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Cancer panel gets pushback over environmental focus

The actual prevalence of environmentally induced cancer has been “grossly underestimated,” declared (.pdf) a president’s advisory panel a little more than a month ago. "The Panel urges [President Obama] most strongly to use the power of [his] office 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."

Spare me the sensationalism, responded Michael Thun, MD, vice president emeritus of epidemiology for the American Cancer Society:

"The statement that got all the press attention was that the panel said it was particularly concerned that the burden of environmental cancer is grossly underestimated, but it provided no evidence to support that concernTheir argument reflects a 30-year dispute in the scientific debate regarding the degree of cancer risk that should be linked to various environmental exposures."

Thun added that he was also bothered by the panel's framing of current cancer prevention efforts as being "focused narrowly" on smoking, other lifestyle behaviors, and chemopreventive interventions. "You do not like to see the major causes of cancer and attempts to prevent them being dismissed as ‘narrowly focused’-the obesity epidemic and tobacco use are not narrow problems."

But Samuel Epstein, MD, chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, defended the panel:

"The report is scholarly and goes into scientific issues in great depth...Its position on the need for the phasing out of avoidable causes of cancer is commendable."

The back-and-forth is chronicled in a News & Perspectives piece appearing today in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Whether the cancer panel’s call for greater focus on environmental exposures is answered “remains to be seen,” says author Mike Mitka.

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