New Alarm Bells Re: Chemicals & Cancer

The panel criticizes the government’s lackadaisical regulatory approach to protecting the public from industrial pollutants, calling it "reactionary" rather than "precautionary."  This prestigious panel reports directly to the President.

Three shocking facts confirmed by the report:
1.“With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.” Only a few hundred of the chemicals have been tested for safety.

2.  "300 contaminants have been detected in umbilical cord blood of newborn babies…to a disturbing extent, babies are born ‘pre-polluted.’"                

3. 41% of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives.

The panelists–who were appointed by President George W. Bush–indicate that the purpose of the report was "to let people know that we’re concerned, and that they should be concerned." 

The President’s Cancer Panel urges the government to take meaningful steps by legislating and enforcing regulations to rein in industry-generated health threats. Tougher laws, serious enforcement by regulatory agencies, and a radical change from the current–industry influenced–policies that presume chemicals to be safe unless strong evidence emerges to the contrary, are recommended.

Pregnant women and young children are particularly vulnerable to chemical pollutants.
Consumers are to avoid plastics containing BPA; to ingest organic food grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers and growth hormones; to filter drinking water; and to store water in glass or stainless steel containers.

The report, therefore, lends support for legislation that will curb industry generated pollutants:
Sen. Diane Feinstein’s legislation to ban bisphenol-A (BPA) which is used in plastics; and the Safe Chemicals Act proposed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

Vera Hassner Sharav

 

THE NEW YORK TIMES
May 6, 2010
Op-Ed Columnist
New Alarm Bells About Chemicals and Cancer

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

The President’s Cancer Panel is the Mount Everest of the medical mainstream, so it is astonishing to learn that it is poised to join ranks with the organic food movement and declare: chemicals threaten our bodies.

The cancer panel is releasing a landmark 200-page report on Thursday, warning that our lackadaisical approach to regulation may have far-reaching consequences for our health.

I’ve read an advance copy of the report, and it’s an extraordinary document. It calls on America to rethink the way we confront cancer, including much more rigorous regulation of chemicals.

Traditionally, we reduce cancer risks through regular doctor visits, self-examinations and screenings such as mammograms. The President’s Cancer Panel suggests other eye-opening steps as well, such as giving preference to organic food, checking radon levels in the home and microwaving food in glass containers rather than plastic.

In particular, the report warns about exposures to chemicals during pregnancy, when risk of damage seems to be greatest. Noting that 300 contaminants have been detected in umbilical cord blood of newborn babies, the study warns that: “to a disturbing extent, babies are born ‘pre-polluted.’ ”

It’s striking that this report emerges not from the fringe but from the mission control of mainstream scientific and medical thinking, the President’s Cancer Panel. Established in 1971, this is a group of three distinguished experts who review America’s cancer program and report directly to the president.

One of the seats is now vacant, but the panel members who joined in this report are Dr. LaSalle Leffall Jr., an oncologist and professor of surgery at Howard University, and Dr. Margaret Kripke, an immunologist at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Both were originally appointed to the panel by former President George W. Bush.

“We wanted to let people know that we’re concerned, and that they should be concerned,” Professor Leffall told me.

The report blames weak laws, lax enforcement and fragmented authority, as well as the existing regulatory presumption that chemicals are safe unless strong evidence emerges to the contrary.

“Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety,” the report says. It adds: “Many known or suspected carcinogens are completely unregulated.”

Industry may howl. The food industry has already been fighting legislation in the Senate backed by Dianne Feinstein of California that would ban bisphenol-A, commonly found in plastics and better known as BPA, from food and beverage containers.

Studies of BPA have raised alarm bells for decades, and the evidence is still complex and open to debate. That’s life: In the real world, regulatory decisions usually must be made with ambiguous and conflicting data. The panel’s point is that we should be prudent in such situations, rather than recklessly approving chemicals of uncertain effect.

The President’s Cancer Panel report will give a boost to Senator Feinstein’s efforts. It may also help the prospects of the Safe Chemicals Act, backed by Senator Frank Lautenberg and several colleagues, to improve the safety of chemicals on the market.

Some 41 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, and they include Democrats and Republicans alike. Protecting ourselves and our children from toxins should be an effort that both parties can get behind — if enough members of Congress are willing to put the public interest ahead of corporate interests.

One reason for concern is that some cancers are becoming more common, particularly in children. We don’t know why that is, but the proliferation of chemicals in water, foods, air and household products is widely suspected as a factor. I’m hoping the President’s Cancer Panel report will shine a stronger spotlight on environmental causes of health problems — not only cancer, but perhaps also diabetes, obesity and autism.

