Thoughts on America's "National Cancer Policy"

Cancer is a national, even international, buzz word. Much of the news you see or hear suggests that product after product is likely to be a human carcinogen. Government researchers and regulators concentrate their attack on chemical manufacturers and users, accusing them of flagrant misuse of chemicals with concurrent epidemics of disease, including cancer.

Let me tell you, there is no such epidemic. Excepting lung cancer, the death rate for nearly all other types of cancer has been declining since 1900.

The previous two paragraphs I wrote way back in 1977, but the points are still germane in today's environment. Since 1977, there has been no cancer epidemic related to man-made chemicals, in contrast to what the doomsayers have been saying for decades. Indeed, in spite of an aging population, cancer rates are steady or declining except for smoking-related lung cancer.

Cancer and its causes are becoming better understood and we surely will continue our efforts to find better ways to prevent, control and cure it. However, continued misdirection of governmental regulatory activities, apparently in response to perceived public pressure, will turn our attempts at a "national cancer policy" into a national tragedy. Let's explore the present national cancer policy and the basis for it.

Several federal and state officials have described it to me personally and it has been evident in many of their public comments and proposed regulatory programs. Basically the policy embraces the concept that any chemical found to increase tumors, benign or malignant, in any animal species under any conditions of exposure route or dose will be treated as a human carcinogen and banned or restricted to the lowest feasible exposures using the best available technology.

The intense regulatory programs appear to be directed toward industrial chemicals only, not the natural chemical carcinogens, such as tobacco, alcohol and hundreds of foodstuffs known to contain natural carcinogens.

The original basis for the unwarranted over-emphasis on industrial chemicals is an often-quoted and misinterpreted statement that 80 to 90 percent of human cancer is due to "environmental effects" over which we have some control.

What often is not explained is that probably less than one to two percent--and perhaps considerably less--of human cancer is due to industrial chemicals, and that 80 to 90 percent is due to life style effects such as smoking, diet, sunlight and so forth, that indeed are "environmental effects", some of which we have some control over.

We now know that most chemicals, including many natural chemicals and foodstuffs, will cause cancer in some test animal if administered in certain ways and if not too toxic in other ways which could cause animal death at an early stage in life.

We also have good reason to believe that there is a threshold level of exposure below which no cancer will occur as a result of an exposure. Yet, legislative and regulatory activities are based on a zero threshold concept. We know that eggs cause cancer in mice, our saliva contains a precursor to nitrosamines that form in our stomach (nitrosamines are potent carcinogens in test animals), peanut butter contains aflatoxins, etc. Since we also know that not everyone gets cancer, there must be a practical threshold to carcinogens.

And, it's increasingly apparent that animals and humans often handle chemicals differently. Animal tests should be considered definitive only when we know the animals metabolize or "process" the chemicals in a fashion similar to man.

As a result of very detailed research, much more is known about how cancer originates, how to detect it early and how to treat it with increasing success rates. The new science efforts involve such terms as pharmacokinetics, DNA interaction, macromolecular binding, immunosuppression, etc. This newer kind of cancer research, compared to counting lumps in research animals, leads to an understanding that many chemicals, including most natural ones, that cause increased tumors in animal studies are unlikely to cause cancer in humans exposed to levels of these chemicals commonly found in occupational or general public environments.

The continuing bad news is that our "national cancer policy" has not caught up with science. We still find policy makers treating all animal carcinogens as if very low levels of exposure are hazardous. Thus we still spend billions of dollars, our tax dollars included, pursuing unrealistic goals of zero exposure, zero contamination, cleanup of groundwater to non-detectable levels, and so on.

Efforts to reduce the release of industrial chemicals should continue as should efforts to reduce contamination of the environment where toxicologically significant exposure to humans is likely. Efforts towards a zero exposure goal must be redirected towards understanding how carcinogens function in the body, using that information to design regulatory needs, and education of the public on how to reduce their risks from commonly encountered carcinogens related to "lifestyle."

At the top of our research list should be emphasis on understanding and augmenting our immune system, for although everyone is exposed to "carcinogens" from conception, most people do not contract cancer. Understanding this difference in response among animals and humans could lead to better ways to reduce cancer risk from the "exposures" we all encounter, be they chemicals of natural or man-made origin. The above kinds of efforts must be reflected in our "national cancer policy" in a fashion that the public and their policy makers understand and support, and the information must be used in defining practical and effective programs to reduce exposure to acceptable levels.