OPINION

Focus on the environmental causes of cancer

Another round of pink ribbon this, T-shirt that, 5K runs, fight-for-the-cure walks, and click-here-to-donate is upon us during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Clearly we need to raise awareness and support those affected, but we do not seem to be serious about addressing the root causes.

The emphasis is on early detection and treatment (after you have cancer) and on personal responsibility, like diet and physical activity, which are all necessary. But the most effective prevention strategy — a healthy environment to live in — is not on our pink to-do list.

You seldom see or hear the word “carcinogen” in doctors’ offices nor in educational campaigns about cancer. Here is what a basic human genetics textbook says about cancer: “As much as 90 percent of all forms of cancer are attributable to specific environmental factors. Because exposure to these environmental factors can, in principle, be controlled, most cancer could be prevented …” The textbook continues: “Reducing or eliminating exposure to environmental carcinogens would dramatically reduce the prevalence of cancer in the United States.” Let’s repeat this over and over again.

A 2007 American Cancer Society investigation identified 216 chemicals known to cause breast cancer in animals. Of these, 73 are found food, water, consumer products; 35 are air pollutants, and 29 of them are produced in the United States in large amounts every year. Given this reality, cancer prevention should mean changing our nation’s industry-controlled chemical regulatory system, which allows these known carcinogens to stay on the market, even when sound alternatives are available.

Let’s look closer to home here in Iowa. In 2014, 8 million pounds of acetochlor and 6.7 million pounds of atrazine (both corn weed killers) were applied to Iowa’s soil and water. Atrazine is a possible carcinogen, a known endocrine distruptor, banned in Europe, linked to reproductive cancers and birth defects, and is the most common weed killer detected in surface and groundwater in United States. Are breast cancer prevention advocates paying attention here? (I recently attended a Relay for Life event held on a lawn freshly sprayed with 2,4-D, with strong links to many forms of lymphoma.)

Glyphosate (Roundup) is declared by the World Health Organization as a probable carcinogen. Did your doctor or fight-for-the-cure organizers tell you that 13 million pounds of this probable carcinogen are applied to bean ground in Iowa annually? Did she tell you that a total of 50 million pounds of weed killers, insecticides, and fungicides are applied all over Iowa every year? Remember, reducing or eliminating exposure to environmental carcinogens would dramatically reduce the prevalence of cancer in the United States.

Doctors, public health professionals and cancer prevention advocates need to know one very important fact: it is totally possible and practical to have a productive agriculture without the use of pesticides. You need to know sound alternatives exist. Agronomist Matt Liebman and colleagues at Iowa State University have demonstrated that a more diverse cropping system would take away the need for nearly all of that 50 million pounds of highly hazardous pesticides, with no loss of productivity. Some farmers are already practicing these. We need policies that make widespread adoption of these practices possible.

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Biologist Sandra Steingraber in her book Living Downstream explains the way we have come to think of cancer prevention. Referring to cancer fliers found in doctors’ offices, she says “by emphasizing personal habits rather than carcinogens, they frame the cause of the disease as a problem of behavior rather than as a problem of exposure to disease-causing agents.” The focus on lifestyle is unfair, it blames the victim, and is dismissive of threats that lie beyond personal choice.

In Iowa, it is not a lifestyle choice to drink hormonally active corn weed killers in our public drinking water; it is not a lifestyle choice when our kids play in schoolyards that are sprayed with carcinogens. It is not a lifestyle choice when a Parks Department fogs the entire neighborhood with neurotoxins for no good reason.

Here is the conclusion of a consensus statement of the cancer research and advocacy community to the President’s Cancer Panel in 2008: “The most direct way to prevent cancer is to stop putting cancer-causing agents into our indoor and outdoor environments in the first place.” Let’s put that on a pink ribbon and Fight for Prevention.

• Kamyar Enshayan is director of University of Northern Iowa Center for Energy and Environmental Education. Comments: kamyar.enshayan@uni.edu

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