RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Finally, the U.S. government's talking prevention. Real prevention. Not a scan to detect a disease already growing in your body, but rather, the idea of reducing exposure to environmental toxins—like chemicals used in farming and in plastics—to reduce the risk of cancer. The newly released Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk, What We Can Do Now report from the President's Cancer Panel urges the public to eat foods grown without chemical pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, and antibiotics, while suggesting practical advice such as not heating plastic in the microwave and not using water bottles that may contain BPA, or bisphenol A, a chemical linked to cancer, reproductive problems, and heart disease.
It's likely industrial foodmakers, plastic makers, and biotech companies aren't happy about the report. In fact, there were rumors flying just last week that the food industry threatened to block legislation that would ban BPA from food packaging. But with this report, for the first time in a long time, observers say it feels like human health may come before corporate interests. "This is an enormously important document from a highly credible source. For the past 30 years, there has been systematic effort in the U.S. to downplay the importance of environmental factors in carcinogenesis," says internationally recognized public and preventive health expert Phil Landrigan, MD, professor and chair of the department of community and preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "There has been disproportionate emphasis on lifestyle factors and on cancer screening, and not enough attention paid to discovering and controlling environmental exposures."
THE DETAILS: The landmark report, issued by LaSalle Leffall, Jr., MD, an oncologist and professor of surgery at Howard University, and Margaret L. Kripke, MD, an immunologist at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston (both of these doctors were appointed by former President George W. Bush, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof points out), states that the U.S. government has grossly underestimated the number of cancers caused by environmental toxins. "This is a groundbreaking report—and it’s about time," says Diana Zuckerman, PhD, president of the National Research Center for Women & Families and StopCancerFund.org. "It’s time to focus as much effort on preventing cancer as we do on trying to find a cure."
The report also discussed the effect of exposure on unborn children, who are "pre-polluted" with hundreds of chemicals before they even leave the womb. Many scientists say exposure to harmful chemicals during this period can set a child up for lifelong hormone disruption and other health problems. In a letter to President Obama, the panel stated, "The American people—even before they are born—are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures. The Panel urges you most strongly 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 report points out that research on environmental causes of cancer has been "a low priority" and had "inadequate funding," resulting in not enough scientists devoted to finding ways to prevent cancer by reducing toxic exposures in our daily lives. "We are surrounded by uncertainty—thousands of chemicals that are in our air, in our kids' toys, in our lawn-care products, on the fresh fruit we eat—that have never been tested for safety," says Zuckerman. "And the report points out that technology can hurt our health us as well as help us, as recent warnings about the radiation from CT scans have shown."
As it stands, only a tiny fraction of the 80,000 chemicals used today are regulated and tested for safety in humans.