New Alarm Bells About Chemicals and Cancer

By Nicholas Kristof via New York Times

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.

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Comments (4)

Making industrial chemicals safer is something we can all get behind. If we want safer chemicals and a safer environment then we must use nonanimal methods of testing.

Currently, many toxicity tests are based on experiments in animals and use methods that were developed as long ago as the 1930’s; they and are slow, inaccurate, open to uncertainty and manipulation, and do not adequately protect human health. These tests take anywhere from months to years, and tens of thousands to millions of dollars to perform. More importantly, the current testing paradigm has a poor record in predicting effects in humans and an even poorer record in leading to actual regulation of dangerous chemicals.

The blueprint for development and implementation for nonanimal testing is the National Research Council report, “Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century: A Vision and a Strategy in 2007.” This report calls for a shift away from the use of animals in toxicity testing. The report also concludes that human cell- and computer-based approaches are the best way to protect human health because they allow us to understand more quickly and accurately the varied effects that chemicals can have on different groups of people. They are also more affordable and more humane.

These methods are ideal for assessing the real world scenarios such as mixtures of chemicals, which have proven problematic using animal-based test methods. And, they’re the only way we can assess all chemicals on the market.

Thank goodness this subject is starting to get more “mainstream media” attention. I work with a Naturopathis Doctor and Digestive Care Expert who opened my eyes to these toxins in our environment and shares some great tips for cleansing on her site. Thanks for sharing this article!

My husband and I, now 92, have been taking a substantial number of supplements for forty years, and except for Armour’s Thyroid, take no pharmaceuticals. We avoid conventional doctors as much as possible. I subscribe to many alternative health letters and get great advice and updates on new findings from their editors, wonderful and patient-committed doctors. The time is overdue for conventional medicine to take alternative medicine seriously, instead of maligning it, The first step is to re-form the FDA. Medical practive would be better, simpler and cheaper. Patients would have to become part if the process. Eventually this will happenl; I hope sooner rather than later, EDK

I’m so glad that I found your website! Great info and I agree that it’s long overdue that alternative medicine be taken seriously and INSURANCE companies start accepting it!

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