March 21 2013
On Chemicals and Cancer: Response to Fran Drescher
I was pleased to see that Fran Drescher responded to my Huffington Post article on cancer trends. Drescher’s willingness to share what she learned from her struggle with cancer as well as her work at Cancer Schmancer offers some important contributions in the battle against cancer, but her focus on chemicals is misplaced.
On the positive side, she promotes the mindset that individuals should act more like “medical consumers” than simply patients. This take-control approach promotes early detection, which as Drescher notes, is key to survival. She also wisely promotes an active, healthy lifestyle, smoking cessation, and consumption of healthy foods. Drescher deserves praise for those critically important efforts!
But her focus on chemicals as a significant cancer cause is unlikely to help anyone and may prove dangerous. In her article, she argues that most cancers are caused by “environmental factors” and since trace chemicals are present in the human body we should take action to eliminate or reduce them if for no other reason than to simply err on the safe side.
It’s true that cancer researchers find that “environmental factors” are the cause of most cancers, but they define these factors as anything but genetics. According to the landmark research conducted by Richard Doll and Richard Peto, which I noted in my article and elsewhere, environmental factors include tobacco, dietary choices, infections, natural radiation, and reproductive behavior. Trace chemicals in consumer products are not a demonstrated cancer source.
What about the fact that chemicals are found in the human body? In its Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains: “The presence of an environmental chemical in people’s blood or urine does not mean that it will cause effects or disease.” The real question is: Is exposure from consumer products ever really high enough to raise concerns about cancer?
“These everyday exposures are usually too small to cause health problems,” says the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in its booklet titled “Chemicals, Cancer and You.” In fact, as humans increased our use of manmade chemicals, cancer rates have declined—the reverse of what you’d expect if they posed significant risks.
While the risks of such trace chemicals are low, Dr. Michael Thun, an epidemiologist affiliated with the American Cancer Society, raises concerns about the impacts of alarmism. He told The New York Times in 2010 that the focus on chemicals as a serious cancer risk may divert our attention from addressing more proven cancer causes. Let’s face it. It’s easier to shop for so-called “less toxic” products than it is to address the real risks: our bad habits such as overeating or smoking.
Chemical alarmism also promotes regulations that may do more harm than good. Consider the case of the pesticide DDT, which drastically reduced mosquito-transmitted malaria around the world by the middle of the 20th century.
In 1970, the National Academy of Sciences reported: “To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT. … Indeed, it is estimated that, in little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million deaths due to malaria that would otherwise have been inevitable. Abandonment of this pesticide should be undertaken only at such time and in such places that it is evident that the prospective gain to humanity exceeds the consequent losses.” Yet during the 1970s, governments around the world abandoned DDT based on health-related fears and concerns about resistance that could have been managed.
Meanwhile researchers have never been able to demonstrate any human health effects from DDT exposure. Toxicologist A.G. Smith explained in The Lancet (read free on The Lancet website with registration): “If the huge amounts of DDT used are taken into account, the safety record for human beings is extremely good. In the 1940s many people were deliberately exposed to high concentrations of DDT through dusting programmes or impregnation of clothes, without any apparent ill effect.”
By the 1990s, malaria rates skyrocketed after having reached historic lows while DDT was in use. Millions of people, mostly children, now needlessly suffer and many die every year from the mosquito-transmitted malaria. Targeted and limited use of DDT has been shown to substantially reduce malaria rates without adverse health or environmental impacts, which has led the World Health Organization to advocate its use yet again, but only after millions of people have died.
DDT may be an extreme case, but the lesson remains relevant. For example, some activists now suggest we should ban the use of the chemical Bisphenol A in food packaging based on questionable science. It is used in resins that line cans to prevent the development of potentially deadly pathogens, such as E. coli. As a result, BPA resin bans may eventually translate into an increase in serious food-borne illnesses.
Detoxing our homes and eliminating valuable chemicals isn’t really erring on the side of safety. It misdirects our priorities and could prove dangerous by eliminating many valuable products, including those ones used in medical treatments to fight cancer and other illnesses.