Last week the President’s Cancer Panel issued a bold report that said the “true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.” The panel is made up of top cancer researchers, and this year they took the unprecedented step of warning that we live in a chemical soup of approximately 80,000 chemicals whose role in causing cancer remains largely unstudied. Chapters in the report looked at environmental risks associated with agriculture, modern lifestyle, medicine and the military, as well as natural environmental hazards.
Of particular concern is what this toxic stew may be doing to children. From bisphenol A in baby bottles to endocrine disrupters in shampoo, children are exposed to substances that may – or may not – leave them more vulnerable to various cancers, but parents are hard pressed to make wise decisions when the research is lacking.
So we should expect cheers from all quarters on this topic, right? So why is the American Cancer Society pooh-poohing the report, saying that it risks diverting attention from known cancer risks such as smoking and obesity?
In an American Cancer Society Pressroom blog, the organization relies on Dr Michael Thun, vice president emeritus, Epidemiology & Surveillance Research, to promote the reductio ad absurdum argument that we should not invest in more research on the role chemicals in the environment play in causing cancer because there is not enough research to prove these factors outweigh what we could do to deal with known causes.
Thun wrote, “. . . its conclusion [the President’s report” that ‘the true burden of environmentally (i.e. pollution) induced cancer has been grossly underestimated’ does not represent scientific consensus. Rather, it reflects one side of a scientific debate that has continued for almost 30 years.” Thun also appeared on behalf of the ACS on news talk shows, basically saying don’t look there – look over here – nothing to see here.
Why would ACS want to side with the environmental-causation-deniers? My suspicion is that ACS, like so many non-profit groups today, views fund-raising as its primary mission and that means avoiding any hint of controversy. Placing the focus for cancer prevention on smoking and obesity puts the burden for cancer prevention on the individual, not corporations – blame the victim instead of blame the polluter.
As a society, we should, of course, invest in proven efforts to deal with smoking and obesity. But we should not shy away from scrutinizing the role that corporations play simply because the Republican right politicizes every issue that they can use to pander for corporate campaign contributions.
We now see an entire industry devoted to pumping up supposed controversies. British Petroleum spends millions attempting to greenwash its image as moving “Beyond Petroleum,” while failing to invest in safeguards that might have prevented the oil now spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.
Public relations hucksters like Rick Berman create astroturf (as opposed to grassroots) non-profits to pump out pro-corporate propaganda disguised as “common sense.”.
Berman produced this “SweetScam” commercial to make the world safe for high-fructose corn syrup.
The American Cancer Society has not sunk to these levels, at least yet. And Dr. Thun was quick to say that environmental causes could someday prove to be a problem. But the organization’s reluctance to pick up the banner and demand that we pursue the corporate-cancer link raises serious concerns about whether they care more about raising cash than they do about their cause.