President’s Cancer Panel: Environmental causes of cancer underestimated

By Bhavani Prakash

A new report in the US that highlights the link between environmental factors and cancer is of particular relevance to the rest of the world. What are these environmental factors? What actions can individuals take? What are the cancer rates in Asia and should such a study be done here?

NATIONAL CANCER PANELThe ”President’s Cancer Panel” specially appointed by the US President has published its 2008-2009 Annual Report entitled: Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk, What We Can Do Now . It warned that environmental causes of cancer have been “grossly underestimated.” 

The panel was mandated under the US National Cancer Act of 1971, and its role is to “monitor the development and execution of the activities of the National Cancer Program, and shall report directly to the President.”

This is a particularly important report as it is the first significant study (and the first time the Panel has been specifically tasked) to look at environmental factors related to cancer.

The two member panel Dr. LaSalle D. Lefall, Jr., a professor of surgery at Howard University and Margaret Kripke, a professor at University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center urged the President  “to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”

Here’s a short news feature on the report:

Where do environmental contaminants come from?

The panel has identified 6 major sources of environmental contaminants that have a bearing on cancer rates. It covers quite a wide range of factors:

1. Industry and Manufacturing : industrial byproducts and chemicals from mass manufacturing that are a part of the product or remain on the product as residues.

2. Agriculture: insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, solvents and fillers that leach into and contaminate soil and water. Chemicals are also found in residential (gardens) and commercial landscaping. In addition to pesticides, agricultural fertilizers and veterinary pharmaceuticals are major contributors to water pollution.

3. Modern lifestyles: Exposures that come from modern conveniences such as air travel, dry cleaning, vehicular pollution, especially diesel particulate pollution (which are responsible for approximately 30 percent of cancer resulting from air pollution). Chemicals used for household pest control can become a component of carpet dust, posing a risk to children when they play on the floor. Exposure to low frequency electromagnetic energy from cell phones and other wireless technology, and electrical powerlines are also suspected factors.

4. Medical sources:  radiation from medical tests such as CT scans and potential of contamination from discarded pharmaceuticals.

5. Military sources: which have hazardous materials from abandoned military sites in the US.

6. Natural sources : some naturally occuring carcinogens like radon (breakdown of uranium deposits) and arsenic (in pesticides)

 The Panel points out that there is still a lot to be studied and learnt, to determine the full extent of environmental influences on cancer.

“At this time, we do not know how much environmental exposures influence cancer risk and related immune and endocrine dysfunction. Environmental contamination varies greatly by type and magnitude across the nation, and the lifetime effects of exposure to combinations of chemicals and other agents are largely unstudied.

Similarly, the cancer impact of exposures during key “windows of vulnerability” such as the prenatal period, early life, and puberty are not well understood. Nonetheless, while these diverse effects often are difficult to quantify with existing technologies and research methods, in a great many instances, we know enough to act.

What can individuals do?

The panel suggests these important steps for individuals to take to reduce their exposure to various environmental carcinogens:

1. Children are more susceptible to exposure to environmental carcinogens than adults. To the extent possible, parents and child care providers should choose foods, house and garden products, toys, medicines, and medical tests that will minimize the child’s exposure to toxics.

2. Remove shoes before entering the home and washing work clothes separately from the other family laundry in order to minimise chemicals from workplace.

3.  Filter home tap or well water to decrease exposure to numerous known or suspected carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

4. Store and carry water in stainless steel, glass, or BPA-free and phthalate free containers. Avoid microwaving food in plastic.

5. Reduce exposure to pesticides by choosing food grown without fertilisers or pesticides. Wash food properly to remove residues.

6. Avoid or minimize consumption of processed, charred, and well-done meats to reduce expose to carcinogenic hydrocarbons.

7. Consult the Household Products Database  for health and safety information on household products.

8. Properly dispose off pharmaceuticals, household chemicals, paints, and other materials to minimize drinking water and soil contamination. Choose products made from non-toxic and environmentally safe chemicals.

9. Reduce fertiliser and pesticide use for landscaping purposes to prevent contaminating drinking water.

10. Reduce electricity (read fossil fuel) consumption by turning off lights and devices when not in use. Using public transport, walking or riding a bike, or a fuel efficient car, reduces the amount of toxic pollutants in the air.

11. Check home radon levels. Conduct a home radon test in any home one is considering buying.

12. Reduce exposure to second hand tobacco smoke in your home, car, and public places. If you smoke, then seek help to quit.

13. Adults and children can avoid exposure to ultraviolet light by wearing protective clothing and sunscreen when outdoors. Avoid exposure when the sunlight is most intense.

14. Adults and children can reduce exposure to electromagnetic energy by wearing a headset when using a cell phone, texting instead of calling, and keeping the calls brief.

15. Reduce exposure when possible from medical sources, but asking if the test is necessary. In addition, to help limit cumulative medical radiation exposure consider creating a record of all imaging or nuclear medical tests received along with the estimated radiation dose of each test.

The report doesn’t dwell on other major factors related to cancer such as poor nutrition, obesity and lack of exercise. These of course, continue to be important factors for the prevention and cure of cancer.

 Though this report is meant for the US, it has important findings that are relevant for Asia. Historically, cancer rates in Asia and Africa have been low, however this situation is changing.

According to MSNBC,

 “Smoking, drinking and eating unhealthy foods — all linked to various cancers — will combine with larger populations and fewer deaths from infectious diseases to drive Asian cancer rates up 60 percent by 2020.”

The effect is already startling, with the Asia-Pacific making up about half of the world’s cancer deaths and logging 4.9 million new cases, or 45 percent, of the global toll in 2002.
China alone, with its booming economy and 1.3 billion people, is home to about one-fifth of the world’s new cases, compared to about 13 percent in the U.S. and 26 percent in Europe. Heart disease remains the top killer in China, but cancer is a close second.



Rapid economic growth over the last two decades, has brought about environmental pollution in cities. It would be interesting to see a study correlating rise in cancer in Asia with several environmental factors, especially in the context of increased manufacturing activity and consumerism.

 Meanwhile, as the panel recommends, self-advocacy is a good policy. Become an active voice within the community.

 Individuals can influence in two ways:

 One is by influencing public policy supporting environmental cancer research and measures that will reduce suspected carcinogens and toxins.

 The other is by influencing industry by choosing non-toxic products, and communicating with manufacturers the need for safer products.



Further links you may be interested in:

EWTT: Book Review : Cancer Cured and Prevented Naturally

EWTT: Are all chemicals bad and all natural things good?

EWTT:  The China Study by Prof Colin Campbell  Link between diet and cancer


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Posted by on May 24 2010. Filed under Chemicals, Chemicals, Health. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

3 Comments for “President’s Cancer Panel: Environmental causes of cancer underestimated”

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