Presidential panel warns: Chemicals in the environment put you at high risk for cancer

by | Jan 5, 2011 | Health Effects of the Environment and Medical System | 0 comments

coal fired power plant

Meanwhile, American Cancer Society Sticks with Tried & True Advice

A report in May 2010 from the President’s Cancer Panel builds a strong link between exposure to environmental contaminants and the risk of cancer.

The panel noted that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.”

There are nearly 80,000 chemicals currently on the market in the United States, the report points out.  And many of them have not been studied, have been understudied, and are largely unregulated.

“The increasing number of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compels us to action, even though we may currently lack irrefutable proof of harm,” said panel chair LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., MD, professor of surgery at Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, DC.

The panel advises President Obama “to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase healthcare costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”

In contrast, the American Cancer Society wants to dial down the alarm level for environmental exposure.

“The conclusion [of the president’s panel] that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated  – does not represent scientific consensus. Rather, it reflects one side of a scientific debate that has continued for almost 30 years.”

That’s a quote from Michael J. Thun, MD, vice president emeritus of the American Cancer Society.

He feels that the report of the President’s Cancer Panel is unbalanced because it dismisses cancer prevention efforts aimed at the major previously-known causes of cancer, which include tobacco use, obesity, alcohol, infections, hormones, and sunlight. That doesn’t make any sense. That’s like saying “A lot of people have stopped smoking, so it’s okay if coal-burning power plants spew extra mercury into the atmosphere.”

Still, there are many areas of agreement between the two organizations.  The American Cancer Society shares a concern for the accumulation of synthetic chemicals in the food chain, the combination effects of multiple, inadequately-tested chemicals, and the potentially greater susceptibility of children.

Our regulatory approach in the US is too passive.

The panel writes that the “prevailing regulatory approach in the United States is reactionary rather than precautionary,” meaning that human harm must be proven first before action is taken to remove an environmental toxin. In other words, a new chemical being introduced into the environment is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

That’s crazy.  Proof of harm might only come after many years of toxic exposure to millions of people.

This approach should be reversed, and replaced with a precautionary prevention-oriented strategy.  The responsibility should be on the manufacturer to ensure that products are safe.

Difficulty in learning what causes cancer

Research on environmental causes of cancer has been limited.

And it’s tricky. In many cases, cancer has a long latency period. It can take years to show up.  People may not remember what they were exposed 10 or 20 years before.  What makes matters more complicated is that we’re being exposed to many different chemicals throughout our lives.

By contrast, it’s a lot easier to study the effect of smoking on cancer.

Panel recommends steps for individuals to protect themselves

The panel recommends concrete actions that government, industry, and individuals can take to reduce cancer risk.

But don’t wait for the government to take action.  Or for polluting industries to voluntarily curb their emissions.  Take charge of your own health.

The panel’s recommendations for individuals include


Dr. Lavine has been an innovator in the use of movement and touch to promote health since 1981. He practices in New York City and Princeton, NJ.


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