Will the War on Cancer Evolve to Take on Environmental Risks?

Today, with the release of the President's Cancer Panel report, we may see a fundamental shift toward a winning strategy. The Panel levels a hefty critique of failed regulation of environmental contaminants and undue industry influence.
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After 40 years of war on cancer, this year more than half a million Americans are expected to die from cancer - about 1,500 a day - and nearly 1.5 million new cases will be diagnosed. That doesn't sound like success on the battlefield. But today, with the release of the President's Cancer Panel report Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, we may see a fundamental shift toward a winning strategy.

The Panel, which reports directly to President Obama and informs the priorities and activities of the National Cancer Program, levels a hefty critique of failed regulation of environmental contaminants, undue industry influence, and inadequate research and funding. It also says that the government--and institutions that advise the government--have been locked in a cancer-fighting paradigm that has failed to look at the complexity of cancer causation and, in so doing, have missed the opportunity to create a national campaign for cancer prevention. In its opening letter to the President the panel says:

[T]he true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or under-studies and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread. . . . Most [Americans] are unaware that children are far more vulnerable to environmental toxins and radiation than adults. Efforts to inform the public of such harmful exposures and how to prevent them must be increased. All levels of government, from federal to local, must work to protect every American from needless disease through rigorous regulation of environmental pollutants.

Release of the report is a historic opportunity to change the course of the war on cancer so that, in the face of the large and growing body of scientific evidence that already exists linking environmental exposures to cancer, our nation acts rather than waits for more evidence of harm. This report says, in no uncertain terms, that the public needs to be protected--that we must execute a major cancer prevention strategy that protects people from what causes cancer.

In the past few years, there have been important and growing advances in the field of environmental oncology directed specifically at links between environmental exposures and breast cancer. The scientific evidence linking environmental exposures to increased incidence of breast and other cancers calls for the same level of attention and response from the medical and public health communities as genetic, lifestyle and reproductive factors. In fact, in terms of their actual contribution to cancer risk, environmental factors probably merit greater concern.

This report should be a wake-up call to our government to rethink how it addresses the public concerns and scientific evidence related to environmental exposures and cancer. It should also serve as a catalyst for sweeping reform of federal policy on both cancer and industrial toxins, which the panel says is rendered ineffective by weak laws and undue influence of the chemical industry.

There are immediate implications for chemical regulation legislation moving through Congress right now, including efforts to restrict bisphenol A (BPA) in food packaging and to reform the broken Toxic Substances Control Act. Both efforts would reverse the burden of proof on the chemical industry to prove that products are safe rather than require the government to prove they are harmful. As the Panel notes: "The burgeoning number and complexity of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compel us to act to protect public health, even though we may lack irrefutable proof of harm."

It is now up to the President, to the federal institutes and agencies who are responsible for public health to accept the truth in this report and carry out the revolution in policy it calls for.

Jeanne Rizzo, RN, president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund, serves on the advisory boards of the California Breast Cancer Research Program and Public Interest Partners of the National Institute of Environmental Health Science.

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