As a cancer survivor, I was thrilled to learn of a new landmark report by the President's Cancer Panel that raises the same red flags many of us have been waving for years. The authoritative panel not only highlights a clear link between environmental chemicals and an increased risk of cancer, it places the blame for the unchecked proliferation of such potential toxins on our failed chemicals policies.
In his May 6 New York Times Op-Ed column, "New Alarm Bells About Chemicals and Cancer," Nicholas D. Kristof hailed the panel's "astonishing" move to "join ranks with the organic food movement and declare: chemicals threaten our bodies," as well as its call "to rethink the way we confront cancer, including more rigorous regulation of chemicals."
"Hallelujah!" I cried. OK, maybe I said "duh" first. After all, the folks at Seventh Generation have been pushing for chemicals safety reform for years, including their recent effort with Million Baby Crawl. Such change is sorely needed: Since 1976, the Environmental Protection Agency has required testing of only 200 of the 80,000 chemicals on the market.
Seventh Generation has also been working for reform with the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families coalition, which hailed the report as a major victory. "It's official: We can't win the war on cancer until we get serious about chemicals," said Sarah Janssen, MD, PhD, MPH, Natural Resources Defense Council, a founding member of the coalition.
Last month, Seventh Generation cofounder Jeffrey Hollander, aka the Inspired Protagonist, broke the news here about the introduction in the U.S. Senate of the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010, which requires safety testing of all industrial chemicals and puts the burden on industry to prove that chemicals are safe in order to stay on the market.
"With an increasing focus on toxic chemical exposure in humans," he wrote, "and a new report showing newborn babies with traces of 287 toxic chemicals in their blood at birth, the time for action is now." Or, as the Times' Kristof bluntly it, "to a disturbing extent, babies are born 'pre-polluted.' "
Yet while bills have now been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate to overhaul the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act, the Safer Chemicals coalition asserts that both pieces of legislation fall short of public health goals. Andy Igrejas, director of the coalition, said the panel's report "should not only galvanize Congress to get chemical reform done but to get it done right." We don't want to look back after a new panel 10 or 20 years from now and see that we missed our opportunity to reduce the burden of cancer on a new generation," he said.
Not surprisingly, the report had harsh critics, including the American Cancer Society. In a statement , Cancer Society epidemiologist Dr. Michael Thun said, "Unfortunately, the perspective of the report is unbalanced by its implication that pollution is the major cause of cancer, and by its dismissal of cancer prevention efforts aimed at the major known causes of cancer (tobacco, obesity, alcohol, infections, hormones, sunlight) as 'focused narrowly.'"
But panel president Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr. of Howard University stood by the report, which he called an "evenhanded approach." He told The New York Times that while it was currently impossible to pinpoint just how many cancers were environmentally caused, he was confident that when enough research has been done, it would confirm the panel's claims that the problem had been grossly underestimated.
I have to agree. In 1999, at the age of 39, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I followed the prescribed regimen: lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. For 10 years, I've been carefully monitored and, knock on sustainable wood, I remain cancer-free. Yet I've never had genetic testing done. Given my family background -- both of my grandmothers had breast cancer and I'm of Eastern European Jewish descent -- I always thought, "Why bother? Of course I have the gene."
My oncologist has finally convinced me that I should find out for sure. But whether or not it turns out I'm a loaded gun, genetically speaking, I'm convinced that environmental toxins helped pull the trigger. My concern extends beyond cancer; you'll have a hard time convincing me that environmental toxins aren't behind the exponential increase in autism and other developmental delays now being diagnosed in children.
It's clear that we can't wait for legislative reforms, and the president's panel suggests things we can do now to reduce our risk of cancer due to harmful environmental exposure:
- Particularly when pregnant and when children are small, choose foods, toys, and house and garden products that will minimize exposure to toxins and endocrine disruptors or other toxins
- 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
- Microwave food in ceramic or glass containers only
- Choose food grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and growth hormones
Notably, the panel's final suggestion is self-advocacy: "Each person can become an active voice in his or her community. To a greater extent than many realize, individuals have the power to affect public policy by letting policymakers know that they strongly support environmental cancer research and measures that will reduce or remove from the environment toxics that are known or suspected carcinogens or endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Individuals also can influence industry by selecting non-toxic products and, where these do not exist, communicating with manufacturers and trade organizations about their desire for safer products."
We couldn't have said it better ourselves.