(Beyond Pesticides, May 11, 2010) Even with the growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures to cancer in recent years, a report released May 6, 2010 by the President’s Cancer Panel finds that the true burden of environmentally-induced cancer is greatly underestimated. The Panel’s report, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, concludes that while environmental exposure is not a new front on the war on cancer, the grievous harm from this group of carcinogens has not been addressed adequately by the nation’s cancer program.
“There remains a great deal to be done to identify the many existing but unrecognized environmental carcinogens and eliminate those that are known from our daily lives — our workplaces, schools and homes,” said LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., M.D., chair of the Panel. “The increasing number of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compels us to action, even though we may currently lack irrefutable proof of harm,” he added. Beyond Pesticides applauds the chairman’s precautionary approach and encourages President Obama to heed the panel’s call 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.”
Part Two of the report focuses on sources and types of environmental contaminants, and its second chapter focuses specifically on agricultural sources of exposure. The chapter begins, “The entire U.S. population is exposed on a daily basis to numerous agricultural chemicals. Many of these chemicals are known or suspected of having either carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting properties.” It continues, “[B]etween three and five million individuals and their families work as migrant or seasonal workers. Due to working and housing conditions, including lack of child care that forces parents to take their children with them into the fields, these workers and their families often have disproportionate exposures to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.” The report also emphasizes the risk of exposure in utero, underscoring the need to better protect pregnant farmworkers.
The Panel also points out that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) chemical registration process does not eliminate these chemicals from our lives. “Nearly 1,400 pesticides have been registered by EPA for agricultural and non-agricultural use. Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to brain/central nervous system (CNS), breast, colon, lung, ovarian (female spouses), pancreatic, kidney, testicular, and stomach cancers, as well as Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma”¦Approximately 40 chemicals classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as known, probable, or possible human carcinogens, are used in EPA-registered pesticides now on the market.” The Panel notes that the pesticide tolerances, the allowable limit on food, have been criticized by environmentalists as being inadequate and unduly influenced by industry. Because chemical-intensive agriculture has created such a hazardous food system — for consumers, workers and the environment — Beyond Pesticides recommends eating organic food whenever possible.
The cancer threat posed by pesticides extends beyond agriculture. Of the 40 most commonly used pesticides in schools, 28 can cause cancer, and 19 of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides are carcinogens or have been linked to cancer. Learn more about organic lawn and landscape management and efforts to protect children from pesticides in schools.
Key Report Findings
With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the U.S., many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or under-studied and largely unregulated, the report finds that exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread. Yet, the public remains unaware of many of these carcinogens as well as their own level of exposure, especially to many common environmental carcinogens such as radon, formaldehyde and benzene.
In addition to environmental carcinogens, the report finds that while improved imaging technologies have facilitated great strides in diagnosing and treating diseases, including cancer, some of these technologies also carry risks from increased radiation exposures. Many health care professionals, as well as the public, are unaware of the radiation dose associated with various tests or the total radiation dose and related increased cancer risk individuals may accumulate over a lifetime.
In addition, the report finds that health care providers often fail to consider occupational and environmental factors when diagnosing patient illness. Physicians and other medical professionals ask infrequently about patient workplace and home environments when taking a medical history, thereby missing out on information that could be invaluable in discovering underlying causes of disease.
The report also recognizes the U.S. military as a major source of toxic occupational and environmental exposures that can increase cancer risk. Information is available about some military activities that have directly or indirectly exposed military and civilian personnel to carcinogens and contaminated soil and water in numerous locations in the United States and abroad, such as radiation exposure due to nuclear weapons testing. Nearly 900 Superfund sites are abandoned military facilities or facilities that produced materials and products for, or otherwise supported, military needs. In some cases, these contaminants have spread far beyond their points of origin because they have been transported by wind currents or have leached into drinking water supplies.
The Panel concludes that federal responses to the plight of affected individuals have been unsatisfactory, and that those affected lack knowledge about the extent of their exposure or potential health problems they may face.
The Panel recommends concrete actions that government; industry; research, health care, and advocacy communities; and individuals can take to reduce cancer risk related to environmental contaminants, excess radiation and other harmful exposures. Key recommendations include —
— Increase, broaden and improve research regarding environmental contaminants and human health.
— Raise consumer awareness of environmental cancer risks and improve understanding and reporting of known exposures.
— Increase awareness of environmental cancer risks and effects of exposure among health care providers.
— Enhance efforts to eliminate unnecessary radiation-emitting medical tests, and to ensure that radiation doses are as low as reasonably achievable without sacrificing quality.
— Aggressively address the toxic environmental exposures the US military has caused, and improve response to associated health problems among both military personnel and civilians.
Additional recommendations that are underscored in the report include those related to the needs for a comprehensive and cohesive policy agenda on the issue, stronger regulation and safer alternatives to many currently used chemicals, among other highlights.
The Panel concludes, “Just as there are many opportunities for harmful environmental exposures, ample opportunities also exist for intervention, change, and prevention to protect the health of current and future generations and reduce the national burden of cancer.”
The President’s Cancer Panel consists of three members appointed by the President. Current members include LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., M.D., F.A.C.S., Howard University; and Margaret L. Kripke, Ph.D., University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The Panel, established by the National Cancer Act of 1971, is charged with monitoring the National Cancer Program and reporting annually to the President on any barriers to its execution. All current members were appointed by former President George W. Bush.