Scientist Smackdown: Are Environmental Toxins a Huge Cancer Threat?

By Eliza Strickland | May 7, 2010 1:29 pm

presidential-cancer-panelYesterday, a government entity called the President’s Cancer Panel released an alarming report declaring that environmental toxins are causing “grievous harm” to Americans. The authors of the report (pdf) went on to say that while much more research needs to be done to determine the long-term effects of exposure, they believe that the “true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.”

But no sooner had they released the report than other cancer experts came forward to say that it wasn’t alarming, but rather alarmist.

First, the panel’s findings. In the 240-page report, the advisory panel noted that Americans are exposed to chemicals whose safety hasn’t yet been definitively established–like the chemical BPA that’s found in some everyday plastics, pesticides, and the substances found in industrial pollution. They write:

“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” [TIME].

The authors go on to suggest a more precautionary approach to approving new chemicals, and argue that under the current regulatory system the government doesn’t act until there’s some proof of harm. They write that cancers could be prevented if the government required more proof of safety from companies before approving a new chemical.

But the report’s release brought an immediate rebuttal from an authoritative source: the American Cancer Society.

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) [The New York Times].

Thun went on to say that the report does a disservice to the public by suggesting that the risk of environmentally caused cancer is much higher than 6 percent, thus diverting attention from the real top cancer causes, like smoking and obesity.

“If we could get rid of tobacco, we could get rid of 30 percent of cancer deaths,” he said [The New York Times].

The report’s authors maintain that their findings were balanced and judicious, so the spat doesn’t seem likely to end anytime soon. But the opponents do all agree on one thing: More research on the effects of exposure to everyday chemicals would be tremendously useful.

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Image: President’s Cancer Panel
CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • kathy

    Mystifying as to why Michael Thun continues to take this stance against environmental medicine. Take one example, estrogen receptor positive cancers like some breast and all prostate cancers. This type of tumor is on the rise in the U.S. for smokers and non-smokers alike. It’s increasing incidence is very likely related to estrogenic substances in the environment like the hormone disruptors found in plastics. I suggest anyone wanting to understand Thun’s reluctance to accept this thesis should take a look at the ACS funding sources.

  • nick

    The ACS’s pension obligations seem to be growing by 25% a year. I guess Thun owes allegiance to where his money comes from, just like we all do. Have a look for yourself! I am trying to figure out which large corporations donate to the ACS

    Their books were audited by the same company that said Lehman Brothers was doing swell just before they collapsed and nearly took our entire economy with them.

    “In fiscal years 2009 and 2008, the Society received in-kind contributions of advertising production, magazine space, public service announcements and in-store advertising materials from various retail and professional organizations with an estimated fair value of $14,431,000 and $4,175,000.”

    Ah but to WHOM do they owe allegiance for this money? Because they move around quite a bit and don’t seem to disclose where it’s coming from.

    At least we know our politics are swayed by campaign contributions. I’m not trying to poo-poo on the fine work the ACS is doing, but we do know that in the past, Big Tobacco has spent billions of dollars trying to sway public opinion in any way they could. The current battle is industrial chemicals, some of which find their way into our cosmetics because they’re not regulated by the FDA. At all.

    That’s right, any chemical that has not been declared actually toxic is available to put into your cosmetics, which you slather on your skin, the largest organ which is also highly permeable to these products. Many of which contain organic solvents like alcohols, which aid the penetration of your skin by chemicals dissolved in them.

  • ToneDeF

    nick – I’m not sure about all your claims, but the statement that the FDA doesn’t regulate cosmetics at all is not only false, but also a little silly when you consider that the congressional legislation that gave the FDA authority to regulate is called the “Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act”.

  • deep water

    I am not expert on cancer (that would be Sloan-Kettering in NYC). But I grew up in a small industrial town in South Jersey. Fifty, seventy thousand people, small hospital and a couple of baseball fields next to the dump.

    In my hometown, Dr. Thun you would be called an “idiot” and a lot of other words, I suspect. Go to my hometown and ask some of the retired men about their old jobs and how their community has changed. And as they breath in hard, sucking air from a tube connected to an oxygen tank, they will tell you. Pollution is a major cause of cancer and they are the proof. If you don’t believe the first few thousand, get back to me. Communities are sick, asbestosis, myothelioma, schizophrenia, cancer. We have cancer’s no one’s even named yet.

    Dr. Thun, the report is unbalanced because the situation is unbalanced, because its even worst than people think. But you know all this Dr. Thun, don’t you?

    You can know something and still not really understand it. ~Charles Kettering

    You can also know something and lie about it Dr. Thun, I believe you are a liar.
    ~G. Stone /


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