I suppose it would be a better story if I could say that I had learned enough about toxics and that I agree that toxics, generally considered, represent no or little threat. The problem is, the data is mixed. One would expect, if toxics were the problem (with regard to cancer) that cancer incidence would be going up markedly. (Aren’t emissions of cancer causing substances going up?) But that is not the case. Cancer incidence has actually been slowly decreasing since the early 90’s. Much of this decrease in cancer incidence could be due to lower rates of tobacco use. Still, even though this is significant, some other types of cancer have indeed been on the rise.
Here is what a 2007 National Cancer Institute review of the data said:
“The incidence rates of cancer of the liver, pancreas, kidney, esophagus, and thyroid have continued to rise, as have the rates of new cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, myeloma, and childhood cancers. The incidence rates of cancer of the brain and bladder and melanoma of the skin in women, and testicular cancer in men, are rising.”(1)
So, even though there is good news, there is still a lot for us to be worried about.
If we wish to battle cancer in our generation, there must be things we could do in order to bring rates down. These are some ideas.
1) Tobacco – Any effort to reduce cancer must start with tobacco. 30% of all cancer deaths are caused by smoking.(2) It causes not only lung cancers, as we all know, but other cancers like cancers of the lip and esophagus – anywhere in the body the traces of tobacco go when a cigarette is smoked. The federal government, in prior years, has made deals with the tobacco companies that would gradually lower the rates of smoking in the populace while still allowing the tobacco companies to thrive and exist.(3) I can’t think of a bigger sellout. A better idea is to let people sue those companies, and continue suing them, until the tobacco companies themselves go out of business. Why not? If the tobacco companies were pharmaceutical companies they would have had to pull their product from the shelves a long time ago. Some might argue that tobacco is an economic good – tobacco provides jobs. But tobacco also costs our health system billions of dollars every year in an effort to save people who would have been helped more by taking away the cigarettes.(4) In addition, all the money spent on radiation and chemo could be going for other goods and services in the economy. By the way, a long-term smoker has about a 50% chance of dying of a smoking related disease.(5) Those are not good odds. We could be getting rid of tobacco!
2) Radon – A significant percentage of cancers are also caused by radon in homes. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer.(6) Apparently, the testing for radon is inexpensive, and it is not difficult to make needed repairs to homes, etc. Your state can help you get tested for radon.(7) Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a major public health campaign going on about radon. If more people knew about the dangers of radon and knew that testing and remediation were relatively easy, they would certainly take steps to protect themselves. We could be having a public health campaign about radon.
3) Food and Food Packaging – Our food is probably one of our most vulnerable areas in terms of being exposed to toxics. We do have laws on the books, and promises have been made in the past to deal with these dangers, but still very little work has been done. If we are suspicious of toxic chemicals in the environment, based especially on laboratory tests with animals, our food and food packaging have to be made a priority.(8) The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 already bans such chemicals in our food supply. We could enforce that law.
4) Safer Homes – Again, if experiments with laboratory animals have any validity, we should be looking at ways of phasing out the use of such chemicals. One of the things you learn when you read a little about the issue is how difficult it is to determine if a factory or so-called “point source” of pollution is responsible for local cancers. As the Goldsteins suggest in their book, perhaps our methods should adjust to this.(9) We should also be looking into toxics that we are more closely and frequently exposed to – like toxics in the home. Bedding, furniture, carpeting, glues, paints, shelacs and the like, should be studied for their relation to cancers and prevented from entering the home. As in the area of food, more could be done not only to determine risk but to successfully shift over time to non-toxic materials. We could also look at clothing and cosmetics.
5) OSHA – As I said in the previous paragraph, it can be very difficult to determine if a point source of pollution is responsible for local cancers. What I’ve learned so far has led me to believe that it might be more appropriate to monitor and aggressively prosecute companies that abuse toxic chemicals, and who, in doing so, make their own workers sick. Typically, the work environment is a much more dangerous arena, in terms of toxic exposures, than the local community or region. Workers who produce pesticides in the factory have much more risk than you or I have in being exposed to the pesticide residues on food. The problem, though, seems to be that the government is often reluctant to prosecute companies. There are cases where exposures and fatalities are documented, though.(10) We should prosecute and make someone responsible for these abuses. CEO’s should be criminally liable for what their companies do. And we could make workers’ health like the canary in the mine with regard to cancers outside the workplace and in the local community.
6) Protecting Science and Our Regulatory Agencies – Science is under attack. Companies are trying to divert and subvert the science which says their products are unsafe. For instance, there was another study done of atrazine lately, with the usual denials from business.(11) Although the issue there was birth defects and not cancer, the point is that there is a pattern to what business is doing. They know that if they can slow down the regulatory process the public will not have the will to fight against the many destructive chemicals that are out there. Science needs to be free to do its work, and our regulatory agencies need to be empowered to do their job. We need to fight back against corporate delaying tactics, bogus corporate science, etc., and pressure our government agencies to play their proper role.(12) We could be protecting science and enabling our regulatory agencies.
