Cancer: More Environmental Risks and Even Higher Costs

air pollution
air pollution

Last week, the President's Cancer Panel issued a somewhat alarming report about environmental cancer risks. "The American people -- even before they are born -- are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures," the panel wrote. It urged President Obama to act "to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our Nation's productivity, and devastate American lives."

The report identified several sources and types of environmental contaminants from industry and manufacturing (such as chemicals and byproducts), agriculture (pesticides), modern lifestyle (cars, cell phones, bug spray), medicine (radiation, discarded pharmaceuticals) and natural sources (radon, uranium and arsenic).

Among the panel's many proposals, it first suggested that the whole approach toward cancer needs changing to become precautionary and prevention-oriented rather than reactionary. But it also said the many related government agencies need to work together better to improve regulation and policy enforcement. And, of course, the panel suggested to do far more research and work on increasing public awareness to the risks from environmental exposure.

Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Disease

While some hailed the report as a "landmark" and "extraordinary document," the American Cancer Society actually disagreed with the report's premise that "the true burden of environmentally (i.e. pollution) induced cancer has been grossly underestimated." The ACS said the panel presented this premise as fact without providing back-up data. This is despite the ACS's own report on the subject, which included many of the same issues and said, "There is no doubt that environmental pollution is critically important to the health of humans and the planet."

Another report published Monday by the American Heart Association found that the "scientific evidence linking air pollution to heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular death has substantially strengthened." No matter whether it's the nearly 80,000 understudied and largely unregulated chemicals on the U.S. market that the President's Cancer Panel identified or the AHA's air pollution, it seems there's no mistaking the ill effect environmental conditions can have on health.

Of course, doing something about it boils down to money. No doubt, some of the measures the panel suggests are costly. But others, such as putting mercury controls in power plants or venting radon in new construction, are relatively cheap. (Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. and the leading cause of lung cancer among people who have never smoked.) Moreover, many hazards can be avoided simply through proper precautionary regulation.

Hundreds and Hundreds of Billions

And to concentrate only on the costs of preventive measures ignores the costs of the diseases. The National Institutes of Health estimates that in 2009, cancer cost the nation $243.4 billion (directly and indirectly). And that's not all. The cost of treating cancer in the U.S. nearly doubled over the past two decades, a new study published Monday found. That's mainly because of the growing number of cancer patients. Of course, "The incidence of some cancers, including some most common among children, is increasing for unexplained reasons," the panel wrote.

In addition to these cancer-related costs, the direct and indirect costs of cardiovascular diseases and stroke in the U.S. in 2009 is estimated to be $475.3 billion, according to the AHA and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

So when the Presidential Cancer Panel says the U.S. must do more to curb environmental cancer risks, even though the exact risks aren't always known, it's hard to argue with that conclusion.