We're Losing Another Winnable War: The Fight Against Childhood Cancer
Friday was International Childhood Cancer Day, a day designated to raise awareness about childhood cancer. It is also a day when we reflect on the advances made and what steps need to be taken to eradicate this dreaded disease. Unfortunately, like other chronic diseases, there is not much to celebrate. This is because we have a fundamentally flawed philosophy about how to combat cancer that can be summed up in two words ... irresponsible and reactionary.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a "war on cancer" and enacted the National Cancer Act. In spite of billions of dollars invested annually in scientific research over the past 36 years, cancer cures have failed to emerge.
Cancer statistics are on the rise and following the same trend we see with other children's chronic diseases and developmental disorders. More than 7.6 million people worldwide die each year from cancer, 600,000 in the United States. This is equal to 20,000 deaths a day globally. Every year another 1.5 million people are diagnosed with cancer in the U.S.
Each school day 46 kids are diagnosed with cancer. According to the most recently recorded data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cancer remains the leading cause of death among U.S. children ages 1 to 19 years, second only to accidents (2004). Approximately 13,425 children in this age group are diagnosed annually with pediatric cancer and about 2,250 children will die each year from the disease. While the prevalence of childhood cancer increased by 27.1 percent between 1975 and 2002, the death rates declined for leukemias by 3.0% and all other cancers combined by 1.3% per year, from1990 to 2004. We are doing a better at prolonging life, but not preventing the disease.
Tobacco smoke, including second hand smoke, is clearly one of the causes of several forms of cancer. According to the American Lung Association, ninety percent of all smokers begin before the age of 21. Currently, 28.4%, more than a quarter of all high school students, smoke cigarettes or cigars nationwide. It is estimated that approximately 6.4 million children using tobacco products, will eventually die prematurely from a smoking-related disease based on calculations by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. But non-smoking cancers are also occurring at proportionately higher rates. Since 1975, acute lymphocytic leukemia has increased 68.7%, brain and nervous system cancers in children is up 56.5%, and testicular cancer is up 66% in adolescents.
What is causing this disturbing increase in pediatric cancer and why are we losing what numerous scientists suggest is a winnable war on cancer?
Like many other chronic children's diseases, science tells us that toxic chemicals used in our everyday environment are playing a significant role in the rise of childhood cancer. According to the International Agency for Research in Cancer, " ... 80-90 per cent of human cancer is determined environmentally and thus theoretically avoidable."
Since World War II our environment has changed dramatically. The uncontrolled, development of untested, unregulated industrial chemicals has contaminated the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. Even children's clothing can contain flame retardant chemicals that become just one more unnecessary toxic exposure that our children could do without.
Other carcinogenic chemicals found in our every day environment includes; arsenic used in wooden playground equipment and decking material, pesticides, ployaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) a pollutant from burning gasoline, polychlorinated dibenzodioxins (PBCD/F) a by-product of PVC production, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a Teflon chemical, identified as a human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency.
As early as 1987 research published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found children exposed to pesticides in their own homes were three to six times more likely to develop leukemia. Additional studies suggest possible links between parental exposures to pesticides and other carcinogenic chemicals increases the risk of kidney and brain cancer in children.
In a ground-breaking collaborative study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Commonweal, tests were undertaken to examine industrial pollutants in the umbilical cord blood of 10 American babies born in 2004. The Body Burden -- Pollution in Newborns study identified 287 chemicals in infant's cord blood, 180 of which are carcinogens and known to cause cancer in both humans and animals. This study confirmed that before taking their first breath, babies are bombarded by a carcinogenic cocktail making them vulnerable to disease.
Today there is almost unanimous consensus among environmental health experts that small chemical exposures are linked to leukemia and other cancers. These experts also recognize the need for a paradigm shift regarding chemical regulation.
"The Faroes Statement: Human Health Effects of Developmental Exposure to Chemicals in Our Environment," [PDF] published in Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology (2007), was authored by twenty-two researchers considered experts in the fields of environmental health, environmental chemistry, developmental biology, toxicology, epidemiology, nutrition and pediatrics. In the statement's recommendations, the authors wrote, "The accumulated research evidence suggests that prevention efforts against toxic exposures to environmental chemicals should focus on protecting the embryo, foetus and small child as highly vulnerable populations. Given the ubiquitous exposure to many environmental chemicals, there needs to be renewed efforts to prevent harm. Healthier solutions should be researched and proposed in future work. Prevention should not await definitive evidence of causality when delays in decision-making would lead to the propagation of toxic exposure and their long-term harmful consequences. Current procedures, therefore, need to be revised to address the need to protect the most vulnerable life stages through greater use of precautionary approaches to exposure reduction."
