The environmental triggers of cancer

21 February, 2013

This week’s UNEP report on the environmental causes of cancer was spread across the newspapers with a great splash.

Anyone would think that this analysis was our first inkling that toxic chemicals in our environment, particularly in everyday items like household cleaners, cosmetics and paints as well as those chemicals that leech out of plastics bottles and plastic lined tins, could be harming us.

It isn’t and while it was great to see recognition of a subject that for some of us represents years of campaigning, there were parts of the report that were very deflating.

The analysis focussed on the role of hormone disrupting chemicals in the development of non-descended testes in young males, breast cancer in women, prostate cancer in men, developmental effects on the nervous system in children, attention deficit/hyperactivity in children and thyroid cancer.

It also touched on the presence of these chemicals in the natural environment and their link to malformations and population declines in certain animals.

The report showed that we have made “…great strides in the last ten years showing endocrine disruption to be far more extensive and complicated than realized a decade ago”.

But the conclusions, as usual, were tentative and passive (and in this respect mirror the official response to the UK’s ongoing ‘horsegate’ scandal): There’s so much we don’t know; We need to do more research; We need better testing; We need more collaboration, more meetings where we can sit around and talk about the problem some more.

Nowhere was there mention of actual action – for instance banning those chemicals which have time and time again been linked to an array of human health problems.  This scientific reticence benefits no one except global corporations who make these chemicals – and in whose pockets so many of today’s scientists sit.

The longer we pussyfoot around and play a softly-softly, slowly-slowly game the greater will be the cumulative exposure to toxic chemicals for ourselves and for the fish, insects and animals we share the planet with.

The concept of environmental illness is decades old and well proven. In the US the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has the responsibility of monitoring the effects of environmental pollutants on human health. It has gone so far as to compile a list of known environmental illnesses. Included on the list are asthma, cancer, breast cancer, lupus, lung disease, Parkinson’s and reproductive health problems.

It was less than a year ago that the EU produced its own report on the link between household chemicals on cancer and infertility. What is more, we are now seeing research to suggest that environmental pollutants such as heavy metals can make both prostate and breast cancers more aggressive.

Research by Dr Philippa Darbre has shown that parabens, the hormone disrupting preservatives used in most conventional cosmetics, may actually interfere with the regulation of cell  growth, turning a healthy cell into a cancerous one.

It’s time to stop talking about these things and get moving. All countries have the legal mechanisms to ban problematic chemicals and we have everything to gain and absolutely nothing to lose by doing so. All that is missing is the political and institutional will to act.

Pat Thomas, Editor