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Growing cancer rates: the focus must be on prevention, on researching environmental causes

Laura N. Vandenberg: It’s time to talk about cancer prevention — and the role of the environment

An inadequate focus on researching and understanding the role of the environment in cancer prevention is a failure for public health.  8 Feb 19, 

Such funding is crucial to continue tackling the devastating disease. However, missing from the State of the Union—and most other conversations about tackling cancer—is a focus on prevention, specifically the need to research, understand and communicate the role environmental exposures play in cancer risk.

The numbers on cancer incidence and deaths are complex. Although childhood cancer mortality rates have dropped considerably from the 1960s, data from the American Cancer Society shows that incidence rates have increased 0.6 percent per year since 1975.

In this way, childhood cancers are like several others. Between 2005 and 2014, yearly cancer incidence rates rose for several types: thyroid cancer by 4 percent; invasive breast cancer by 0.3 percent in black women; leukemia by 1.6 percent; liver cancer by 3 percent; oral and pharynx cancers by 1 percent in Caucasians; pancreatic cancer by 1 percent in Caucasians; colon cancer by 1.4 percent in individuals younger than 55 years of age; rectal cancer by 2.4 percent in individuals younger than 55; and melanoma by 3 percent in individuals aged 50 and older.

While these cancer rates have increased, overall rates of cancer deaths have started to fall. In fact, since the 1990s, improved detection and treatment, as well as decreased smoking rates, have contributed to significant reductions in cancer mortality.

Reduced deaths from cancer are a great public health victory. These statistics prove that public health interventions like educational programs designed to curb smoking can have dramatic effects.

They also suggest that investments in improved detection and diagnosis are money well spent. A focus on treatments has also improved quality of life for cancer patients and their likelihood of remission.

But where is the call for better cancer prevention? As rates of numerous cancers continue to rise, the failure to identify the causes of cancer remains a disappointment for public health officials and researchers alike.

We know that environmental factors can contribute to cancer risk. Some, like smoking, are avoidable. Others are lifestyle factors that people can change like drinking less alcohol, decreasing consumption of processed meats, using protection from the sun, and increasing exercise.

Yet, other environmental factors like exposures to chemicals in the environment, including endocrine disruptors, have received little attention. While some NIH-funded programs like the Breast Cancer and Environment Research Program have worked to identify chemicals in the environment that promote cancer, funding for cancer prevention initiatives has stagnated.

Despite the limited resources invested in studies of environmental risk factors for cancer, we know enough to take action on some chemicals of concern.

For example, communities contaminated with perfluorinated chemicals, several of which are known to cause cancer, have demanded attention from government officials in addition to asking for more research.

Individuals living in these communities have the right to know how they are being exposed, and what their risks might be – for cancer and other diseases.

It is great that cancer research was raised in the President’s State of the Union speech, and that the difficulties associated with caring for a family member with cancer was mentioned in Stacey Abrams’ rebuttal.

But a failure to focus on prevention, a failure to acknowledge the role of the environment in causing cancer, and a failure to allocate funds to prevention research, are all failures for public health.

Dr. Vandenberg is an Associate Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences. Her work on endocrine disrupting chemicals has been funded by the National Institutes of Health including the BCERP program, which focuses on the environmental causes of breast cancer


February 9, 2019 - Posted by | health, Reference, USA


  1. I could rant quite a bit about this, mention all kinds of things that are misconstrued, misattributions, conspiracy theories (which may not be so theoretical) related to things like vaccinations, food and water quality obviously, quite a bit related to modern agriculture, cosmetics and healthcare products, pharmaceuticals and even clothing! Yes, even clothing has dubious designs and materials that contribute to cancer.

    Here’s a neat thing I learned not so long ago, I was reading a paper about glyphosate/roundup toxicity. So in that paper, it stated that small amounts of radioactivity combined with levels of roundup contamination that are essentially well below accepted levels and practically applicable…causes exponentially increasing cytotoxicity (typically administered/relevant levels were found to be about 10x as cytotoxic, iirc). That’s always fun, also, the other ingredient in roundup is 3x more toxic than glyphosate.

    One of those really really annoying things I hear often is “use sunscreen”, then you remind people some sunscreen chemicals happen to become more toxic, specifically, when exposed to sun. Lots of them have stuff like titanium nanomaterials and such too, which apparently, was recently implicated as another sort of “masked” factor in cancers. Oh yeah, then there’s the fact that people using the least sunscreens and more sun exposure get less cancers. Compare western societies mostly beyond equatorial regions to the equatorial regions. There’s also that swedish study of 20k women which seemed to suggest sunbathers are about half as likely to get cancer.

    But hey, let’s sell stuff, cancer racketeering is such a common, pervasive activity that it even gets marketed to parents and children as education.

    Comment by Frank Labuschagne | February 10, 2019 | Reply

    • Your comment – particularly relevant to Australia – with its increasing sunshine, also affected by hole in ozone layer.AND with its high rate of melanoma incidence, The early British explorers in the 19th Century used to cover up big-time – wide hats, long sleeved shirts etc. That type of sun protection has largely been forgotten, as most Australian put their faith in sunscreen.

      Comment by Christina MacPherson | February 10, 2019 | Reply

      • Yeah I’ve recognized a few things regarding Australia about that. Very peculiar cancer statistics, particularly breast cancer. Legacy of gold/uranium mining? Late 19th early 20th century introduction of stuff like organophos…sorry, I mean fertilizers (hey, I heard the trials were mostly around impoverished or aboriginal areas). Particularly high vaccination rate you got there too, afaik.

        How about screening methods, regularity? Some screening/diagnostic methods seem to actually cause problems, from what I’ve seen.

        For instance, on average you’d be getting more radiation from the medical industry than from background (even with nuclear tests, etc). That would of course vary a lot from person to person, but it means some people are getting a literal awful lot of radiation.

        Now, imagine that screening method involves radioactive fluorine (super volatile, and also recently it was discovered the fluorine/carbon bonds aren’t as strong as they thought)…so then that nice primed fluorine is in your body, just ready to explode, then you shoot it with radioactive stuff, and it explodes. There, now you have a nice image of crap that exploded in your body, remember also, that fluorine affinity is supposed to mimic something like glucose, but it’s not necessarily that accurate or controlled. But at least, you got a nice picture…

        Comment by Frank Labuschagne | February 10, 2019

      • My 2 comments on this reply.
        1. The breast cancer statistics – of course, many possible causes. But the one that stands out to me, is the effect of French nuclear tests in the Pacific, 1960 to 1996. Australia initially measured radioactive particles in rain coming across Pacific to Australia’s East coast. However, nuclear zealot Professor Ernest Titterton, in charge of Australia Atomic Energy Agency, very soon shut down all that testing.
        2. I regret that fluoride worries have been included. I have done much research on fluoridation of water, and found that it is the most beneficial public health measure, and has had no harmful effects. Meanwhile the anti-fluoride lobby in Australia has run an absurd campaign over the years, linking fluoridation to all sorts of things – e.g. it’s a communist plot etc.

        Comment by Christina MacPherson | February 10, 2019

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