By Bill Chameides
The 240-page report, entitled Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, was about two years in the making and was based on four information-gathering meetings around the country. Its conclusions were not all that surprising but nevertheless received fire from an unexpected source -- the American Cancer Society.
Panel: Not Enough Known About Chemicals in the Marketplace
The cancer panel, established by the National Cancer Act of 1971 and charged with monitoring the country's cancer program and reporting annually to the U.S. president, "dedicated its 2008-2009 activities to examining the impact of environmental factors on cancer risk." The main conclusion: we have very little idea how many cancers in the United States are caused by environmental contaminants but that it is likely to be significant.
In their cover letter to President Obama, the panel's two experts who wrote the report (normally there are three) express concern that "environmentally-induced cancer has been grossly underestimated," and they decry the fact that some "80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States ... are un- or understudied and largely unregulated."
I was pleased to see this last part, as the lack of understanding and paltry regulation of known toxic substances in the environment was part of my testimony to the panel when it met in Charleston, South Carolina, on December 4, 2008.
Many people I have spoken to are appalled when they learn that we restrict less than 0.01 percent of the chemicals that companies try to put on the market, and there is little to no screening of the large number of chemicals that are allowed entry to the marketplace.
Panel: U.S. Should Adopt the Precautionary Principle
The very first recommendation of the panel is to replace the current reactionary approach that requires a high level of proof of harm before regulating chemicals with a precautionary one "that shift[s] the burden of proving safety to the manufacturers prior to a new chemical approval."
American Cancer Society Finds Fault With Panel's Findings
You'd think that any group whose mission is to advance the health of Americans would applaud such a proposal. But the nation's oldest cancer-focused organization, which was founded in 1913 as the American Society for the Control of Cancer and is reportedly the country's largest private financer of cancer research, is not only sitting on its hands; it's hissing and booing.
It has taken issue with the statement that environmentally induced cancer is "grossly underestimated," pointing to the lack of "scientific consensus." (There's that word consensus again.) In that the cancer group's experts could well be correct -- how do you accurately assess and reach consensus on something that is so poorly studied?
Even so, it is hard, at least for me, to believe that in a world with tens of thousands of unstudied, understudied and/or unregulated carcinogens and endocrine disrupters that the incidence of cancer from them is not "underestimated."
The American Cancer Society laments that all this focus on the environment might "trivialize the importance of other modifiable risk factors that, at present, offer the greatest opportunity in preventing cancer." These of course just happen to be the risk factors that the American Cancer Society focuses on: "tobacco, obesity, alcohol, infections, hormones, sunlight."
How Can This Be?
Even so, I am surprised by the American Cancer Society's response. It's not clear to me how adopting the precautionary principle to the process of introducing new chemicals to the environment would affect campaigns to reduce tobacco use or obesity.
And why would a lack of "scientific consensus" on the incidences of cancer caused from environmental contaminants, if indeed that is the case, prevent the American Cancer Society from applauding a call to take precautionary measures on known toxins and carcinogens? Wouldn't that advance the cause of American health and thus the cause of the American Cancer Society?
Perhaps the American Cancer Society is so pleased by its own progress in achieving its goal of "eliminating cancer as a major health problem" that it doesn't need any help from a president's panel. And how good is that progress?
Well, let's see: according to the National Cancer Institute, cancer incidence in the United States was about 400 per 100,000 in 1975 and 470 in 2006. That's almost a 20 percent increase in 30 years.
The good news is that cancer incidence peaked in the early 1990s and is now slowly inching downward at a rate of about 0.7 percent per year.What do you think?