This is not to say that chemicals are evil, and in many cases the evidence against a particular substance is balanced by other studies that are exonerating. To help people manage the uncertainty prudently, the report has a section of recommendations for individuals:

¶Particularly when pregnant and when children are small, choose foods, toys and garden products with fewer endocrine disruptors or other toxins. (Information about products is at www.cosmeticsdatabase.com or www.healthystuff.org.)

¶For those whose jobs may expose them to chemicals, remove shoes when entering the house and wash work clothes separately from the rest of the laundry.

¶Filter drinking water.

¶Store water in glass or stainless steel containers, or in plastics that don’t contain BPA or phthalates (chemicals used to soften plastics). Microwave food in ceramic or glass containers.

¶Give preference to food grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers and growth hormones. Avoid meats that are cooked well-done.

¶Check radon levels in your home. Radon is a natural source of radiation linked to cancer.

I invite you to visit my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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THE NEW YORK TIMES
May 6, 2010
U.S. Panel Criticized as Overstating Cancer Risks
By DENISE GRADY

A dire government report on cancer risks from chemicals and other hazards in the environment has drawn criticism from the American Cancer Society, which says government experts are overstating their case.

The government’s 240-page report, published online Thursday by the President’s Cancer Panel, says the proportion of cancer cases caused by environmental exposures has been “grossly underestimated.” It warns of “grievous harm” from chemicals and other hazards, and cites “a growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures to cancer.”

Children are especially vulnerable, the panel says. It urges the government to strengthen research and regulation, and advises individuals on ways to limit exposure to potential threats like pesticides, industrial chemicals, medical X-rays, vehicle exhaust, plastic food containers and too much sun.

A cover letter urges President Obama “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.”

Nearly 80,000 chemicals are in use in the United States, and yet only a few hundred have been tested for safety, the report notes. It criticizes the nation’s regulatory approach, calling it reactionary rather than precautionary, which means that the government waits for proof of harm before taking action, instead of taking preventive steps when there is uncertainty about a chemical. Regulation is ineffective, the panel says, in part because of inadequate staffing and financing, overly complex rules, weak laws, uneven enforcement and undue industry influence.

The report looks at contaminants from a variety of sources: industry, agriculture, air and water, medical imaging and contaminated military sites. It also considers natural hazards, like radon gas in homes and arsenic in drinking water. The report concludes, “At this time, we do not know how much environmental exposures influence cancer risk.”

Dr. Michael Thun, an epidemiologist from the cancer society, said in an online statement that the report was “unbalanced by its implication that pollution is the major cause of cancer,” and had presented an unproven theory — that environmentally caused cases are grossly underestimated — as if it were a fact.

The cancer society estimates that about 6 percent of all cancers in the United States — 34,000 cases a year — are related to environmental causes (4 percent from occupational exposures, 2 percent from the community or other settings).

Suggesting that the risk is much higher, when there is no proof, may divert attention from things that are much bigger causes of cancer, like smoking, Dr. Thun said in an interview.

“If we could get rid of tobacco, we could get rid of 30 percent of cancer deaths,” he said, adding that poor nutrition, obesity and lack of exercise are also greater contributors to cancer risk than pollution.

But Dr. Thun said the cancer society shared the panel’s concerns about people’s exposure to so many chemicals, the lack of information about chemicals, the vulnerability of children and the radiation risks from medical imaging tests.

The chairman of the president’s panel, Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr. of Howard University, said the panel stood by the report.

“This is an evenhanded approach, and an evenhanded report,” Dr. Leffall said. “We didn’t make statements that should not be made.”

He acknowledged that it was impossible to specify just how many cancers were environmentally caused, because not enough research had been done, but he said he was confident that when the research was done, it would confirm the panel’s assertion that the problem had been grossly underestimated.

Despite the uncertainties, the panel recommended more research and stronger regulation to protect public health.

The report also mentions things that people can do themselves to lower their risks. The measures include these:

¶Protecting children by choosing foods, house and garden products, toys, medicines and medical tests that will minimize exposure to toxic substances.

¶Filtering tap water, and storing water in stainless steel, glass or other containers to avoid exposure to BPA and other plastic components that some studies have linked to health problems.

¶Buying produce grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, or washing it thoroughly to remove them.

¶Buying meat free of antibiotics and added hormones, and avoiding processed, charred and well-done meat.

The panel normally has three members, appointed by the president. Currently there are only two: Dr. Leffall and Dr. Margaret L. Kripke, a professor emerita from the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Both were originally appointed by President George W. Bush.

Over two years, Dr. Leffall and Dr. Kripke held meetings and heard presentations from academic and government scientists, industry representatives and members of advocacy groups and the public.