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Kristin Schafer

Cancer scientists get pushy about prevention

As evidence linking pollutants and cancer becomes increasingly clear, scientists around the world are calling for something to be done — and they're getting downright pushy about it.

Well maybe not pushy, exactly. But definitely pointed and impatient as they urge policymakers to take steps now to protect us from chemicals that cause cancer.

First there was the President's Cancer Panel report, released in early May of last year. As I've pointed out in earlier posts, the scientists that pulled this report together called on the White House to craft much stronger policies to cut down our exposure to cancer-causing chemicals — and the sooner the better.

Then earlier this month, Dr. David Christiani (a preeminent cancer scientist from Harvard's School of Public Health) endorsed the Cancer Panel's findings in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. He echoed the authors' urgent call on the Obama Administration to tackle cancer by tackling the pollutants that cause it.

And just last week, medical experts pulled together by the World Health Organization for a cancer summit in Spain called on the governments of the world to "adopt and enforce national and international legislation for protection against environmental and occupational carcinogens." In other words, to get serious about preventing cancer by protecting people from things that cause it.

A message that's long overdue

It's about time. Knowledge about links between the environment and cancer is hardly new — yet it's long been neglected by researchers and policymakers alike. As Christiani notes in his article:

The knowledge that environmental factors play a role in carcinogenesis dates back centuries. Dr. Percival Pott described scrotal tumors in young chimney sweeps of 18th-century London, demonstrating that cancer could be caused by environmental factors. This discovery led to the passage of public health legislation regarding disease prevention.

Christiani reminds us of the devastating toll cancer takes every year in this country: 1.5 million new cases and 560,000 deaths. Too many of those affected are children, as kids' cancer rates continue to climb. His solution? We need:

. . . a new national cancer-prevention strategy emphasizing primary prevention that redirects both research and policy agendas and sets tangible goals for reducing or eliminating environmental exposures implicated in cancer causation.

Experts at the WHO meeting delivered a message that was even more pointed and urgent. These scientists estimate that roughly 19% of all cancers are linked to environmental factors; globally, cancer causes 1.3 million deaths each year.

In their Asturias Pledge participants in the global cancer meeting urge all sectors of society — industry, government, civil society (that's us) and UN agencies — to join forces to:

. . . tackle known and preventable causes of cancer, using scientific evidence to raise awareness and promote environmental and occupational interventions in support of primary preventive measures.

Breaking through the 'status quo': Corporate interests & the ACS

It's very, very good news that we're finally breaking through the longstanding logjam in public discussions about the links between cancer and chemicals. Real progress still has major hurdles to overcome though, as there are significant forces (read: corporate interests) that benefit greatly from the status quo.

According to some, like cancer prevention advocate Dr. Samuel Epstein, mainstream cancer groups such as the American Cancer Society (ACS) have a long history of promoting that status quo, fastidiously keeping the focus of research and policy discussions away from the dangers of cancer-causing chemicals. Chair of the national Cancer Prevention Coalition and past president of the American Public Health Association, Epstein recently authored a scathing critique of ACS's record on cancer prevention entitled More Interested in Accumulating Wealth than Saving Lives.

Be that as it may, policymakers are going to have a tough time ignoring the ever-louder and more urgent calls from cancer scientists around the world to reduce the risk of cancer from environmental pollutants. We "civil society" folks are calling for action too. If you haven't already signed our petition to President Obama calling for a national cancer prevention plan, please take a minute to add your name to the list today.

Picture of Kristin Schafer

Kristin Schafer

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