New Report on Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk

May 28, 2010

The President's Cancer Panel recommends that the President, Congress, key federal and state agencies, and industry take "a precautionary, prevention-oriented approach [to] replace current reactionary approaches to environmental contaminants in which human harm must be proven before action is taken to reduce or eliminate exposure." It says even more explicitly, "[t]hough not applicable in every instance, this [precautionary] approach should be the cornerstone of a new national cancer prevention strategy that emphasizes primary prevention, redirects accordingly both research and policy agendas, and sets tangible goals for reducing or eliminating toxic environmental exposures implicated in cancer causation."

In 1971, President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act and declared a "war" on cancer. The legislation included the formation of the President's Cancer Panel. It is charged with monitoring and appraising the development and execution of the National Cancer Program, which the legislation did not define. The Panel reports directly to the President about barriers that prevent the implementation of the Program.

The Panel's report, entitled "Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now," was released in April. It begins with an overview of the estimated cancer burden due to environmental exposures and continues with a treatment of biologic mechanisms that may facilitate exposure to environmental contaminants. It also addresses environmental cancer research and the current regulatory environment.

In the final recommendation section, the Panel recognizes the need to address the burden of exposure to known and possible carcinogens. The Panel also recommends that "[i]ndividuals exposed to nuclear fallout and other nuclear contamination by biologically important radionuclides [] be provided all available information on these exposures. A system must be developed to enable affected individuals to reconstruct and add radiation doses received so that they can adequately assess their cumulative exposure and potential health risks, including cancer."

The Panel recommends that an advisory committee be chartered, which would let "individuals exposed to nuclear testing fallout and other nuclear exposures" participate in the policy making and other decisions that will affect their access to health care and to the compensation related to their exposures.

Finally, "[g]eographic areas and vulnerable populations (including but not limited to children, migrant and other farm workers, and residents of high-poverty areas and cancer 'hot spots') should be studied to determine environmental influences on cancer risk; identified risks must be remediated to the maximum extent possible."

LeRoy Moore, of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, who has been working on public health issues related to exposure to radiation for decades, said, "I am greatly encouraged to see proposals like these. Implementing them means that in dealing with the public health, caution prevails over carelessness, openness over secrecy, and direct participation of affected people displaces spectatorship from a distance. Of course, so far they're only recommendations."

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