A Bridge to Somewhere - Responding to the President's Cancer Panel Report (Part 1)

The government has a role to play in making cancer-preventing dietary choices available and affordable for the citizenry and in divorcing our food system from its current dependencies on carcinogens.
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A recently released report from the President's Cancer Panel finds that the environment plays a much bigger role in the story of human cancer than previously appreciated. The Congressional briefing organized to discuss these results played to a full house.

The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.
- Theodore Roosevelt (inscribed on the wall of the U.S. Capitol Building)

On May 21, I participated in a congressional staff briefing organized by the Collaborative on Health and the Environment and the Breast Cancer Fund in conjunction with Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The topic was the President's Cancer Panel report, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, released on May 6. The essay below is taken from the first half of my presentation. The second half appears in this space next week. My co-presenters were physician Ted Schettler, M.D., M.P.H., science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, and epidemiologist Richard Clapp, D.Sc., M.P.H., first director of the Massachusetts Cancer Registry and a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health.

I was last here in Washington, D.C., just a month ago as part of a film and book tour. My book Living Downstream, which explores the environmental links to cancer, has recently been released as an updated second edition as well as a documentary film. The movie version premiered here as part of the a special screening hosted by the DC Environmental Film Festival.

A few hours before the film screening, I jogged over to the Smithsonian Institution to visit the new Hall of Human Origins and its life-like mannequins of Lucy and other hominids. I'm a biologist; I have an abiding fondness for natural history exhibits. I also had a special reason for this particular visit.

My 11-year-old daughter, had, a year earlier, cut off ten inches of her hair and donated it to the sculptor John Gurche, who had been commissioned to create these reconstructions of early humans. John is our neighbor in the village in upstate New York where we live. So my job was to report back to my daughter about how the hair looked on its new human owners.

Here's the part of the story I want to emphasize. The donation of the hair created a dilemma for Faith - and not because of the trauma of cutting it. Indeed, she and her friends have repeatedly grown out their hair and then cut it off and given it away. But the usual recipient of the girls' hair is an organization called Locks of Love, which makes wigs for, among others, children with cancer. So Faith worried that donating her hair to an ancient human might deprive a contemporary human - maybe a girl like herself - of a ponytail.

I don't know a more poignant metric for the steady rise in pediatric cancers over the past three decades than this: in a ritual marked by reverence and solemnity, it is now a rite of passage among middle-school girls to provision children bald from chemotherapy with their own hair. It has become ordinary and normal to do so.

If middle-school girls, who don't always have a reputation for kindness, can care so deeply about their compatriots with cancer, surely we adults can match their cherished donations of hair with a spirit of urgent curiosity and action about the growing shadow that this disease casts over U.S. infants, children, and adolescents. Our actions should, above all else, seek to prevent cancer among young people by protecting them from carcinogens.

And this is where the President's Cancer Panel report, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, has much to offer us.

In October 2008, I came before the panel - which has reported to the president and guided the direction of the National Cancer Program since 1971 - to describe the results of my professional research on pesticides and cancer. Let's look at what the report has to say on this topic.

First, the report correctly stresses that pesticides are toxic by design - they are intentional poisons intentionally introduced into our environment. More than a few of these have the power to contribute to cancer. Forty different pesticides registered by the EPA and on the market are classified as known or suspected carcinogens.

Second, says the report, we have solid evidence that people are routinely exposed to chemicals used in agriculture, and these exposures occur through multiple pathways. Pesticides used in farm fields are tracked inside homes and found in the dust of carpets, for example, where children crawl. Pesticides drift in the air and are inhaled. Pesticides run with rainwater into streams and groundwater and thereby enter our tap water. Pesticides are found as residues in food.

Third, two groups of people are especially vulnerable to these multiple exposures: children and those who grow our food, namely, farmers and farmworkers. Farmers have elevated rates of certain types of cancer (such as prostate cancer), and so do their children (who suffer higher than average rates of leukemia).

Fourth, the report expresses concern about pesticides that contribute to cancer by altering developmental pathways. These pesticides are called endocrine disruptors, and one example is the weed killer atrazine. As the report details, atrazine exposure of rats in early life can alter the pace of estrogen production and so alter the development of the breast in such a way that its architecture in adulthood is different. As other studies reveal, the altered structure of the mammary gland makes it more vulnerable to carcinogenic assault in later life. These effects occur in lab animals at concentrations approaching background levels for some U.S. girls.

The report recommends that we choose organic food - food grown without the use of pesticides - to protect ourselves and our children from inherently toxic chemicals, some of which are hormonally active. This is good advice. I practice it myself in my own household. Nevertheless, as many of my readers point out to me, a package of Twinkies is still cheaper than a bag of organic carrots.

Here is where the government, I believe, has a role to play in making cancer-preventing dietary choices available and affordable for the citizenry and in divorcing our food system from its current dependencies on carcinogens.

[to be continued next week]

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream, newly published in second edition by Merloyd Lawrence Books/Da Capo Press to coincide with the release of the documentary film adaptation. This essay is one in a weekly series by Sandra exploring how the environment is within us. www.steingraber.com / www.livingdownstream.com