7) Public Information – This one is for the journalists and educators among us. One of the things you learn as you try to write something yourself about these topics is how limited our collective knowledge is about cancer. Benzene is an example. You could poll your friends and see if they have ever heard of this highly toxic substance. Many of them will not. Benzene exists in gasoline. It can be breathed in when you are filling your tank, just from the gas fumes. Also, as you burn gas, benzene is released in the exhaust. I have heard of studies that show that there is a higher incidence of cancers around major, busy highways.(13) Benzene is a suspect.(14) But most people don’t even know that such a relationship could exist. The question is, at what point is the use of gasoline no longer worth it? How many deaths will we tolerate before we try to remove benzene from gasoline? Clearly, we are not there yet. But how would the public even begin to start asking questions, if they don’t even know the danger is there? Although, I don’t like the constant “alarmism” coming out of our news departments, we do seem to need, more than ever, good information on these topics. We could be informing ourselves better.
8) Prevention and the Precautionary Approach – Some of the things that are working the best in terms of fighting cancer are coming out of preventive medicine. Things like colonoscopies, that test for polyps in the colon. Tests, like mammograms, that look for breast cancers. Prevention of this kind is working and is bringing death rates down. The problem is that for some cancers incidence is still rising, so the burdens on our medical institutions for these cancers will be only greater as time goes on. Some people, therefore, suggest that we take a “precautionary approach.” Instead of allowing all these new chemicals and then dealing with the health care fallout afterwards, why don’t we try to limit the use of cancer-causing chemicals in the first place? In the precautionary approach a judgment is made about whether a chemical’s benefits are even needed. Maybe another chemical, less toxic, can have a similar benefit. This seems like a better position philosophically. But it would be an enormous change for us as a society. And big changes like this don’t happen overnight. My advice for anyone involved in promoting such change is – persevere! We could be moving more and more towards the precautionary approach.(15)
I heard or read somewhere that when Singapore modernized and joined the Western style economies, it lost the low cancer rate it shared with most of Asia. Most non-Western peoples, who live out of doors, and who don’t have a Western lifestyle, have lower cancer rates than people in industrialized economies. Until we find out exactly why that is, we will always be beset with doubts and agonies about toxics and cancer. And to my mind, that means one thing. We have to try to do something that could make a difference. For instance, if we never try to make our food system cancer-free, we will never know if the pesticides, etc. that we are eating are doing us in. We have to do something to find out what works. My idea is try to get it out of our food and out of our homes. Then, if cancer incidence goes down, we know what we have to do. But if we never try we will never know, either.
And those are my eight things we could be doing about cancer. Although I wish my list could be much more authoritative, this is (honestly) the best I can do for now.
(1) A one-page summary from 2007 – http://progressreport.cancer.gov/highlights.asp .
(2) National Cancer Society – 30% of all cancer deaths are related to smoking – http://www.cancer.org/docroot/PED/content/PED_10_2X_Cigarette_Smoking_and_Cancer.asp .
(3) Wikipedia on Tobacco Master Settlement – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multistate_Settlement_Agreement . For a recent law signing see – http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Fact-sheet-and-expected-attendees-for-todays-Rose-Garden-bill-signing/ .
(4) Tobacco’s cost to health care system/Medicaid – http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2007/11/tobacco_cost.html .
(5) Long-term smokers have 50% chance of dying of a smoking-related disease – http://www.diabetesmonitor.com/diet-and-lifestyle/facts-about-smoking.htm .
(6) Radon – http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/radon .
(7) Radon testing: to find out how to get tested – http://www.epa.gov/radon/radontest.html .
(8) A short (2007) page on pesticides – http://progressreport.cancer.gov/doc_detail.asp?pid=1&did=2007&chid=71&coid=713&mid=#trends .
(9) How Much Risk?: A Guide to Understanding Environmental Health Hazards, by Inge and Martin Goldstein. — Oxford: Oxford University Press, c2002.
(10) For several, very well documented examples, see – Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, by David Michaels. — Oxford: Oxford University Press, c2008.
(11) Atrazine birth defects – http://uk.reuters.com/article/idUKTRE6174DW20100208?pageNumber=2&virtualBrandChannel=0 .
(12) Several specific suggestions can be found in Michaels’ book.
(13) Cancer more common in high traffic areas – There are studies on both ends of the question, but here’s one that found a greater risk for childhood leukemia. – http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/106563372/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0 . (If this link does not work, you might try a keyword search on Google Scholar.)
(14) For the recent benzene incident at Camp Lejeune see – http://www.thetimesnews.com/articles/miller-31784-calls-probe.html .
(15) For more on the Precautionary Approach see – http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/book/companion.asp?id=7&compID=14 . (You can’t backtrack on any of the links, though.)
NOTE: The Obama administration has made an effort to deal with the toxics issue. Here is an article about the “Chemicals of Concern” initiative taken under the Toxic Substances Control Act or TSCA (1/11/2010) – http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=epa-chemicals-of-concern-plans .
NOTE: (5/19/10) Here’s an article that summarizes many of the issues. It’s a reaction to a report done by the President’s Cancer Panel. – http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/environmental-cancers .
NOTE: (5/29/10) And here’s a link to Myles Tougeau’s site (I hope he doesn’t mind) that talks about what individuals can do to reduce cancer risk. It’s based on the President’s Cancer Panel, as well. – http://amidthemaddingcrowd.wordpress.com/2010/05/11/cancer-panel-recommendations-for-individuals/