Created by an act of Congress in 1971, the President’s Cancer Panel, is responsible for monitoring the National Cancer Program and reports directly to the president annually.

Recently, in a 240-part report, the panel informed President Obama that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated” and urged action to reduce widespread exposure to carcinogens.

The panel’s members further advised that our president “ use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”

Asserting that the “grievous harm” from carcinogens hasn’t been sufficiently addressed by the panel in past years, they also stated in a letter to Obama that Americans have been “bombarded continually” by combinations of dangerous chemical exposures.

They singled out a variety of carcinogenic compounds such as biphenyl, an unregulated chemical used in polycarbonate plastic and can linings, radon, benzene and other petroleum-based pollutants in vehicle exhaust, arsenic in water supplies, as well as chromium from plating companies, formaldehyde in kitchen cabinets, tetrachloroethylene at dry cleaners and PCBs in fish and other foods, as well as many pesticides.

The report expands its scope by further recommending that doctors exercise caution in prescribing CT or CAT scans, commonly viewed as non-invasive medical tests that help physicians diagnose and treat medical problems, as well as other medical imaging tests.

The report claims, for example, that patients who have a chest CT scan receive a dose of radiation in the same range as survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb attacks.

Another controversial issue brought up in the report was brain cancer and its possible link to cell phone use. In lieu of further research, the panel suggested that people reduce their usage by making fewer and shorter calls and using hands-free devices so that the phone is not against the head.

The military didn’t escape the report’s scrutiny either. The panel asserted that the U.S. military is “ a major source of toxic occupational and environmental exposures that can increase cancer risk.”

One example cited was at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Studies indicate that carcinogenic solvents had contaminated the drinking water and Vietnam veterans showed increased signs of lymphomas, prostate cancer and other cancers associated with exposure to Agent Orange.

These strong conclusios come as no surprise to many environmental health scientists who believe the findings embody what that have been warning us about for years.

Richard Clapp, a professor of environmental health at Boston University’s School of Public Health, states that environmental and occupational exposures significantly contribute to “tens of thousands of cancers a year.”

Despite this overwhelming plea from experts, progress has been slowed by lingering uncertainties that certain chemicals actually cause cancer. Many scientists, physicians, regulators and industry are still wary of taking precautionary measures until every last damning bit of evidence in on the table.

But, the two Bush-appointed panelists, Dr. Lasalle D. Lefall, Jr, professor of surgery at Howard University and Margaret Kripe, professor at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, met with almost 50 medical experts in late 2008 and early 2009 before submitting their report. It is now without doubt that chemicals and contaminants can cause damage to DNA, disrupt hormones, inflame tissues and adversely affect genes.

It is interesting to note that this is the first time the President’s Cancel Panel focused on the environmental causes of cancer. Previous reports largely dealt with cancer treatment such as diet and smoking.

Ironically, lung and breast cancer has declined in this country, while other cancers such as thyroid, kidney and liver cancer are rapidly increasing, according to Clapp.

There are many reasons that these recent findings and recommendations are very important to the health of Americans. First, they go well beyond what even the panel described as “woefully out-of-date” data that minimized the environment’s cancer risk and failed to take into account newer revelations about people’s increased vulnerability to chemicals. The report also goes right to the top levels of our government.

The junk in our land, air, water and food is bad, even at a low level. This report makes some sound recommendations: Raise consumer awareness about the physical risks of these chemicals. Step up the research of the health effects. And strengthen the regulation of chemicals that might cause cancer and other diseases.

We can’t even pronounce the names of half of this toxic stuff, much less understand what’s in them and the potential harm they can cause.

This report opens the door wider for policymakers, legislators, agencies and advocacy groups to demand tougher occupational and environmental standards and regulations.


Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer whose book, “The Written Song: The Antebellum African-American Press in the Northeast,” is due for publication this year. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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