Chemicals and Cancer

Posted May 23, 2010, at 7:13 p.m.

The role synthetic chemicals in the human environment play in causing cancer has been “grossly underestimated,” the President’s Cancer Panel has concluded. In a recent letter to President Barack Obama, the panel urged him “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 “and devastate our lives.” That claim likely will ring true with many people who avoid ingesting or being exposed to synthetic chemical preservatives, additives, pesticides and other substances. But as with most issues relating to cancer, the panel’s call for action will stir controversy.

Margaret Kripke, an immunologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, is one of three members on the panel, which was created in 1971. On a recent edition of the WBUR radio program “On Point,” she explained that though environmental sources are believed to cause just 6 percent of cancers, “We are convinced that is very out of date.” The 6 percent finding was made in 1981, she said.

Dr. Kripke asserts, persuasively, that there are more chemicals in the environment than 30 years ago. Many are related to plastic, a substance even more ubiquitous now than then. Today, there about 80,000 chemicals in the typical American home or on the lawn and garden, she said. Dr. Kripke, who was appointed to the panel by President George W. Bush, said chemicals that leach from plastic containers used to store or cook food or store water are of the most concern. Many cancer-causing substances in the workplace are not regulated, she added.

One of the most troubling findings Dr. Kripke reported is that babies are being born “pre-polluted.” The blood in the umbilical cord is tested, and a host of environmental toxins often are found, she said.

Still, there is skepticism about the degree to which chemicals pose a threat.

Some 1.5 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer in 2009; about 500,000 died last year from cancer. The good news is that most cancers are avoidable. About 30 percent of cancers are caused by tobacco use, and about 20 percent are caused by obesity, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, too much sun exposure and other factors an individual can control.

Sandra Steingraber, also a guest on the radio program, is the author of “Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment.” Ms. Steingraber was diagnosed with bladder cancer at 20, a disease she believes is the result of exposure to chemicals. The Portland resident said the U.S. should follow Canada in banning some lawn fertilizers.

A recent study reported in the medical journal Pediatrics suggested a link between pesticides found on fruits and vegetables and attention-deficit disorder, further pointing a finger at chemicals as threats.

Leadership on these concerns must come at the federal level. Dr. Kripke stressed that children are most vulnerable for such environmental cancers. “It’s very, very important to protect children,” she said. That’s a message that must be heeded.

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