Cancer, Chemicals, and Corporations

As you might know, my family is a walking cancer cluster: three out
of five of us had some form of cancer. What has frustrated me as I've
lived through three bouts of cancer in my family was the cancer
industry's focus on "curing cancer," with very little attention on
preventing it. Particularly given how dangerous the "cures" for cancer
are, it's high time we focused more attention on how we avoid it.

Which is why I'm happy that this report
from the President's Cancer Panel is getting a good deal of attention.
It talks about all the environmental hazards that may contribute to
cancer, devoting an entire chapter exploring each of six kinds of
exposures that may contribute to cancer:

  • Exposure to Contaminants from Industrial and Manufacturing Sources
  • Exposure to Contaminants from Agricultural Sources
  • Environmental Exposures Related to Modern Lifestyles (things like automobile pollution, airplane travel, and cell phones)
  • Exposure to Hazards from Medical Sources
  • Exposure to Contaminants and Other Hazards from Military Sources
    (pointing to 900 abandoned military sites that are Superfund sites)
  • Exposure to Environmental Hazards from Natural Sources (things like radon and naturally occurring arsenic)

But as the report notes, one of the reasons Americans are exposed to
so many potentially carcinogenic materials is that our regulatory
system doesn't work.

The prevailing regulatory approach in
the United States is reactionary rather than precautionary. That is,
instead of taking preventive action when uncertainty exists about the
potential harm a chemical or other environmental contaminant may cause,
a hazard must be incontrovertibly demonstrated before action to
ameliorate it is initiated. Moreover, instead of requiring
industry or other proponents of specific chemicals, devices, or
activities to prove their safety, the public bears the burden of
proving that a given environmental exposure is harmful. Only a few
hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States
have been tested for safety

U.S. regulation of environmental contaminants is rendered
ineffective by five major problems: (1) inadequate funding and
insufficient staffing, (2) fragmented and overlapping authorities
coupled with uneven and decentralized enforcement, (3) excessive
regulatory complexity, (4) weak laws and regulations, and (5) undue
industry influence. Too often, these factors, either singly or in
combination, result in agency dysfunction and a lack of will to
identify and remove hazards. [my emphasis]

It elaborates in the expanded section on regulation to talk about regulatory capture.

Like many other industries, the U.S.
chemical, manufacturing, mining, oil, agriculture,
transportation/shipping, and related industries are substantial
political contributors and actively lobby legislators and policymakers
on issues that affect their operations and revenue. For example,
corporations aggressively block proposed chemical manufacturing, use,
and disposal regulation, both through lobbying activities and in some
cases, by manipulating knowledge about their products (e.g.,
industry-funded research).115,116 Although the Doll and Peto assessment
of attributable fractions of the national cancer burden related to
specific causes has been largely abandoned by the scientific community,
it remains the basis of many existing chemical regulations and policy.
The chemicals industry in particular likewise continues to use the
notion of attributable fractions to justify its claims that specific
products pose little or no cancer risk. As a result of regulatory
weaknesses and a powerful lobby, the chemicals industry operates
virtually unfettered by regulation or accountability for harm its
products may cause.

This report came from the President's Cancer Panel,
in a report telling Obama the shortcomings of our National Cancer
Program. And it said that while there are a number of other
controllable factors contributing to cancer (most notably smoking),
we're simply not doing enough to even investigate these other possible
causes of cancer.

With the BP spill, we're entering into a big discussion about
whether our oil and gas habit is really safe and-more
importantly-whether we even try to regulate it effectively. But at the
same time, we ought to be having a wider discussion of the many ways
(including our oil and gas addiction) that our modern lifestyles lead
to cancer.

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