Cancer and our Environment: States leading the fight

Mar 31, 2011

Dear Mr. President:

Though overall cancer incidence and mortality have continued to decline in recent years, the disease continues to devastate the lives of far too many Americans.

In 2009 alone, approximately 1.5 million American men, women, and children were diagnosed with cancer, and 562,000 died from the disease. With the growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures to cancer, the public is becoming increasingly aware of the unacceptable burden of cancer resulting from environmental and occupational exposures that could have been prevented through appropriate national action.

The Administration’s commitment to the cancer community and recent focus on critically needed reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act is praiseworthy.

However, our Nation still has much work ahead to identify the many existing but unrecognized environmental carcinogens and eliminate those that are known from our workplaces, schools, and homes.

– Cover letter to President Obama from the President’s Cancer Panel, May 2010.

When the President’s Cancer Panel released a report in May 2010 advising Americans to take specific steps to reduce environmental toxins in their lives and thus reduce cancer risk, it was a watershed moment. The report recommended that Americans drink filtered water, avoid bisphenol-A (BPA), eat food grown without pesticides, and carefully choose the household products they use.

In an interview with the Breast Cancer Fund, Dr. Margaret Kripke, member of the President’s Cancer Panel, commented on the creation of the report: “This was an enormously eye-opening experience for me.” The panel decided to focus on cancer-causing environmental toxins because they are of concern to many Americans, and because 6% of cancers are thought to be caused by environmental carcinogens – this means that about 20,000 Americans are dying each year due to cancer caused by their environment.

Speaking further on the issue, Dr. Kripke talked about the United States’ stance on the regulation of chemicals in commerce today: over 80,000 chemicals are approved for use in every day products, and only a few of them have been tested. Rather than proactively require testing of these chemicals, the federal government allows their use until the chemical is proven to be harmful.

“I always assumed that if something was a known human carcinogen that it would be regulated and this is clearly not the case. Also, there are carcinogens in our environment that have been banned in Europe, banned in Canada that we are still using and that remain unregulated to this day, and I always assumed that, before things were put on the market, that they would be tested. And that, too, is absolutely not the case — we test very few things for cancer-causing properties.” —Dr. Margaret Kripke

In the absence of an overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) on the federal level, it is up to the states to control toxic chemical use to the best of their ability. And advocates are working hard on the ground to protect as many people as possible from the risk of cancer due to environmental factors.