Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist.
Please help me welcome to the true mainstream of scientific and medical thought the seemingly radical yet commonsense notion that chemical exposures are a significant contributor to cancer, many types of which are rising in incidence even as overall rates decline.
This morning, the President's Cancer Panel released its 2010 report [available here]. The report is remarkable not so much for its core finding that chemical exposures are a major factor in human cancer, but rather because of its source — an authoritative and bipartisan body — and because of the strong linkages it makes to our failed chemicals policies.
Failed chemicals policies
I can't say it any better than has Nicholas Kristof in this morning's New York Times:
The report blames weak laws, lax enforcement and fragmented authority, as well as the existing regulatory presumption that chemicals are safe unless strong evidence emerges to the contrary.
“Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety,” the report says. It adds: “Many known or suspected carcinogens are completely unregulated.”
Those arguments should sound very familiar to readers of this blog, but are all the more notable coming from a panel whose members were appointed by President George W. Bush.
The report paves the way to accelerate the shift in the way we think about and try to address cancers, from one that has focused almost exclusively on better diagnosis and treatment, to one that seeks to reduce and prevent cancer from developing in the first place.
From every possible perspective — including reducing human pain and trauma and reducing the burgeoning costs of health care — seeking to reduce the preventable contributors to cancer, chemical exposures among them, is the most prudent course.
With certain cancers — most notably childhood leukemias and brain cancer — rising at rates over the last several decades that cannot be explained by genetics (humans don't evolve that fast) or better diagnosis, it is time we turned our chemicals policies on their heads:
- We simply must shift the burden away from government to prove a chemical is harmful before it can regulate it — a bar so high under current law that it can't be cleared even when damage to our health or environment has been done on a massive enough scale to be readily detected. Instead, companies that make and use chemicals must bear the burden of proving their safety as a condition to enter or remain on the market.
- Companies must be required to develop the data needed to demonstrate to the government's satisfaction that all allowed uses of a chemical are safe, including to the most vulnerable among us. Those, as the President's panel report notes, are often pregnant woman, developing fetuses and young children. They may also be people who, by virtue of the places or conditions under which they live, are disproportionately impacted by chemical exposures, including low-income communities and people of color.
- Safety data must be shared broadly in order to fully inform the countless decisions made every day about chemicals — not only by government, but by companies who make, use, buy and sell chemicals and chemical products, and by individual consumers.
- Finally, government must have the authority to act expeditiously to regulate chemicals, including by being able to immediately mandate use and exposure reductions to chemicals we already know are dangerous and to which people or the environment are being exposed.
And it's not just about cancer
Kristof makes another essential point in his column today:
One reason for concern is that some cancers are becoming more common, particularly in children. We don’t know why that is, but the proliferation of chemicals in water, foods, air and household products is widely suspected as a factor. I’m hoping the President’s Cancer Panel report will shine a stronger spotlight on environmental causes of health problems — not only cancer, but perhaps also diabetes, obesity and autism.
The Safer Chemicals Healthy Families coalition, of which EDF is a founding member, includes a host of health and health-affected organizations whose missions include reducing preventable causes of these and other rising diseases and disorders. See Who We Are.
The coalition recently released a report — The Health Case for Reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act– that summarizes the wealth of scientific and medical evidence connecting the dots between rising chemical exposures and rising incidence of major categories of chronic diseases: cancer, learning and developmental disabilities, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease, reproductive health and fertility problems, and asthma.
Finally, the coalition is a key stakeholder in the debate over reform of the broken and outdated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. That debate is now in full swing with the introduction of Senator Frank Lautenberg's Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 and a companion discussion draft released by House of Representatives Chairmen Bobby Rush and Henry Waxman. See this post for details.