The Cancer Agenda

I like nice surprises, don’t you? Last week I got one when the President’s Cancer Panel issued its annual report. Its title is “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk.” In their cover letter the Panel tells the President that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated” and strongly urges him to “use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air.”

Here’s another nice surprise about this report: the members of this Panel were not appointed by Barack Obama but by George W. Bush. The nice surprise is that scientists appointed to a political body can still look at evidence and see what is before them. It’s what scientists are supposed to do.

Not so with the American Cancer Society, whose representative declared that the report was “unbalanced by its implication that pollution is the major cause of cancer.” Instead, the American Cancer Society repeated the claim its been making for the last 30 years: environmental causes account for only 6 percent of cancers, saying that “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.”

The report goes after both issues forcefully. What the Panel argues, quite sensibly, is that we can’t come up with a percentage because the science for environmental causation has been starved and most importantly ignored by the National Cancer Program. It is the purpose of the President’s Cancer Panel to review and monitor the performance of the National Cancer Program, which works in very close collaboration with the American Cancer Society. So the Panel’s criticism of the government program is a not very indirect criticism of the private program.

In addition, the Panel criticizes the idea that the focus of cancer prevention efforts should be exclusively on the modifiable risk factors favored by the American Cancer Society, which basically means blaming the victim for bad behavior that causes cancer.

The Panel continues its criticism by pointing to the low priority and lack of funding for research into environmental causes of cancer. It also criticizes the inadequacies in the regulation of these causes: “the prevailing regulatory approach in the United States is reactionary rather than precautionary.” In other words, responding only when harm is overwhelmingly proven rather than taking action to ensure that exposures are safe.

The report includes a wide discussion of current science in the area of environmental health, covering such topics as exposures to multiple chemicals and there synergistic effects, evaluation of low dose exposures over long periods of time, environmental justice issues (that is, greater effects on disadvantaged and disempowered communities), and the effects of exposures on children, women, fetuses, and transgenerational effects.

A very nice surprise indeed is that the report discusses the risk of cell phones and other exposures to non-ionizing radiation. It also spotlights the overuse of ionizing radiation in medical practices. And yet another nice surprise is the people they talked to: David O. Carpenter, co-author of the Bioinitiative Report and someone we interviewed a few years ago about chemical exposures; Devra Davis, author of The Secret History of the War on Cancer; Julia Brody of the Silent Spring Institute; Michael Lerner of Commonweal; Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group; and Richard Clapp of Boston University, who has worked tirelessly in this field for decades. In other words, the President’s Cancer Panel was talking to the people they should have been talking to. Shocking.

The cancer establishment, lead by the American Cancer Society, does not want Barack Obama to pay attention to these people. Why? Because they fear it will divert attention from the business they’re in. That business is cancer treatment. Even their prevention programs are cancer treatments. If we actually managed to prevent cancer by reducing people’s exposures, business as they know it would shrink or maybe even disappear. And so instinctively they attack, fighting for their life, by trying to trivialize this important report.

The President of the United States needs to hear from us that we think he should act on this report immediately. So should our Senators and Congressional Representatives.

And by the way, that 30-year old idea that only 6 percent of cancers are caused by the environment is complete nonsense. It was nonsense 30 years ago. A toxicologist in the UK put together some interesting statistics. In 1940, the first issue of the journal of the National Cancer Institute carried an estimate that one in four people in this country would have a cancer of some kind during his or her lifetime. Today the estimate is double: one in two. In other words, as exposures to chemicals and radiation in post-World War II America increased, the risk of cancer doubled. So to my reckoning, it’s not 6 percent but at least 50 percent of cancers that are caused by environmental exposures. And when records of doctors working in pre-industrial societies are examined, cancer is virtually unknown. In other words, environmental exposures account for closer to 100 percent of cancers.

So I say, yes indeed, the emphasis in cancer prevention should be focused on modifiable risk factors: those are the torrent of chemicals and radiation in which corporations and government agencies, in particular the military, drench us with impunity. We need to make them stop it.