articles in the Washington Post, the New York Times, USA Today, and other media sources. Some cancer experts, including those representing the American Cancer Society who provided testimony to the PCP along with a number of respected academics and industry leaders, however, have expressed concern that the report overstates certain findings. Those discussions will no doubt continue to take place.

What should not be lost in any debate on these issues, however, is the report’s unequivocal recommendation that chemical exposures need to be considered along with lifestyle choices, genetics and other factors that may contribute to cancer—otherwise, we will only continue to see unacceptably high rates of childhood leukemia, breast cancer, prostate cancer, brain tumors and many other cancers that can shatter the lives of so many families and communities and add huge costs to the health care system. In short, this report brings to the forefront why the potential health impact of certain chemicals—chemicals that are now ubiquitous in the everyday products we use, in our food and water, and even in our own bodies—need to be an integral part of any primary prevention research and public health initiative on cancer.

Other notable aspects of this report include the emphasis on taking precautionary action in the face of potential threats to public health, the promotion of new worker safety standards, and the inclusion of military activities. In addition, it makes a persuasive economic case for why we need to develop alternatives and prioritize green chemistry as well as a human rights case for focusing not just on reducing the number of deaths but on improving the quality of life, particularly for those in disproportionately impacted communities. Finally, this report is unusually compelling and comprehensive because it offers clear steps we can take on multiple levels to reduce the incidence of cancer. In short, it calls for nothing less than a national cancer prevention strategy—inclusive of all potential contributing factors—that is wholly embraced by our communities and fully supported by the federal government, the health sector, and industry.

To learn more about this seminal report and its implications, please join us for our CHE partnership call on Tuesday May 18th.