24 May 2010

Environmental cancer risks may be more dangerous than you think

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Household and workplace chemicals might contribute to a larger percentage of cancer deaths than previously thought, according to a presidential panel.

Pollutants and other chemicals in your environment — your home, your frontyard, your workplace — may be more toxic to your health than you know, according to a report released earlier this month. The President's Cancer Panel, an advisory group charged with monitoring the war on cancer, proposed in its May 5 report that environmental chemicals might contribute to a larger share of deaths from cancer than the 1% to 5% figure cited by the National Cancer Institute.

Skeptical reactions to the report, most notably from the American Cancer Society, say that the report's focus on potential environmental risks may distract from known risks with much larger effects, such as smoking, sun exposure, diet and exercise.

But others, such as David Kriebel, an epidemiologist at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell who testified before the panel in 2008, say the risks associated with environmental exposures are unclear and could easily be larger than assumed. "Isn't it disappointing that we don't know how much larger?" he asks.

"It is always worth making the point that tobacco is the most important exposure to try to eliminate," but that message shouldn't preclude investigation of other exposures, says Shelia Hoar Zahm, deputy director of cancer epidemiology and genetics at the National Cancer Institute.

The report, with its focus on the admittedly incomplete science on environmental cancer risks, helps the U.S. government to keep the broad picture in mind as it continues its war on cancer, she says.

The new report is the most recent in a series of annual reports put together by the three-member President's Cancer Panel. Last year, the topic was "Maximizing the Nation's Investment in Cancer," and the year before, "Promoting Healthy Lifestyles."

(Los Angeles Times)

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