Environmental Risks Linked to Cancer

Posted on May 12th, 2010 by

The President’s Cancer Panel has released a 240-page report outlining the risks posed by environmental contaminants such as chemicals associated with industry, agriculture, and medical imaging as well as natural hazards including radon gas and arsenic. The panel asserted that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.”[1]

The report has caused quite a stir, as much of the information has little data to back it. The panel members assert that since we don’t have concrete data about safety and risks of certain pollutants, it would be prudent to use caution. 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.”

Among the risks outlined in the report are: radon in the soil, arsenic in the water, radiation from medical imaging scans, and the potential dangers of other pollutants such as pesticides, industrial chemicals, plastic food containers, and vehicle exhaust. There is concrete scientific data outlining the dangers of radon, radiation, and BPA (a common ingredient in plastic); however, there is little data regarding the safety of cell phones or some chemicals. In the current system, most chemicals are deemed innocent until proven guilty – in other words, they are put into use until they are shown to be dangerous.

The American Cancer Society criticized the report for downplaying the known lifestyle risks associated with cancer such as tobacco, alcohol, and obesity. As many as two-thirds of cancer cases are caused by poor lifestyle choices. The concern is that the report is unbalanced and presents an unproven theory – and could ultimately divert attention from other efforts to prevent cancer such as improving diets and avoiding tobacco.

The panel defended their report and recommended more research and stronger regulation. They provide a list of ways in which individuals can reduce their risk such as:

  • Check and mitigate radon levels in the home
  • Use stainless steel, glass, or BPA-free water bottles
  • Buy produce grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers
  • Choose hormone-free, antibiotic-free meats
  • Choose products free of toxins
  • Properly dispose of household chemicals and paints to avoid soil contamination

In the absence of scientific data, it certainly cannot hurt to limit chemical exposure. Of course, it’s still important to maintain a healthy diet, get proper exercise and avoid tobacco products. A little common sense goes a long way to staying healthy and preventing cancer.


[1] 2008-2009 President’s Cancer Panel. Reducing environmental cancer risk: What we can do now.  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; National Institutes of Health; National Cancer Institute. April 2010. Accessed online: http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/pcp08-09rpt/PCP_Report_08-09_508.pdf


Tags: UNM CC Features

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