The President's Cancer Panel on Thursday reported that "the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated" and strongly urged action to reduce people's widespread exposure to carcinogens.
The panel advised 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 health care costs, cripple our nation's productivity, and devastate American lives."
The 240-page report by the President's Cancer Panel is the first to focus on environmental causes of cancer. The panel, created by an act of Congress in 1971, is charged with monitoring the multi-billion-dollar National Cancer Program and reports directly to the President every year.
Environmental exposures "do not represent a new front in the ongoing war on cancer. However, the grievous harm from this group of carcinogens has not been addressed adequately by the National Cancer Program," the panel said in its letter to Obama that precedes the report. "The American people – even before they are born – are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures."
The panel, appointed by President Bush, told President Obama that the federal government is missing the chance to protect people from cancer by reducing their exposure to carcinogens. In its letter, the panel singled out bisphenol A, a chemical used in polycarbonate plastic and can linings that is unregulated in the United States, as well as radon, formaldehyde and benzene.
Environmental health scientists were pleased by the findings, saying it embraces everything that they have been saying for years.
Richard Clapp, a professor of environmental health at Boston University's School of Public Health and one of the nation's leading cancer epidemiologists, called the report "a call to action."
Environmental and occupational exposures contribute to "tens of thousands of cancer cases a year," Clapp said. "If we had any calamity that produced tens of thousands of deaths or serious diseases, that’s a national emergency in my view.”
The two-member panel – Dr. LaSalle D. Lefall, Jr., a professor of surgery at Howard University and Margaret Kripke, a professor at University of Texas' M.D. Anderson Cancer Center – was appointed by President Bush to three-year terms.
Lefall and Kripke concluded that action is necessary, even though in many cases there is scientific uncertainty about whether certain chemicals cause cancer. That philosophy, called the precautionary principle, is highly controversial among scientists, regulators and industry.
"The increasing number of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compels us to action, even though we may currently lack irrefutable proof of harm," Lefall, who is chair of the panel, said in a statement.
The two panelists met with nearly 50 medical experts in late 2008 and early 2009 before writing their report to the president. Cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong previously served on the panel, but did not work on this year's report.