The President’s Cancer Panel’s annual report, which helps shape federal cancer policy, points to evidence that environmentally-induced cancers caused by carcinogen-contaminated food, water and air are “grossly underestimated.”

In doing so, the panel calls attention to a health threat long perceived and disproportionately spread. “This unequal burden is not just a health issue, but an issue of environmental justice,” the panel stated.

In contrast to the panel’s findings, the American Cancer Society (ACS) states in its American Cancer Society Perspective on Environmental Factors and Cancer, that a lack of emphasis on environmental carcinogens stems from an absence of “definitive studies in humans.”     

Determining a particular exposure’s carcinogenic properties is based on tests performed on lab rats and mice. The ACS says these results are useful in identifying a carcinogen, but difficulty in creating exposures matching those in environmental settings means “they often do not …predict potential cancer risk in humans.” Current testing methods lead to estimates colored by assumption, the ACS says.  

The ACS feels efforts toward eliminating known cancer risks like smoking – backed by long-established facts and statistics – could lose momentum and funding to a cancer risk that, as of now, is more theory than fact. The organization says finite resources are better spent on interventions that have been shown to be effective on exposures with confirmed cancer risk.  

The President’s Cancer Panel’s report was strongly received, however, by public health professionals who assert that environmental health hazards have been too long ignored. They point out that hundreds of new chemicals enter the market and creep into the environment each year, many without any assessment of their hazard to workers or consumers. Many are subsequently discovered to be carcinogens. 

Moreover, it has been almost thirty years since the last significant investigation of on-the-job exposures, a review that critics, including award winning environmental science journalist Elizabeth Grossman, said was based on flawed methodology. The investigation estimate that four percent of cancers are job-related is almost certainly far too low.

From time to time, shifts in cancer research priorities are inevitable. The Cancer Panel’s report seems to have sparked a debate over the priorities in the nation’s continuing war on cancer.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]