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Issue 25
, 2010
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Environmental Cancer Risk

Source: ENN, Date: , 2010

There is a body of evidence linking general environmental exposures to cancer. A report was released today by the President's Cancer Panel which finds that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer is underestimated. The Panel's report, "Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now," concludes that while environmental exposure is not a new front on the war on cancer, the harm from this group of carcinogens has not been addressed adequately by the National Cancer Program

Under the National Cancer Act of 1971 several actions were taken which collectively constitutes the National Cancer Program in the US. In simple language, the program has nationally funded research, databases, and with the advice of the National Cancer Advisory Board, plans and develops an expanded, intensified, and coordinated cancer research program encompassing the programs of the National Cancer Institute, related programs of the other research institutes, and other Federal agencies.

Now certain form of cancer risk are more obviously known such as tobacco smoking and asbestos exposure. In addition, there are other environmental risk factors such as naturally occurring radon gas, diet/obesity, genetics, radiation (x-rays for example), trace amounts of pesticides and other chemicals. In some cases a causal relationship has been established. In others the relationship might be suggested by statistical studies but are not yet proven.

In central Asia around the Aral sea, there is currently a much larger environmental exposure problem as compared to the US. There infant mortality rates and respiratory illnesses have been steadily increasing for decades.

"There remains a great deal to be done to identify the many existing but unrecognized environmental carcinogens and eliminate those that are known from our daily lives - our workplaces, schools and homes," said LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., M.D., chair of the Panel. "The increasing number of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compels us to action, even though we may currently lack irrefutable proof of harm," he added.

With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the US, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are not regulated or with little study, the report finds that exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.

In addition to environmental carcinogens, the report found that while improved imaging technologies have facilitated great strides in diagnosing and treating diseases, including cancer, some of these technologies also carry risks from increased radiation exposures. Many health care professionals, as well as the public, are unaware of the radiation dose associated with various tests or the total radiation dose and related increased cancer risk individuals may accumulate over a lifetime.

In addition, the report found that health care providers often fail to consider occupational and environmental factors when diagnosing patient illness. Physicians and other medical professionals ask infrequently about patient workplace and home environments when taking a medical history, thereby missing out on information that could be invaluable in discovering underlying causes of disease.

The Panel concluded that Federal responses to the potential plight of affected individuals have been unsatisfactory, and that those affected lack knowledge about the extent of their exposure or potential health problems that they may face.

The Panel recommends several concrete actions that government/industry/medical providers.individuals can take to reduce cancer risk related to environmental contaminants, excess radiation and other harmful exposures.

Key recommendations include:

1. Increase, broaden and improve research regarding environmental contaminants and human health.

2. Raise consumer awareness of potential environmental cancer risks and improve their
understanding and reporting of known exposures.

3. Increase awareness of environmental cancer risks and effects of exposure among health care providers.

4. Enhance efforts to eliminate unnecessary radiation emitting medical tests, and to ensure that radiation doses are as low as reasonably achievable without sacrificing quality.

5. Address the toxic environmental exposures the US military has caused, and improve response to associated health problems among both military personnel and civilians.

6. Provide alternatives for potential environmental chemicals of concern.

Ultimately what the panel is stating that the relative environmental risk has to be determined and better quantified than at present. In the context of public health, risk assessment is the process of quantifying the probability of a harmful effect to individuals or populations from certain human activities. For example, the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates food safety through risk assessment. The FDA required in 1973 that cancer causing compounds must not be present in meat at concentrations that would cause a cancer risk greater than 1 in a million lifetimes.