This urgent appeal provides a record of the views of reputable scientists warning policy makers of the dire consequences of complacency and inaction. But these warnings have been made before. Good men of science and concerned physicians have long been critical of our nation's cancer policies.
Double Nobel Prize Laureate, Dr. Linus Pauling once said, "everyone should know that the "War on Cancer" is, largely, a fraud." This is because there are numerous powerful stakeholders that have a financial interest in the cancer business, a huge industry of its own. Large petro-chemical corporations, the tobacco and pharmaceutical industry, universities receiving millions of dollars each year for research, even some non-profit cancer organizations have differing cancer-related agendas.
In 1998, the PBS series Frontline aired a story, "Fooling Mother Nature," about toxic chemicals and their affect on humans. Dr. Christopher DeRosa, a director at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) stated the obvious. "If you start to look at all the data together, you start to see a convergence", said Dr. DeRosa. "It is time for public health action ... we may not have a smoking gun, but there are bullets all over the floor."
So what is government doing about these urgent appeals from some of the most respected researchers? Not much. They certainly are not responding with the type of urgent attention given to millionaire baseball players suspected of using steroids.
In 1976 Congress passed the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) with the goal of protecting the public and the environment from the harm caused by toxic chemicals. Three decades later, most of the 80,000 chemicals used in commercial products today have never been evaluated for safety by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Why is this you might ask? Because, believe it or not, the law did not require chemical companies to prove the safety of their products before marketing them to consumers. In reality, the Toxic Substance Control Act doesn't control much of anything, especially your ability to protect your own children. And that is just the way the chemical companies wanted it.
As is often the case with government initiatives, the titles and talking points sound great, No Child Left Behind for instance. But TSCA is a perfect example of what happens when industry interests collided with children's interests. TSCA's failure is best illustrated by the EPA's 10-year inability to ban asbestos. It is estimated that from 1985 to 2009, 225,000 people will die from asbestos-related cancers because of this failure. We can credit the easy access of industry lobbyists who make sure ours is the "best government money can buy".
But come November, if we believe the candidates, all of this is going to "change" ... Right?
It took decades for government to react to the warnings about tobacco and asbestos and it continues to have a pitifully poor track record when it comes to oversight. The failure to regulate the out-of-control use of toxic chemicals has proven to be just one more public health disaster that continues to allow a never-ending carcinogenic-assault on vulnerable children. Our kids can no longer afford this kind of collective complacency from our government agencies responsible for protecting the public.
We don't need Band-Aids in the form of disease management drugs; although I'm sure this is what the big drug companies covet. Or another bill with a clever name that does little more then set up another committee to study the problem. Our children need pro-active leaders willing to promote initiatives aimed at promoting healthier eating habits, green lifestyles, green doctors, green medicine and reducing exposures to toxic chemicals, instead of wasting taxpayer dollars on circus-like congressional hearings and investigating whether one millionaire baseball player used steroids. Legislation like the 2005 Kids Safe Chemicals Act, that would require chemical companies to demonstrate the safety of their products before entering the market, now isn't that a novel idea, would be a good place to start.
I know all too well what cancer can do to a child. I have worked, lived and listened to over 700 children who have visited the Imus Ranch for Kids with Cancer. And I have attended some of their funerals. These children want to live. They are searching for ways to get healthy and stay healthy.
Children are not responsible for the toxic environment that has made them so ill. We, as adults, created this problem ... and it is up to us to correct it. Parents can do their part by making changes toward a cleaner, "greener" lifestyle. Parents can also remove those bureaucrats who are willing to compromise our children's health by putting corporate interests ahead of protecting our children's health.
It is going to take more than inspirational speeches and promises of trillions of dollars directed at universal health care to reverse the current cancer trends in our children. As parent organizations around the world lead awareness campaigns on the International Childhood Cancer Day one thing is clear, our current war strategy is not working and "change" is long over due.
The best way to win the "war on cancer" is to prevent it in the first place. Estimates from the National Institutes of Health, the costs associated with cancer in 2006 were $206 billion. This figure includes direct medical costs, lost productivity and early death. Clearly, the cost of losing the war on cancer is enormous and directly related to the high cost of health care in this country. Because treating the disease after the fact can be extremely painful, costly and fruitless, proposals that encourage programs aimed at promoting prevention is one way we can begin to protect our children.
Can we change the course of childhood cancer? Yes we can! But only if we have committed leadership, a committed Congress and, yes, a strong president who will reject the industry influences that have created a toxic environment that continues to harm our children.