Cancers from Environment 'Grossly Underestimated'

The study of environmental factors and their effect on cancer has been giving short shrift compared to studying lifestyle factors and genetic and molecular causes of cancer, the authors claimed.

But paging through the lengthy report, it was difficult to find solid science to back that strong statement.

"At this time, we do not know how much environmental exposures influence cancer risk and related immune and endocrine dysfunction," Leffall and Kripke wrote.

In an interview, Leffall said he hoped the report, if nothing else, would raise awareness that chemicals and other environmental toxins may be causing cancer and that more studies are needed.

"We think based on what we know, when you look at all the data, it just appears to us that there are areas where its been greatly under-reported," Lefall said. "We don't know 100 percent, but that's why we believe we need to do more research."

The National Toxicology Program, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, does list some chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde and some substances including tobacco as carcinogenic, but environmental factors, such air pollutants and naturally-occurring chemicals, are less well-understood.

Public awareness about some compounds, such as bisphenol A (BPA), has increased in the past year as a handful of studies and report linked the ubiquitous chemical -- widely used in plastics such as baby bottles and other drink containers -- to metabolic disorders, heart disease and male sexual dysfunction.

Also, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently announced it would review safety data on another common chemical, triclosan, which is used in antibacterial soaps and washes, toothpastes and cosmetics, after lab tests on animals were concerning.

In the report, Leffall and Kripke recommended that physicians routinely ask about their current workplace and living environment as a routine part of collecting patient history.

They also recommended:

Conducting a thorough assessment of workplace exposures and cancer risks;

Creating a more coordinated and transparent system for enforcing environmental health standards;

Increasing funding for federal research into occupational and environmental epidemiologic cancer research;

The Environmental Protection Agency should lower its current maximum standard for radon exposure, and the public should be better informed about the risks of radon;

Providing better care to military personal who were exposed to nuclear fallout.

Radiation exposure has long been recognized as a cancer risk, but this latest report from the President's Cancer Panel claims that patients and healthcare professionals are not completely aware of radiation exposure from imaging techniques such as computed tomograpy (CT) scans -- a radiation exposure that might be increasing with the use of whole body scans and virtual colonoscopy.

And while the report issued a call for increased emphasis on dialing down the radiation exposure with CT, the government may actually be out in front on this issue; the FDA recently proposed new safety requirements for manufacturers of CT scanners and fluoroscopic devices. Those new requirements are designed to reduce unnecessary radiation from medical imaging.

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