Thursday, May 6, 2010

Environmental links to cancer

Throughout the history of cancer research, environmental causes have been like a dirty secret tucked into dark corners of the institutions of mainstream cancer research: We know they're there, but rarely do they see the light of day. The release of today’s 2009 Presidential Report on Cancer, titled “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risks,” makes clear that if the U.S. wants to reduce cancer rates (and health care expenditures), it is time shine light on the environmental links to cancer. The report calls for a comprehensive, cohesive policy agenda on environmental contaminants to human health that includes committing serious research dollars and regulatory power to understanding and minimizing preventable risks in the environment.

The report also describes concrete actions individuals can take to reduce exposure to possible cancer-causing agents such as filtering water, not microwaving plastic, choosing pesticide-free food and using headphones when talking on cellphones (among others). But mostly, these individual solutions serve to highlight the bigger problem: A regulatory system that uses a reactionary approach rather than a precautionary one. Instead of requiring proof of safety, the public bears the burden of proving that a given environmental exposure is harmful and because of the difficulty of amassing such proof (scientifically, politically, because of the dearth of research funds devoted to such questions...), proof often only emerges once tremendous harm has already been done. At this time, only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety and the effects of multiple chemical exposures is hardly addressed. The report systematically reviews some of the most well-documented contaminants in our environment and highlights the alarming ubiquity of them, the multiple paths of exposure in our everyday lives.

As President Obama states:
“With the growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures to cancer, the public is becoming increasingly aware of the unacceptable burden of cancer resulting from environmental and occupational exposures that could have been prevented through appropriate national action.”

It’s about time. While efforts have been underway to expose these links by environmental activists, women’s health activists, cancer activists, and others, it's disconcerting how rarely it gets on the national agenda. We applaud this step toward putting it there and urge everyone to read the report and make a commitment to work toward eradicating cancer-causing agents.