Last month, I lost a dear friend to lymphoma. He was a vibrant, healthy 39 year old — a father, a husband, a successful businessman and an incredible musician. And less than a year after his diagnosis, cancer won.
Too many of us have similar stories. Too many of us have watched some version of this disease lay waste to the people we hold dearest. Cancer is everywhere. And it's entirely unacceptable.
This is an epidemic
Nearly 1.7 million people in this country will be diagnosed with cancer in 2015, according to the American Cancer Society. While treatments and survival rates continue to improve, cancer remains responsible for one in four deaths in the U.S.
Certain types of this disease are on the rise, too, including those that affect children, leukemia and testicular cancer — and scientists continue to uncover more connections between these trends and exposure to chemicals like pesticides.
According to the 2009 report from the prestigious President’s Cancer Panel, the link between chemicals and cancer has been significantly underestimated. In a letter to President Obama, the Panel wrote:
The American people — even before they are born — are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures. The Panel urges you most strongly 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.
Ag workers on the frontline
Too often, chemicals are approved for everyday use without decisionmakers understanding the full spectrum of their health implications. Just recently, for instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its conclusion that glyphosate — the active ingredient in Monsanto's RoundUp and the most commonly used herbicide in the U.S., if not the world — is a "probable carcinogen." And this finding is based primarily on exposure data from before RoundUp Ready corn covered millions of farmland acres!
As noted by my colleague, Dr. Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, it's "not just RoundUp."
Many other pesticides commonly used in U.S. agriculture have been linked to cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption, neurological and developmental damage and other harmful health and environmental effects. Atrazine, for example — the second most widely used pesticide in the U.S. — is a possible carcinogen, endocrine disruptor and groundwater contaminant.
Farmers and farmworkers, along with fenceline communities, tend to get a heftier dose of health-harming pesticides than the rest of us. According to the multi-agency Agricultural Health Study, this also means more cancer:
...farming communities have higher rates of leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma, as well as cancers of the skin, lip, stomach, brain, and prostate.
When the way we grow food results in more disease, something needs to change.
Prevention, prevention, prevention
I don't know anyone who hasn't been impacted by cancer in one way or another. Friend, co-worker, teacher, cousin. And in recent weeks, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, many in my community have been sharing their own stories of survival or loss. Heartwrenching stories — and much, much too common.
With a problem as big as the cancer epidemic, there is no one silver bullet solution. And while researchers are focused on critical cures and treatments, we also need to be focusing on prevention. One important place to start? Shifting our food system away from reliance on cancer-causing pesticides (and keeping new, harmful chemicals out of rotation).
There are proven ways to grow food, for the people already on the planet and those to come, that don't require the use of carcinogens. Let's do that.