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Environmental Toxins and Cancer Risk: The President's Cancer Panel Report

I was surprised to learn that the ACS has criticized the PCP's report, saying that it overstates the risks of environmental factors for cancer. I decided to download the Panel's whole report: here are my comments.
05/14/2010 09:25am ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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Last week, the President's Cancer Panel released a report entitled "Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now." I first learned about the report on May 6 from an op-ed column by Nicholas Kristof. I enjoyed Mr. Kristof's summary of the report, though the information it contained did not shock me: as a cancer researcher, I already knew that environmental factors are involved in causing cancer.

The next day, however, I was surprised to learn that the American Cancer Society has criticized the Panel's report by saying that it overstates the risks. Because I was curious about their reaction, I decided to download the Panel's whole report, and here are my comments.

The Panel's report is excellent, and everyone should read it. It not only tells us about the various factors in our environment that pose a risk of cancer but also tells us how we can minimize these risks.

Has the Panel overstated the risks? My answer is no.

As the Panel points out, we are currently using over 80,000 chemicals in our daily lives, and only a few hundred of these have been evaluated for their cancer-causing potential. The fact that we have already identified several cancer-causing chemicals by testing only a small fraction of the ones we use tells me that the Panel is right to recommend caution and further research.

The Panel rightly points out that we are devoting more resources to understanding cancer genetics and the molecular pathways of cancer than we are to understanding the environmental triggers of cancer.

While the Panel has produced a comprehensive report, I feel that it did not give sufficient attention to the special risks environmental chemicals pose for the elderly.

According to the American Cancer Society's Cancer Facts & Figures 2009 report, about 77percent of all cancers are detected in people 55 years of age and older. Perhaps one cause of this high rate of cancer in the elderly might be toxic chemicals in the environment.

Why would the elderly be more vulnerable to the toxic effects of chemicals?

The answer is that with age, our bodies' ability to metabolize and eliminate chemicals decreases; this means that chemicals can stay longer in an older body and hence cause more damage.

A decrease in our bodies' ability to metabolize and excrete drugs (which are chemicals) is one of the reasons that adverse drug effects are so common in the elderly.

So I suggest that although all of us should be aware of the dangers posed by environmental factors, those of us who are over 60 should be even more vigilant.

The Panel's report has made me add one more item to my list of things to do to stay healthy after turning 60: follow the recommendations of the President's Cancer Panel to reduce the health risks posed by environmental factors.

Some of these recommendations are:

1) Filtering home tap water and not storing water in plastic bottles
2) Not using plastic plates to heat food in a microwave oven
3) Eating food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers
4) Avoiding processed, charred and well-done meats
5) Reducing cell phone usage
6) Reducing exposure to radiation from medical sources by discussing with healthcare providers whether medical tests or procedures (such as CT-scans) that use radiation are really necessary
7) Checking home radon levels

Let me know your reaction to the Panel's report.