Industrial Chemicals and the Cancer Epidemic

Welcome to California, home of chemophobia and flawed risk assessment. Photo by the author.

The Sierra Club mulls the question, “Why are so many people getting cancer?” And then, without evidence, answers itself (like homeless guy on the corner), “One reason may be the legal release of millions of pounds of cancer-causing chemicals into our air and waterways.”

Similarly, Rachel Carson asserted that “more American school children die of cancer than from any other disease.” What she said was technically true. However there was not an increase in childhood cancer; there was a decrease in other childhood diseases. In the era Carson was writing people were, at last, spending twice as much on medicines than on funerals. A welcome change from fifty years before when the numbers were the reverse (in 1910, childhood mortality was around 1 in 5; by 1960 it was 1 in 33. and today it is around 1 in 140. In the same way, Rachel Carson used a statistical sleight of hand to show a greater percentage of children, I can say an American male’s lifetime risk of developing cancer is 1 in 2 and 1 in 3 for an American female. It’s true but it’s not the whole story.

The real reasons for the cancer “increase” are more prosaic: medical screening can detect cancer much earlier and people are living long enough to develop cancers because they aren’t dying earlier from other causes. The Mayo Clinic says, “Cancer is caused by changes (mutations) to the DNA within cells. The DNA inside a cell is packaged into a large number of individual genes, each of which contains a set of instructions telling the cell what functions to perform, as well as how to grow and divide. Errors in the instructions can cause the cell to stop its normal function and may allow a cell to become cancerous.”

Because the United States, and the world, has more people, it may appear that more people than ever have cancer. This, in fact, may be true; however, as Ronald Bailey reports, “The cancer death rate has dropped by 23 percent since 1991, translating to more than 1.7 million deaths averted through 2012, according the latest Cancer Statistics 2016 report from the American Cancer Society (ACS).”

Let’s get back to the homeless guy on the corner, I mean, the Sierra Club and its question, “Why are so many people getting cancer?” The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) throws cold river water on their answer (the muttering homeless guy did need a bath). The AICR in its 2001 report said, “Exposure to all manufactured chemicals in air, water, soil and food is believed to cause less than 1% of all cancers.”

The overall cancer death rate rose during most of the 20th century, largely driven by rapid increases in lung cancer deaths among men as a consequence of the tobacco epidemic. Steady reductions in smoking, as well as advances in cancer prevention, early detection, and treatment, have resulted in a 23% drop in the cancer death rate, from a peak of 215.1 (per 100,000 population) in 1991 to 166.4 in 2012.

You can take the American Cancer Society’s word about cancer or you can go to the crazy guy on the corner. He always has something to say.

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