How Much Cancer is Caused by the Environment?

The President’s Panel on Cancer just released a report stating that the environmental causes of cancer have been grossly underestimated and that it's high time the government take more assertive action to protect the country. Cancer rates are extremely high, approximately 1 in 3 of us will get some form of cancer in our lifetime. And it's not just a reflection of an aging population – the increase in childhood leukemia is just one example of cancer striking the young as well. If this is a cancer epidemic, then who and what are to blame?

Posted on | Gary Ginsberg, PhD | Comments ()

The President’s Panel on Cancer just released a report stating that the environmental causes of cancer have been grossly underestimated and that it's high time the government take more assertive action to protect the country. Cancer rates are extremely high, approximately 1 in 3 of us will get some form of cancer in our lifetime. And it's not just a reflection of an aging population – the increase in childhood leukemia is just one example of cancer striking the young as well. If this is a cancer epidemic, then who and what are to blame?

Well it would be easy to point a finger at industry: demand that billowing smoke stacks, toxic waste sites, contaminated groundwater, Chinese imports and other contaminators clean up their cancer-causing act. But its not that simple, as matters of our health never are. In fact, the existing scientific dogma since Sir Richard Doll published a treatise in 1981, is that a small percentage (only about 5%) of all cancer can be attributed to environmental and workplace chemicals. The remainder is based on one’s bad hand of cards (genetics) and lifestyle factors (smoking, poor diet, obesity, too much sunshine). 

Well that’s why the President’s Cancer Panel’s new report is so important. It takes on Sir Richard and says those data are outdated and likely undercounting the chemical, occupational and medical causes of cancer by a large amount. How much? They don’t say, but that’s immaterial. What is important is that this Bush-era appointed panel’s astute 240-pg. analysis and opinion shows we are missing a big part of the cancer prevention story. Rather than focus mostly on the individual to stop smoking and start jogging, they saying we need to also give the rest of us a fighting chance to be cancer-free. That our regulatory system needs to step up and make sure that babies are not born with so many industrial chemicals in their body that, even if they make excellent lifestyle choices down the road, they may still be doomed. The President’s Cancer Panel knows that we are missing the boat and that toxics reform; something akin to the ambitious chemical control policy recently enacted in Europe called REACH, is needed here as well. 

Will Obama and Congress listen to their own experts on this? Momentum seems to be gathering. We are all stakeholders in this since every time we buy something from the supermarket, hardware store, or mall we run the risk of bringing home products unnecessarily laden with endocrine disruptors, harsh irritants, industrial solvents or heavy metals. It shouldn’t be up to us to read the fine print on a cleaning product to figure out if its safe – I have a PhD in toxicology and I still stand in the aisle and scratch my head.

The recommendations in the President’s Cancer Panel report are an excellent blueprint for a less cancerous future. And in the meantime – keep jogging. 

Blog written by Gary Ginsberg, PhD
Dr. Ginsberg is a public health toxicologist whose research focuses on the unique susceptibilities of children to environmental...