President’s Cancer Panel emphasizes environmental causes of cancer

Terri Hansen, Today correspondent
9/7/10

WASHINGTON – The latest report from the President’s Cancer Panel urges President Barack Obama “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.”

The Cancer Panel said American people are continually bombarded with combinations of dangerous environmental chemicals, even before they are born.

“The true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated,” says its 240-page report, “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now,” issued May 6. A lot of those cancer cases could have been prevented though appropriate national action.

The panel, which monitors the multi-billion-dollar National Cancer Program and annually reports directly to the president, used some strong language.

One excerpt reads, “With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market. … many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are. ... 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.”

This year’s report is the panel’s first to emphasize the environmental causes of cancer. It warns of “grievous harm” from chemicals and other hazards, and “a growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures to cancer.” Children are especially vulnerable.

The American Cancer Society responded with a more conservative approach to suspected environmental factors. There is no doubt environmental pollution is critically important to the health of humans and the planet, wrote Dr. Michael Thun, vice president emeritus of Epidemiology & Surveillance Research in a statement published on the society’s blog.

“However, it would be unfortunate if the effect of this report were to trivialize the importance of other modifiable risk factors that, at present, offer the greatest opportunity in preventing cancer.”

Organic produce can be more expensive. Make it affordable by planting a garden of favorite vegetables. Plant immature fruit and nuts trees, too. As they reach maturity you’ll have your own pesticide-free peaches or cherries, year after year. Coordinate with neighbors to plant a variety of fruit producing trees in the neighborhood. You can exchange your bounty and add even more good health to your life. Make good health a community effort.

The Environmental Working Group offers a free, wallet-sized produce guide online that lists produce with the highest load of pesticides called The Dirty Dozen:

1: Celery
2: Peaches
3: Strawberries
4: Apples
5: Blueberries
6: Nectarines
7: Bell Peppers
8: Spinach
9: Cherries
10: Kale/collard greens
11: Potatoes
12: Grapes (imported)

The guide also lists produce with the lowest pesticide load, The Clean 15:

1: Onions
2: Avocado
3: Sweet corn
4: Pineapple
5: Mangos
6: Sweet peas
7: Asparagus
8: Kiwi
9: Cabbage
10: Eggplant
11: Cantaloupe
12: Watermelon
13: Grapefruit
14: Sweet Potato
15: Honeydew Melon

Thun said the perspective of the report is unbalanced by its implication that pollution is the major cause of cancer, and by its dismissal of cancer prevention efforts aimed at the major known causes of cancer (tobacco, obesity, alcohol, infections, hormones, sunlight) as “focused narrowly.” The report, he said, restates hypotheses as if they were established facts, and reflects one side of a scientific debate that has continued for almost 30 years.

Part of that debate is what is termed “the precautionary principal.” The prevailing regulatory approach in the United States is reactionary rather than precautionary, the panel said. That means instead of taking preventive action when uncertainty exists about the potential harm a chemical or other environmental contaminant may cause, the potential hazard must first be proven scientifically.

Instead of requiring industry or other proponents of specific chemicals or activities to prove their safety, the public bears the burden of proving that a given environmental exposure is harmful. Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use have been tested for safety.

Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr., chairman of the president’s panel told reporters the panel stood by the report. He said it was an evenhanded approach, an evenhanded report, and that the panel didn’t make statements that shouldn’t be made.

Environmental groups like Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families heralded the report. For decades, environmental organizations have worked to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. Some are proponents of a new bill called the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act.

The federal government’s Office of Minority Health indicates American Indian/Alaska Native men and women generally have lower cancer rates than the white populations. However, disparities exist in certain types of cancer.

From 2002 – 2006, American Indian/Alaska Native men were 60 percent more likely to have liver and inflammatory bowel disease cancer as white men.

AI/AN men are 1.6 times as likely to have stomach cancer as white men, and are twice as likely to die from the same disease.

AI/AN women are 2.5 times more likely to have, and to die from, liver and inflammatory bowel disease, as compared to white women.

AI/AN women are 40 percent more likely to have kidney/renal pelvis cancer as white women.

The panel’s report advises a public largely unaware of the dangers of steps they can take to reduce their exposure to potentially harmful substances like plastic food containers, pesticides, medical X-rays like CT scans, vehicle exhaust, industrial chemicals, and too much sun.

Filtering tap water, storing water in stainless steel, glass or other containers to avoid exposure to BPA and other plastics that some studies have linked to health problems; buying meat free of antibiotics and added hormones, avoiding processed, charred and well-done meat; and buying produce grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, or washing it thoroughly to remove them.

The use of cell phones and other wireless technology is of great concern. There is no research to support a link with cancer and contemporary cell phone use, but the research on cancer and other disease risk from modern wireless devices is extremely limited. The panel urged additional research on the possible links between electromagnetic fields and cancer, and identifying those mechanisms.

Adults and children can reduce their exposure to electromagnetic energy by wearing a headset when using a cell phone, texting instead of talking, and keeping calls brief.

The panel places special emphasis on children who are “far more susceptible to damage from environmental carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting compounds than adults.” It recommends choosing foods, house and garden products, play spaces, toys, medicines, and medical tests that will minimize children’s exposure to toxins. Mothers and fathers should avoid exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals and known or suspected carcinogens prior to a child’s conception and throughout pregnancy and early life, when risk of damage is greatest.

Download the full report here.

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