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Cancer scientists get pushy about prevention

Kristin Schafer's picture

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.

Kristin Schafer
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Marc Sommer's picture
Marc Sommer /
Is n't it a bit hypocrital to ask that we-homo sapiens-should stay free of chemicals-while continuing polluting and violating nature on the other hand? Ofcourse somewhere one should begin.But how many did do this already?At least the ones that are for eks. eating organic and are living very conscious about spending (on) (cheap)energy.Behind it is an other filosophy than just the market economy system which thrives under the democratic system.These two are completely backed up by the capitalisitic world we live in.When one has a p.c. , you are part of this system (of destruction) As long as we continue destroying biodiversity we our selves will be a part of it with our 1.3 miljon cancer death's around the world.And this will be more in stead of less.And in a way we ''deserve no better''.Even wild animals have more cancer than before.We are also polluting ourselves, is n't it. When we will notice Nature is recovering through our own actions we also will be of better health and supposedly walking around in amounts less than we do now.Cancer death's are also related to the luxurian way we live in and the peculiar manners of behaving and of customs .
openeyed's picture
openeyed /
Great article, and good points made by both Marc and donlouis. The political corruption that goes behind keeping the status quo alive runs so deep....layers upon layers of beaurocracy. Recently, I got involved with a grassroots environmental health org focused on the environmental health hazards imposed upon children (in some of the most upscale, affluential areas of the U.S.!). I spoke out at a County level meeting....and what I heard frightened me to my toes. "We don't have the budget to post signs warning people at parks pesticides were sprayed, we don't have staff to manually pull those weeds at prks/schools so have to use weed killers". I worked with an MPH combing through chemicals USED AROUND SCHOOLS that are scientifically linked to cancer, reproductive helath problems, are neurotoxins...I had to stop working there, my heart sank so low. Money (or more like percieved profit) takes precedence over humanity in the U.S. Sad thing is, we would be doing better economically if they all went green...less cancer, less money spent on trying to "cure" cancer, less asthma and other disease. War also causes cancer....another part of our deep rooted culture that has got to stop. It's a small world, and what is happening in mid east physically, emotionally, in every way negatively effects us all. Obama says he wants to curb cancer causing chemicals, yet he still makes same mistake all U.S. Presidents have made, using the Pentagon profitable marketing spin "we are fighting for our security and freedom". NOT!
Kristin Schafer's picture
Kristin Schafer /
Thanks for sharing your story! And your point re priorities & budget goes straight to some of the debates raging now in DC. It's easy to get discouraged - but so important to stay involved! The more of us who are talking about these issues, the harder to ignore..
kategrin611's picture
kategrin611 /
For the past 3 decades, officials in this country have been saying that environmental pollutants cause just 2% of all cancers. Amazing. In their report last year, the President's Cancer Panel scolded US regulators for using data that was "woefully out of date." manager of <a href="">burn a dvd from mov</a>, the harder to ignore.
donlouis's picture
donlouis /
You state that scientists at a WHO meeting estimated that roughly 19%of all cancers are linked to environmental factors. This is considerably different that other scientific quotes. For example, the American Cancer Society estimated that only 5 to 10 % of cancers are clearly heritable. The National Cancer Institute stated that "most of the cases of cancer are linked to environmental causes, and, in principle, can be prevented. The International Agency for Cancer Research had earlier (I do not have the date) concluded that at least 80% of all cancer is attributable to environmental influences." There is undoubtedly considerable uncertainty about the per cent of environmental causal factors. Nevertheless, it is obvious that it is wise to keep ALL toxic chemicals out of our bodies. Thanks for your blog. Don Hoernschemeyer
Kristin Schafer's picture
Kristin Schafer /
<p> Thanks for your thoughtful comment. It&#39;s even worse than you think: For the past 3 decades, officials in this country have been saying that environmental pollutants cause <strong>just 2%</strong> of all cancers. Amazing. In their report last year, the President&#39;s Cancer Panel scolded US regulators for using data that was &quot;woefully out of date.&quot; For more info &amp; links, check out this page on our site:</p>
Atkinson's picture
Atkinson /
Hopefully that on the basis of these researches scientists would find a perfect cure that will heal all those people who struggle with cancer. Thank you for this post, it was pretty interesting to get this info, there is a lot to think over in it. Kelly Atkinson, <a href="">free flv to mp4 converter</a> pr manager.
Kristin Schafer's picture

Kristin Schafer was PAN's Executive Director until early 2022. With training in international policy and social change strategies, Kristin was at PAN for over 25 years. Before taking on the Executive Director role in 2017, she was PAN's program and policy director. She was lead author on several PAN reports, with a particular emphasis on children's health. She continues to serve on the Policy Committee of the Children's Environmental Health Network. Follow @KristinAtPAN