Preventing Environmental Cancer Risks

Preventing Environmental Cancer Risks
If you have 25 people in a room and asked how many people knew someone who have had cancer, most likely all 25 would raise their hands. If you then asked how many in the room had a family member in the past who have had cancer, two thirds or more would raise their hands. I have asked these questions several times when I would be asked to lecture for medical groups. What are your answers?

The American Cancer Society has reported that only five percent of all cancers are hereditary. That means that the other ninety five percent of cancers may be coming from our environment. Environmental causes may account for well over half of all cancer cases. Most environmental risks are determined by our lifestyle choices such as smoking, diet, etc., while other risks may arise from our community and workplace.

The degree of environmental cancer risks depends on the concentration or intensity of the carcinogen and the exposure dose in which a person is exposed. In circumstances where high levels are present and where exposures are extensive, notable and significant hazards may exist. In circumstances where concentrations are low and the exposures are limited, hazards are often overlooked. When low-dose exposures are widespread, they can represent public health hazards.

I was called to a small town in Oklahoma a few years ago to speak. The community had several cancer issues and were trying to find help in many areas. I remember there was one nice middle class neighborhood who experienced a very high cancer amount in their neighborhood. In fact, out of about 24 homes, at least 20 of the homes had someone living there with cancer. That to me is a key note that something in the environment was wrong. Railroad tracks ran along the back side of the neighborhood. It turned out that years before, the state had decided to spray a chemical compound, called Agent Orange on the railroad tracks in order to contain weed growth. Each time the train ran on the tracks, it was possible that the friction stirred up the Agent Orange and the neighborhood people inhaled it.

Several chemicals present definite evidence of human carcinogenicity. Examples of such chemicals are arsenic, asbestos, aflatoxin, benzene, chloride, and vinyl. Chemicals such as chloroform, dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane [DDT], formaldehyde, polychlorinated biphenyls [PCBs], and poly-cyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are considered probable human carcinogens based on evidence from animal experiments.

High frequency radiation such as ionizing radiation (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) radiation has been proven to cause human cancer. Almost all cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer is caused from exposure to the sunlight which is UV radiation. UV sunlight is a major cause of skin melanoma. However, beware of most sunscreens due to the fact that they have chemicals in the creams that can be very harmful.

Studies of atomic bomb survivors, uranium miners, and patients receiving radiotherapy gives evidence that high doses of IR causes cancer. IR can affect any part of the body, but especially bone and the thyroid gland. Medical and dental x-rays are set at the lowest dose levels possible to minimize risk. If you are a frequent flyer, be careful how many times you pass through the TSA x-ray scanner. Radon exposures in homes can increase lung cancer risk, especially in cigarette smokers.

Several kinds of pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, etc.) are used in producing and marketing our food supply. Although high doses of some of these chemicals cause cancer in experimental animals, the very low concentrations found in some foods are generally said to be within established safety levels. The argument is to think about how the body may store some of these chemicals and then become over-loaded to a point of becoming sick.

Environmental pollution by slowly degraded pesticides such as DDT, a result of past agricultural practices, can lead to food chain bioaccumulation and to persistent residues in body fat. Such residues have been suggested as a possible risk factor for breast cancer.

Toxic wastes in the community dump sites can threaten human health through air, water, and soil pollution. Cleanup of existing dump sites and close control of toxic materials are essential to ensure healthy living conditions in our industrialized society.

We once had a patient who lived in a fairly new community. He had been diagnosed with sarcoma. After his diagnosis, many of the other neighbors were also diagnosed with cancers and the neighborhood called for a neighborhood meeting. This alarmed Mike’s family so they began an extensive investigation. What they found was that before this community had been built, the land had been a large waste dump. This was never  exposed to any of the property owners.

Risks are assessed to protect the public against unsafe exposures and to set appropriate environmental standards. The risk assessment process has two steps:

1. Identify the chemical or physical nature of a hazard and its cancer-producing potential.
2. Measure the concentration of the substance in the environment (air, water, food, etc.) and the extent to which people are actually exposed.

Safety standards developed in this way for chemical or radiation exposures are the basis for federal regulatory activities at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The application of laws and procedures by which standards are implemented and risks are controlled is called risk management.

Be careful what you choose to be around, ingest, or breathe in. Whether you are healthy now, in remission, or trying to get into remission, educate yourself the best you can so you will become aware of cancer risks.

Knowledge keeps you out of darkness. Knowledge puts you a step ahead. Our body and our health is worth fighting for.

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