The Search for Environmental Carcinogens

In the search for carcinogens, competing interests can complicate and compromise the case.

The biggest question for consumers is how to protect themselves and their children when data are either absent, unclear or in the throes of political haggling. The government is supposed to provide guidance, but the President’s Cancer Council noted that “existing regulations, and the exposure assessments on which they are based, are outdated in most cases, and many known or suspected carcinogens are completely unregulated. Enforcement of most existing regulations is poor.” Jeanne Rizzo, RN, president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund, an organization that advocates for the elimination of preventable causes of the disease, summarizes it this way: “If we can’t even ban asbestos, then our regulatory system is failing us.”

Advocates have proposed stronger laws. In March 2011, David Christiani, MD, of the Harvard School of Public Health, called for regulations that would “require premarketing safety testing, reduce industry influence on regulations, and control the importation of toxic chemicals and products.” Writing in The New England Journal of Medicine, he said that we should move to a scientifically based, prevention-oriented approach: “That approach should be the cornerstone of a new national cancer-prevention strategy emphasizing primary prevention.” 

Perhaps the biggest legacy of the Long Island project was not just the information it gathered, but how it encouraged scientists, community members and lawmakers to work together.

But protection doesn’t all fall to the government. Parents can choose foods, toys and household products that minimize children’s exposures to toxic chemicals. The President’s Cancer Panel also recommends using glass or stainless steel containers, which could also help reduce the demand for plastics and therefore the byproducts of their manufacture, and using filters on drinking water.

Lastly, experts advise not to get so concerned about chemicals that you lose sight of other known environmental cancer triggers. “The really big environmental causes of cancer are things like being overweight, smoking and inactivity,” says Walter Willett, MD, DrPH, of the Harvard School of Public Health. “I think it’s important that we do protect our environment as much as possible,” he says. Nonetheless, “it can be an unfortunate distraction from things we can do something about.”

Willett and others believe that the “toxic” environment would be better defined as those factors that lure children and adults into a lifetime of unhealthy eating patterns and do not encourage the establishment of safe places to ride a bike or play.

In the end, no one will ever be able to guarantee they won’t get cancer, nor will they ever truly know what caused their own disease. Perhaps the biggest legacy of the Long Island project was not just the information it gathered, but how it encouraged scientists, community members and lawmakers to work together in the search for answers, Miller says. “What we learned was that you needed to create a very strong and respected and comfortable relationship between these three players. That had not existed before.”

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