In 1971 under the National Cancer Act, Congresss authorized the 3-person President’s Cancer Panel which is charged with monitoring the “development and execution of the National Cancer Program” and preparing periodic progress reports for the President.  Over the years, the Panel has examined quality of life for cancer patients, access to care issues, and lifestyle risk factors related to cancer.  The Panel’s focus for 2008-2009 is “Cancer and the Environment,” a topic endorsed by The Collaborative on Health and Environment (CHE) and the topic of a draft consensus statement released by CHE.

The Panel’s first meeting on “Cancer and the Environment” was held on Sept 16, with 12 scientific experts making presentations at the public event.  The speakers included Richard Clapp, D.Sc. of Boston University, Frank Mirer, PhD of Hunter College, Adam Finkel, Sc.D of UMDNJ (full statements provided below) and Devra Davis, PhD, Phil Landrigan, MD, Paul Shulte, PhD, David Kriebel, ScD, Jeanne Stellman, PhD, Christopher Portier, PhD, Jeanne Rizzo, RN, and Daniel Wartenberg, PhD.

 A staff writer for The Record (Bergen County, NJ) Lindy Washburn, covered the Panel’s meeting (here), summarizing the key statements made by the scientific presenters.  Her article is a joy to read (not because of the sorry state of affairs of occupational health protections) but because of the succinct way that she highlights what occupational health advocates have known for at least two decades:

  • “Workplaces allowed higher levels of carcinogens”
  • “Workplaces may have up to 1,000 times the level of exposure to cancer-causing chemicals allowed in the general environment”
  • “Fewer than 2 percent of chemicals in commercial use have been tested for their cancer-causing potential”
  • There are gaps in “public health information that fail to note where a person works as part of the standard medical record”

Highlights from some of the experts’ testimony include: 

Adam Finkel, ScD reminding us that

“…workplace exposures are far and away the most unacceptable environmental risks society nevertheless tolerates.  While Congress has repeatedly instructed EPA to strive to reduce lifetime excess cancer risk to below one chance in 100,000, workplace cancer risks after OSHA has declared its regulator ‘mission accomplished’ …always exceed one chance in 1,000.” (Finkel’s full statement)

 Frank Mirer, PhD explaining that

“…the modern conversation [about industrial chemicals] begain with the passage of the OSHA and environmental legislation in the 60’s and 70’s, but seems to have frozen from the 80’s onward.  New knowledge about the increased extent of association of chemical exposure with cancer has accumulated since the 1980’s, but consciousness and regulation seem stuck in the earlier decades.” (Mirer’s full statement)

Richard Clapp, D.Sc. challenging our prevention policies to move beyond simple exposure reduction:

“The most direct way to achieve primary prevention of cancer is to avoid the introduction of carcinogenic agents into the environment and our workplaces in the first place.  …Our past under-emphasis of occupational and environmental factors in our cancer control programs means we have missed many important opportunities for primary prevention.  To drastically reduce cancer incidence in the U.S. and throughout the world, we need to move beyond current programmatic priorities based on dubious attributable fractions and commit to cancer prevention.” (Clapp’s full statement)

The President’s Cancer Panel plans several more public meetings, including:

October 21 in Indianapolis on Agricultural Exposures and Cancer ; December 4 in Charleston, SC on Air Pollution (indoor/outdoor) and Water Contamination and Cancer ; January 27, 2008 in Phoenix on Radiation, EMFs and Nuclear Fallout and Cancer.  All of the meetings are open to the public.

    Current ye@r *