Cancer and the Environment

A report released by the President’s Cancer Panel is making news today, saying that the true burden of environmentally-induced cancer is greatly underestimated, and that while environmental exposure is not a new front on the war on cancer, the harm from this group of carcinogens has not been addressed adequately by the National Cancer Program.

Over at MedPageToday/, reporter Emily Walker takes a look at the report and makes an interesting observation:

The study of environmental factors and their effect on cancer has been giving short shrift compared to studying lifestyle factors and genetic and molecular causes of cancer, the authors claimed.

But paging through the lengthy report, it was difficult to find solid science to back that strong statement.

And there’s the rub. We asked Michael J. Thun, MD, vice president emeritus, Epidemiology & Surveillance Research, to review the report, and here’s what he told us:

Elements of this report are entirely consistent with the recently published “American Cancer Society Perspective on Environmental Factors and Cancer,” which like the current report, identifies several areas that are of particular concern.

Issues highlighted in both reports include the accumulation of certain synthetic chemicals in humans and in the food chain; the large number of industrial chemicals that have not been adequately tested; the potentially greater susceptibility of children; the possibility that some chemicals or combinations of chemicals may have effects at low doses; and the potential risks from widely used medical imaging procedures that involve ionizing radiation.

Unfortunately, the perspective of the report is unbalanced by its implication that pollution is the major cause of cancer, and by its dismissal of cancer prevention efforts aimed at the major known causes of cancer (tobacco, obesity, alcohol, infections, hormones, sunlight) as “focussed narrowly.”

The report is most provocative when it restates hypotheses as if they were established facts.  For example, its conclusion that “the true burden of environmentally (i.e. pollution) induced cancer has been grossly underestimated” does not represent scientific consensus.  Rather, it reflects one side of a scientific debate that has continued for almost 30 years.

There is no doubt that environmental pollution is critically important to the health of humans and the planet.  However, it would be unfortunate if the effect of this report were to trivialize the importance of other modifiable risk factors that, at present, offer the greatest opportunity in preventing cancer.

About David Sampson

I am the director of medical and scientific communications for the American Cancer Society national home office.
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23 Responses to Cancer and the Environment

  1. Kathleen Barry says:

    My two year old son did not have any lifestyle factors to his cancer, nor did any of the other children who were on the hem-onc floor with him. Most of the mothers I met there had, like me, eaten responsibly during pregnancy, didn’t drink or smoke pot, didn’t smoke around their children (didn’t allow anyone to smoke around their children), breast fed their children, focused on good nutrition, etc., etc. Yet there we were, watching our children fight for their lives.

    I do not appreciate one bit the American Cancer Society belittling the experience of thousands of children each year who have no ability to lifestyle their way out of their cancer diagnosis.

    This piece of work that you dismiss here is critical to opening the door to further reasearch that can save lives and prevent misery. My son will suffer the side effects of his disease and the treatment FOR THE REST OF HIS LIFE. It’s not genetic, it’s not lifestyle, so you tell me what caused it or shut your face and let this research go forward.

  2. Shannon says:

    This statement is ridiculous, misleading, and a nonissue: “However, it would be unfortunate if the effect of this report were to trivialize the importance of other modifiable risk factors that, at present, offer the greatest opportunity in preventing cancer.” What would be quite unfortunate, indeed, would be to CONTINUE to overlook the overwhelming and quite “modifiable” role of the toxins in our environment while narrowly focusing on “modifiable risk factors.” In fact, by not joining the cause to address the lack of adequate regulation and safeguards for consumers, you do us a grave disservice. Most certainly, no harm will come to humanity by taking action to limit this unnecessary burden on our bodies. If you want to talk about modifying risk factors – you must not fail to address the issue of our exposure to toxins.

  3. Gary B. Carpenter, MD says:

    The evidence for sunlight causing skin cancer is eclipsed by the evidence that sunlight prevents at least 13 types of cancer. A balanced discussion of the pros and cons of sunlight should include the many benefits of sunlight in bolstering the immune system and preventing autoimmune diseases, protecting the heart, brain, muscles and bones. Those who recommend sunscreen and protective clothing are misguided and I see the folly of that advice every day in my allergy and immunology clinic. There is an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency which is doing far more harm than the slight risk of skin cancer.

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  5. gricelibby says:

    After seeing many healthy women who have none of the normal risk factors for breast cancer in my 33 years of family practice, and having read much about the epidemiology and history of cancer, there is little doubt agencies involved in cancer research have devoted far too little to finding the causes of our high rates of cancer. Shame on the American Cancer Society for continuing to step around and hide this large elephant in the living room.

    Greg Rice
    Family Physician
    Libby MT

  6. cathy1357 says:

    The ACS is doing a great job, but I wish they would take a more proactive, and less conservative approach to these environmental factors. When you look for “causes of cancer” on their website, nothing is mentioned about these factors. This seems almost misleading, given, for example, the recent questions about BPA (plastics that are endocrine disruptors).

