Described by the media as “landmark” and “extraordinary,” the President’s Cancer Panel newly issued 2008-2009 Annual Report claims that the National Cancer Program has not adequately addressed the “true burden of environmentally induced cancer.” According to the panel’s transmittal letter, some 80,000 chemicals are on the market in the United States, and Americans are exposed daily to many of them, even before birth. Particularly noted were exposures to chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), formaldehyde and benzene. The report examines the impact of environmental exposures on cancer risk, identifies the barriers to understanding and reducing the exposures and makes recommendations to overcome these barriers.
According to a news source, the American Cancer Society (ACS) and industry interests have expressed concerns about the report, claiming that it lacks balance and “under-emphasizes prevention efforts.” The ACS suggested that the panel, by concluding that the true burden of environmentally caused cancer has been grossly underestimated, “does not represent scientific consensus.” An ACS spokesperson claimed that the panel’s view “reflects one side of a scientific debate that has continued for almost 30 years” and also stated, “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.”
While ACS supports “minimizing or eliminating exposure to known or probable carcinogens,” the organization focuses its prevention activities on “modifiable risk factors,” identified as “tobacco use, poor nutrition, physical inactivity and obesity, alcohol consumption, excessive sun exposure, certain chronic infections, and exposures to other known carcinogens in various settings.”
Noting that 41 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer and 21 percent will die from the disease, the panel of Bush administration appointees maintains that inadequate attention and funding have been provided to the environmental causes of cancer. The panel also criticizes the scientific tools used to assess cancer risk from environmental exposure and the reactionary rather than precautionary approach that regulators take to environmental hazards. “[I]nstead of requiring industry or other proponents of specific chemicals, devices, 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 in the United States have been tested for safety.”
Among the sources and types of environmental contaminants cited in the report are (i) industrial and manufacturing sources, (ii) agricultural sources, including insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, (iii) conveniences of modern life (dry cleaning, mobile source air emissions—cars, trucks, airplanes—water disinfection by-products, household pest control, tanning devices), (iv) medical sources, such as medical radiation and scans, and pharmaceuticals in water supplies, (v) military sources, and (vi) natural sources.
Concluding that the nation must learn more about the full extent of environmental influences on cancer, the panel calls for a comprehensive policy agenda, special protections for children, more and better research, stronger regulation, full disclosure of risks to specific populations (“agricultural and chemical workers and their families, radiation-exposed groups such as uranium mine workers, nuclear industry workers, nuclear test site workers and ‘downwinders,’ residents of cancer ‘hot spots’ or other contaminated areas”), and development of safer alternatives to currently used chemicals.
Among the panel’s specific recommendations are the adoption of the “precautionary approach” to environmental chemical risks, better regulatory coordination “free of political or industry influence,” increased research funding, improved protections for occupational exposures, the incorporation of information about environmental exposures in standard medical histories, and the adoption of “green chemistry” initiatives and research. According to a news source, previous panel reports have focused on treatment and the contribution of diet and smoking to cancer incidence. Nicholas Kristof, writing for The New York Times, said, “It’s striking that this report emerges not from the fringe but from the mission control of mainstream scientific and medical thinking.” He also said, “Industry may howl,” because the report calls for “much more rigorous regulation of chemicals.” See Environmental Health News and The New York Times, May 6, 2010; Inside EPA, May 7, 2010.