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Strengthening the Link Between Pollution, Cancer

• May 06, 2010 • 5:09 PM

Presidential advisory group moves to broaden focus of cancer research to precaution, prevention.

A new report from a presidential advisory group represents a major advance in the struggle to protect people from exposure to carcinogenic chemicals.

“Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now,” issued today by the President’s Cancer Panel, announces a shift in emphasis from merely treating cancer to preventing it, and from seeking the roots of cancer in individual DNA to recognizing environmental contaminants as important causes.

Two distinguished cancer doctors appointed by President George W. Bush, LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., professor of surgery at Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and Margaret Kripke, professor emerita at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, sit on the panel. A third seat, usually filled by a celebrity like Lance Armstrong, is vacant. The panel itself was established in 1971 under the National Cancer Act.

In a telephone press conference, several environmental health researchers and activists who testified before the panel in the last two years praised it for taking a paradigm-shifting position regarding how cancer research and treatment should be conducted — and how environmental and health policies should reflect current science.

The panel writes that there’s quite a lot we can do as individuals and through focused political will. Its cover letter to the president takes a stark and unambiguous position:

“The Panel was particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. …

“All levels of government, from federal to local, must work to protect every American from needless disease through rigorous regulation of environmental pollutants.”

To accomplish this, the report calls explicitly for adopting the precautionary principle, long championed by environmental health advocacy groups. The idea is captured nicely by adages like “first, do no harm” and “look before you leap.”

Precaution, says the report, “should be the cornerstone of a new national cancer prevention strategy.”

Cancer research has long focused on genetic causes, believed to account for only about 5 percent of cases. The report acknowledges this focus as too narrow and recognizes that environmental contaminants can alter gene activity “without changing the underlying DNA sequences” — in other words, as Miller-McCune has reported previously, epigenetics may have as much or more to do with cancer initiation and progression as genes.

According to Jeanne Rizzo, president of the Breast Cancer Fund, the panel started its investigation thinking the connection between cancer and environmental exposures might have been exaggerated by public fears and activist pressure. But Leffall and Kripke developed a “voracious appetite” and reviewed 450 research reports and other documents linking environmental exposures with cancer, Rizzo said.

“When you delve into the science literature, it quickly becomes persuasive,” added Julia Brody, director of the Silent Spring Institute, which itself focuses on the link between the environment and breast cancer.

The PCP report also expresses considerable concern about radiation exposure’s role in cancer, including ionizing radiation from bomb test fallout, nuclear weapons production, medical testing and depleted uranium, as well as microwave and electromagnetic radiation from cell phones and other products. This position may strengthen support for pending legislation expanding compensation to victims of fallout and weapons production radiation exposures.

The delight with the report expressed by environmental health scientists and advocates may reverberate in reverse through the chemical industry, which has long fought tighter restriction of the 80,000-plus industrial chemicals, pesticides and other substances in use in the United States for which very little toxicity testing has been done. For example, the American Council on Science and Health, which is funded by the food and chemical industry, was critical of the report’s “homage” to the precautionary principle.

“This so-called Presidential Cancer Panel, which consists of two physicians, has obviously been politically pressured by the activists running the EPA,” the group’s medical/executive director, Dr. Gilbert Ross, is quoted on its website. “When they mention babies being ‘pre-polluted’ and the alleged dangers of all of these chemicals, they not only sign their name to activist screeds, they neglect to mention that the dose makes the poison, and that finding traces of chemicals at levels of parts-per-billion does not imply a health hazard. And of course they do not address the potential health hazards of banning important chemicals from consumer products.”

However, the PCP report endorses the expanding green chemistry movement as a way to keep the industry viable, as well as changes in the training of chemists so that precaution can be built into chemical processes and products from the beginning.

Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, praised the report for three important findings: reducing the perceived role of genes as the culprit in cancer; that exposures in early life have effects “disproportionate to dose”; and that people are exposed to mixtures of chemicals rather than one at a time, while our testing protocols only capture individual chemicals.

The panel’s report “invites us to decide that toxic pollution is archaic and primitive,” she added.

The next battle to align policy with science in the war on cancer — and other diseases — will be fought over revision of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act via the Safe Chemicals Act introduced April 19 by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.

Valerie Brown
Valerie Brown is a science writer who lives near Portland, Ore. Her recent work has focused on environmental health and climate change and been published in Environmental Health Perspectives, High Country News, Science, Forest Magazine and the American Journal of Public Health. She received the The Society of Environmental Journalists 2009 award for Outstanding Explanatory Reporting in Print for her Miller-McCune article "Environment Becomes Heredity."

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