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/ABC.com, 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.