    It is true that there’s a great need to focus on things like sun, tobacco, diet, and exercise. However, people use chemicals on their lawn, eat food sprayed with pesticides, and use perfumes and cosmetics with questionable ingredients. My sense is, there is not enough known about these to fully understand how many cancers they cause or exacerbate. It also seems that there is research that clearly points to some chemicals’ relationship to cancer (see the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s series on BPA), so why wouldn’t the premier cancer organization at least educate people about the issue?

    I fear that with the continued success and corporate support of the “pink ribbon” campaign (which is a great thing), an unintended consequence is these factors will continue to go by the wayside, since many of the companies who support the ACS make these products. I hope the ACS can please help us learn more about these chemicals and encourage us to avoid products when there’s a question about safety!

  7. precautionary1 says:

    Oh My David, it seems you are repeating the dogma of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. We know they are a major sponsor of your organization, but why should we let that influence your dialog? The scientific debate you mention infers a genuine conflict of opinion, but if you remove the skewed studies funded by the very industries that cause the environmental hazards you will find strong evidence supporting the fact environmental hazards are most overlooked cause cause of cancer.

    Even Material Safety Data Sheets on chemicals are skewed because acute toxicity of a chemical is used as the major factor, there is very little information given on systemic or long term toxicity of a particular chemical.

    The American Cancer Society has done some tremendous work in the name of cancer research, please do not dilute the stride being made by towing the line of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. The American Cancer Society needs to look more towards the Precautionary Principle and cancer prevention and stop being a shill of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

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  11. Ellen Fine says:

    WHY does The British Columbia Cancer Society, part of the Canadian Cancer Society call for a BAN onlawn pesticides while the US Cancer Society doesn’t have the courage to take a stand on the issue of even sit in a hearing room after we begged them numerous times to join us in NH concerning pesticides on school playing fields where children play. In effect the American Cancer Society is supporting the use of 2,4-D on children’s playing fields when the Canadians say ban it on all private property, especially where children play because it is so dangerous. You cannot seriously say your mission is to erradicate cancer when you ignore PESITICIDE USE as a major causitive factor in cancer. How many Dow, Monsanto and other pesticide company lobbyists have you invited into your offices. You would barely answer our phone calls …. READ BC Cancer Society call for a ban on lawn pesticides…. Wake up America!..

    We call for a new legislation that…

    •Prohibits the use, sale, and retail display of chemical pesticides for lawns, gardens, and non-agricultural landscaping;
    •Allows exemptions only to protect public health;
    •Provides for public education about the ban and alternatives to chemical pesticides;
    •Includes effective mechanisms for enforcement;
    •Is passed and implemented within the current government’s mandate

    Cosmetic Pesticide Use is a Public Health Issue, Particularly for Children

    •The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the US National Toxicology Program state that some pesticides can cause cancer.1 The Pesticides Literature Review conducted by the Ontario College of Family Physicians, showed “consistent links to serious illnesses, such as cancer, reproductive problems and neurological diseases.”2
    •Children are at a greater risk from pesticide exposure than adults because they are closer to the ground and their bodies are still developing.3
    •The notion that pesticide use is an individual matter is scientifically incorrect. Once dispersed, pesticides affect non-target plant, animal and human health in our shared environment.

    Pesticide Bans Work

    •In Quebec, the number of households with a lawn or garden using chemical pesticides dropped dramatically to just 4 percent in 2007, one year after provincial regulations prohibiting the use and sale of many lawn pesticides were fully implemented. Without a province-wide ban, 25 percent of BC households with a lawn or garden still use chemical pesticides.4

    Alternatives are Available and Good for Business

    •Practices such as mowing high, over-seeding, and topdressing restore ecological soil health. Low-risk, natural products such as corn gluten meal and nematodes are widely available through retail and lawn care service providers.
    •Statistics Canada Business Patterns data shows that the horticultural trades have increased in number and size in Toronto and Halifax following the adoption of restrictive pesticide bylaws.5

    There is Broad Public Support for a Cosmetic Pesticide Ban in BC

    •More than 70% of British Columbians support provincial legislation to restrict pesticide use, according to polling conducted on behalf of the Canadian Cancer Society in 2010.6
    •More than 39 British Columbia municipalities have already adopted bylaws restricting the cosmetic use of pesticides.
    •Delegates to the 2008 and 2009 Union of BC Municipalities
    •Conventions voted in favour of resolutions calling on the provincial government to ban the use and sale of cosmetic pesticides province-wide.7


    1 The U.S. National Toxicology Program 11th Report on Carcinogens, 2005; International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans, World Health Organization,
    2 M. Sanborn et al., Pesticide Literature Review, Ontario College of Family Physicians, 2003. Quoting April 23, 2003 press release.
    3 Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment, Child Health and the Environment – A Primer, 2005.
    4 Statistics Canada, Households and the Environment, 2007.
    5; Statistics Canada. 2006. Business Register. Canadian Business Patterns (2001-2006).
    6 Innovative Research Group, Online Survey Results, August 2010, Prepared for the Canadian Cancer Society, BC & Yukon Division.
    7 UBCM, 2008 Resolutions as Excerpted from Convention Minutes (see resolutions B81 and B82).

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