Cancer cause: environmental pollutants or unhealthy lifestyle?



Experts agree that cancer is killing us. What they cannot agree on is the root cause of this evil. Let us take a look at the ongoing debate.

Blame the environment

A presidential panel issued a report that claims that environmental cancer risks are “grossly underestimated.” The panel consists of two cancer experts LaSalle D. Leffall Jr., MD, of Howard University and Margaret L. Kripke, PhD, of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and was set up by the Bush administration to conduct a 3-year study.

In the report entitled Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, the panelists point to the fact that nearly 80,000 chemicals currently on the market in the United States are largely unregulated, many of them understudied in terms of health and environmental effects. Among these chemicals are most likely carcinogens.

The report says:

“The grievous harm from this group of carcinogens has not been addressed adequately by the National Cancer Program. The Panel urges you most strongly to 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.”

The report sparked a debate over an issue that has been controversial for years: What is the actual burden of environmentally-induced cancer?

Many advocacy groups welcome the report especially the Environmental Working Group, a strong advocate for more environmental legislations.

According to environmental health professor Richard Clapp of Boston University at a news conference sponsored by the Breast Cancer Fund:

“This is an attempt to update the science. This report … calls for action on things where we don’t yet know all the details. We shouldn’t wait until the bodies are counted to say, ‘Well, maybe people shouldn’t be exposed so much to that chemical.”

Blame your lifestyle

Dr. Graham Colditz of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, a cancer epidemiology expert, thinks we are using environmental issues as the scapegoat when in fact, the cause of cancer is a bit closer to home – our unhealthy lifestyle.

“The lack of physical activity, weight gain, obesity clearly account for 20 percent or more of cancer in the United States today.”

Dr. Colditz believes that instead of blaming BPA, phthalates, dioxins, and other substances in the air, water, and food, we should take responsibility for our life. The report that blamed cancer on pollutants will only give people an excuse to ignore the risk factors they can control and modify.

“The damage is that it distracts us, as a society, from actually acting on the things that are already in our grasp.”

Colditz uses the examples of well-known cancer causes in our lives, e.g. tobacco, alcohol, and meat. Smoking causes the majority of lung and other cancers. Alcohol causes 4% of cancers. Red meat is also a known cause for colon cancer. Yet despite all the cancer warnings on tobacco packaging, despites all the educational and media campaigns, people are still smoking, drinking alcohol, and eating meat. In addition, no legislation was able to completely ban these carcinogens from our lives.

The American Cancer Society seems to agree with Colditz and fears the report will undermine cancer prevention programs currently in place.

“…the panel’s report goes too far in trashing established efforts to prevent cancer and that its conclusions go well beyond established facts.”

Environment and lifestyle

Cancer is a very complex disease and experts are still trying to decipher the relationships between genetic, environmental and lifestyle risk factors. To say that one set of risk factors is more important than the other would be a gross mistake. The report on environmental causes of cancer brings to light new insights on this deadly disease that scientists and policy makers shouldn’t ignore. Yet, it also shouldn’t trivialize the role of lifestyle factors that we can modify. In the fight against cancer, these are all our enemies and solidarity against multiple enemies is the key to success.

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NOTE: The contents in this blog are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or a substitute for professional care. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional before making changes to any existing treatment or program. Some of the information presented in this blog may already be out of date.
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