If you want to reduce your cancer risks, be careful what advice you follow. A number of activist groups offer a range of cancer-fighting tips that don't mesh with the National Cancer Institute's (NCI) latest report on cancer trends.
For example, the Breast Cancer Fund explains on its website: "It's clear that our exposures to toxic chemicals and radiation are connected to our breast cancer risk." The group suggests that consumers avoid certain nail polishes, baby bottles, cleaning supplies and other consumer products.
The Environmental Working Group's (EWG) "cancer prevention tips" say we should: filter tap water, seal decks, avoid stain repellants, avoid many sunscreens, cut down on fatty meat to avoid "cancer-causing pollutants," avoid some fruits and vegetables because of trace pesticides, use only EWG-approved cosmetics, and read government warning labels about chemicals in consumer products.
But none of these "tips" will help a single soul, because they focus on phantom risks. If trace chemicals were a significant cancer cause, cancer rates would rise with increased chemical use, but the opposite is true.
In its "Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer," the NCI reports that since 1975 cancer incidence has continued to decline among men and has declined for women until 2006, after which rates stabilized. In addition, thanks to earlier detection and treatment, mortality has continued to decline for both sexes.
NCI data also challenge activist attempts to link breast cancer to chemicals. It reports that breast cancer has stabilized after "sharply decreasing" following the reduction of hormone replacement therapy, and survival trends are very positive. A woman with breast cancer in the late 1970s had a 75 percent chance of surviving five or more years, while today she has a 90 percent chance, according to data on NCI's website.
While stable for other groups of women, breast cancer incidents increased for black and Asian and Pacific Islander women in recent years. NCI identifies the likely causes as: "reproductive factors and postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy, obesity after menopause, weight gain throughout life, and alcohol consumption." Chemicals are not listed among these likely causes.
The American Cancer Society posts a similar list of breast cancer causes on their website and also notes: "… at this time research does not show a clear link between breast cancer risk and exposure to things like plastics, certain cosmetics and personal care products, and pesticides."
In addition to breast cancer, activists say chemicals are increasing childhood cancer rates. However, NCI reports that cancer rates among children "have continued to decrease since 1975, although the decrease was briefly interrupted from 1998 to 2003." Short-term increases of childhood cancer are hard to explain, but because childhood cancer is rare, even relatively small variations can shift trends for a few years.
Some such increases may be related to improved detection and better reporting of cases. For example, while environmental activists claimed chemicals were to blame for an increase in childhood brain cancer in the 1990s, the NCI maintained that rates were actually stable but new detection technology made it possible to discover more cases.
Nonetheless, the cause of childhood cancers remain unknown and complex, NCI notes. Activists may try to connect childhood cancer to chemicals, but there isn't evidence to draw that conclusion.
In fact, trace chemicals are low on the list of possible cancer causes in the widely-recognized landmark research conducted by Richard Doll and Richard Peto. They list the most likely cancer causes to include tobacco (about 30 percent), dietary choices (35 percent), infections, natural radiation, and sexual behavior. All pollution — air, water, pesticide residues, and trace chemicals in products — may account for about 2 percent. Although included within the "pollution" category, it is not clear that trace chemicals are the cause of any cancers.
Hence, the battle against cancer should be fought on two fronts: prevention through lifestyle changes and treatment. For example, the NCI's special focus this year on cancers caused by human papillomavirus underscores how behavior changes along with treatment vaccines could greatly reduce cancers of the oropharynx/throat, vulva, and anus — all of which have risen in recent years.
Trying to fight cancer by banning, regulating, or simply avoiding chemicals is foolish and, ultimately, dangerous because it diverts our focus and funding from the real solutions.
Angela Logomasini, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.