We are experiencing a cancer epidemic. In the U.S., more than 40% us will battle cancer, at some point in our lives, from diagnosis through treatment to survival or death. While some types of cancer are on the decline, others continue to rise — including childhood cancers, leukemia and testicular cancer.
It's becoming a shared part of our culture. More than 500,000 men, women and children die from cancer each year, leaving millions of grieving siblings, parents, children, neighbors and friends in the disease's wake. Entire industries have arisen to cope with the side-effects of cancer treatment, as patients and their families struggle to live normal lives, and enterprising businesses rush to fill the need. But cancer is not normal.
It’s unclear exactly how much of this country's cancer results from exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. But according to a report recently delivered to the White House by the prestigious President’s Cancer Panel, evidence of the linkage is strong, and decisive action is long overdue. Here’s an excerpt from the Panel's letter to President Obama:
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.
The Panel goes on to scold regulators for greatly underestimating the links between environmental contaminants and cancer, using data that is "woefully out of date" and allows the chemical industry to "justify its claims that specific products pose little or no cancer risk." For the past three decades, federal officials have held that environmental pollutants cause just two percent of all cancers.
Chemicals can trigger cancer in a variety of ways, including disrupting hormones, damaging DNA, inflaming tissues and turning genes on or off. Many pesticides are known to cause cancer, and (as the Panel notes) everyone in the U.S. is exposed to them on a daily basis.
Girls exposed to DDT before they reach puberty are 5 times more likely to develop breast cancer in middle age.
Children are at particularly high risk of developing cancer from pesticides as their bodies develop. Girls who were exposed to DDT before they reach puberty are five times more likely to develop breast cancer in middle age. When parents are exposed to pesticides before a child is conceived, that child's risk of cancer goes up. Pesticide exposures during pregnancy and throughout childhood also increase the risk of childhood cancer. Farmers, farmworkers and their families tend to be exposed to more pesticides than the general population, and experience higher rates of a number of cancers:
Despite the growing scientific consensus that environmental contaminants are causing cancer in humans, research continues to focus on improving treatments and finding a cure. Our free-market system is not designed to encourage investment in disease prevention, and — let's be honest — major companies are profiting from both the products that cause cancer and the products that treat it. We're not saying it's anyone's intention to profit from cancer; that's just the way our system works.
Biologist and cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber comments on the links between cancer and pesticides in the President's Cancer Panel’s report:
We have sprayed pesticides … throughout our shared environment. They are now in amniotic fluid. They’re in our blood. They’re in our urine. They’re in our exhaled breath. They are in mothers’ milk … What is the burden of cancer that we can attribute to this use of poisons in our agricultural system? ... We won’t really know the answer until we do the other experiment — which is to take the poisons out of our food chain, embrace a different kind of agriculture, and see what happens.
Steingraber brings both personal and professional expertise to the issue of cancer. Her book (and now documentary film) Living Downstream tells the story of her own journey as a cancer survivor, and documents her scientific investigations that expose this simple, tragic truth: As a society, we are so busy treating cancer and searching diligently for a cure that we’re failing to tackle its causes.