A recent, dramatic warning about synthetic chemicals causing cancer came from an unlikely source — the normally staid President's Cancer Panel. In the past, the federal panel's annual reports have explored maximizing the nation's investment in cancer research or promoting healthful living, or they simply assessed the nation's progress in fighting cancer.
Compare that with the report issued in May, which raises alarms about "grievous harm" caused by synthetic chemicals and asserts that the number of cancer cases they're responsible for has been "grossly underestimated." The report urges families to filter their water and eat organic food, and in a cover letter the panel urges President Obama to remove carcinogens from the environment.
The report drew criticism from the American Cancer Society, which raised its own concerns that the report might lead Americans to minimize the risks from cigarettes and obesity, which it says are more dangerous — and more easily avoidable — factors behind cancer. Those, it said, accounted for far more cancers than did chemicals in the environment.
Neither side has it quite right. The truth, on which both sides agree, is also the most damning statement of all: This nation has done a woeful job of gathering and analyzing information about the potential dangers of the tens of thousands of chemicals that surround us. The cancer panel might be alarming people unnecessarily; it doesn't help to be told to buy organic food when you can't afford to move from a neighborhood in an industrial area where toxic chemicals are used. But the cancer society also might be downplaying real risks.
The panel was right to broaden the discussion of cancer. Until recently, environmental groups were the ones sounding off about chemical carcinogens. The panel's report lays out in a more official way just how little we know, at our possible peril. It points out that of the more than 80,000 synthetic chemicals used in this country, only a few hundred have been tested for safety, and more chemicals are added every year. Federal law requires chemicals to be proved safe before they can be sold if they are to be used in pesticides, medications or food. Otherwise, chemicals are presumed safe until a danger is proved by the government. The panel raised particular concerns about young children and pregnant women, saying that many children are born with significant exposure to chemicals.
Certainly we all know that asbestos, which can cause lung cancer, was used for decades before it was banned in 1989. Other substances that can present serious dangers besides cancer also have been discovered only after widespread use. Flame-retardant chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, intended to save lives, were found to disrupt thyroid function and interfere with developing reproductive and nervous systems in animals. A federal study last year discovered the chemicals in mussels even in remote coastal areas around the country; in other words, they had become nearly ubiquitous in the environment. Another study found that Californians have more of these chemicals in their blood and around their homes than residents of any other state. Studies suggest that pregnant women and children are especially vulnerable to their effects.
Production of these chemicals had already been banned in several Asian and European countries by the time last year's study came out. But in the United States there was a patchwork of rules; some states banned certain ingredients in them, and some manufacturers voluntarily stopped using them.
It's harder to track direct links to cancer, which would not show up for years after prolonged exposure. But that doesn't mean the public shouldn't be wary about the long list of chemicals to which it is exposed.
Although testing sometimes is performed to establish safe levels of exposure to a certain chemical, there is almost no research on the cumulative effects of long-term exposure to tiny amounts of thousands of chemicals. The Endocrine Society — an association of endocrinologists — and the American Medical Assn. adopted positions last year calling for federal policies to reduce public exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals.
We're glad the cancer panel issued a bold statement intended to provoke debate and prompt better research on the chemicals in our environment. California is already moving toward modeling a more thoughtful approach with its Green Chemistry Initiative. Draft rules released last week by the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control call for listing chemicals known to carry health or environmental dangers in a public database and requiring their manufacturers to look for less harmful alternatives over five to 10 years. Related new laws require the state to create a clearinghouse for scientific research on chemicals' effects.