GUEST POST – Cancer and the Environment

*This post originally appeared on The PediaBlog on July 22, 2021.

“Cancers ravage people in Southwestern Pennsylvania. As community leaders, parents and caregivers, health care providers, business owners, researchers, advocates—we all want to do everything we can to support them and prevent others from having to face a cancer diagnosis.”

“In Southwestern Pennsylvania, there is a need for bold action on a cancer prevention strategy that is often overlooked: reducing environmental chemicals that are put into our air, water, food, homes, workplaces, and products.”

Reducing Pollution: Critical Pathway for Cancer Prevention
A Southwestern Pennsylvania Declaration

Last week, the Cancer and Environment Network of Southwestern Pennsylvania released its declaration on the “twin crises of cancer and environment” in our region. Kristina Marusic attended the virtual rollout of this important document:

A group of local physicians, researchers, community advocates, and elected officials released a declaration today calling for action on cancer-causing pollutants in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The declaration, signed by more than 30 local organizations and 25 individuals so far, explains that rates of several kinds of cancer are “strikingly high” in the region—higher than state and national rates—with disproportionate burdens on people of color and marginalized communities. It calls on leaders across a diverse range of sectors—local businesses and elected officials, foundations and nonprofits, research institutions and health care facilities—to take concrete actions aimed at reducing people’s exposure to cancer-causing chemicals in the region.

Nationally, overall cancer rates are falling largely due to the fact that smoking is no longer as popular as it used to be. In addition, more people are heeding advice from their doctors to reduce sun exposure and protect against skin cancer; getting vaccinated to prevent HPV infection, resulting in lower rates of cervical and throat cancers; reducing the consumption of red meat and processed foods in order to avoid colon cancer and other cancers; and testing homes for radon gas which is the second leading cause of lung cancer behind tobacco.

Unfortunately, cancer incidence is not declining across the board, Julie Grant discovered:

Meanwhile, rates for breast cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, thyroid and testicular cancer are among those that have increased since 1975. According to the document, personal behaviors “cannot fully explain the rising trends in these cancer types.”

The science companion provides data that show rates for six types of cancer that have strong links to toxic chemicals are elevated in seven Southwestern Pennsylvania counties compared with national rates.

Those cancers are:

Bladder

Breast

Kidney

Lung

Leukemia

Thyroid

Both Black men and Black women in Allegheny County have higher rates of lung cancer than white men and women.

Unnecessary exposures to chemicals in our air, water, food, and consumer products appear to be responsible for the rising incidence of a host of different cancers in Southwestern Pennsylvania, including elevated rates of rare childhood cancers in Greene, Washington, and Westmoreland counties. Marusic identifies the usual suspects contaminating the environment:

Air pollution, pointing to research showing that 96 percent of counties nationwide have lower cancer risks from hazardous air pollutants than Allegheny County.

Emissions from oil and gas wells, which have been shown to increase rates of childhood leukemia

Carcinogens, such as bromodichloromethane and Hexavalent chromium, in the region’s drinking water

Radon, which is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. behind smoking and is ubiquitous in Pennsylvania

Carcinogens in consumer products like cosmetics, furniture, building materials, and home and garden pest control products

The declaration carves out a role for all of us to play to reduce cancer risks from environmental exposures, with elected officials and policymakers, local community leaders and residents, businesses, cancer-focused advocacy and support groups, and health professionals leading the way. The efforts of academic research institutions, public health and environmental advocacy organizations, and philanthropic organizations are also needed to realize this pediatrician’s vision:

Dr. Ned Ketyer of the Allegheny Health Network Pediatric Institute, who helped with the declaration, said the emphasis in the medical community is often on diagnosis and treatment of cancer, not on prevention.

“That’s really what we are focused on with this declaration,” he said. “To reduce the risk factors that are present in the environment that can lead to the formation of cancers.”

Visit the Cancer and Environment Network of Southwestern Pennsylvania website here, and read Reducing Pollution: Critical Pathway for Cancer Prevention — A Southwestern Pennsylvania Declaration and the Science Companion Document on environmental chemicals and cancer.

Watch the webinar celebrating the release of the declaration here (and hear from a pediatrician at around the 24:00 mark!).

Read more about cancer prevention on The PediaBlog here.

Leave a Reply