Scientists convene in Charleston to help Obama fight cancer 

Extended Sick Leave

These days, it seems like everything gives you cancer. For many people, it's an excuse to say "F-it" and eat, drink, and smoke whatever suits their fancy.

click to enlarge Outdoor air pollution in the form of particulate matter from diesel burning engines contributes to South Carolina's higher than average lung cancer rate
  • Outdoor air pollution in the form of particulate matter from diesel burning engines contributes to South Carolina's higher than average lung cancer rate

But it's true. From new furniture to the walls in our homes, we've surrounded ourselves with known carcinogens. American babies are literally born "pre-polluted," harboring hundreds of toxic chemicals in their blood before they take their first breath.

Although much of that toxicity is dependant upon lifestyle choices, most of us receive an unhealthy dose of dangerous particles just by going about our daily lives. From the water we drink to the air we breathe, civilization has contaminated our world. Fortunately, we have a better sense now about what's making us sick. But recognizing the root of the problem doesn't mean it's easy to get rid of it.

Last week, the President's Cancer Panel gathered in Charleston for the third of four information gathering meetings. The three-person panel, which includes two doctors and Manager Joe Torre of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a prostate cancer survivor (although he was not in attendance in Charleston), heard testimony from 10 leading scientists on the cancer threat of air pollution and water contamination. The group will issue a report to President-elect Barack Obama next summer.

At the first two meetings, in New Jersey and Arizona, the panel discussed nuclear and industrial exposures. Charleston was a particularly suitable location for the air and water pollution meeting — we're currently just within the Environmental Protection Agency's acceptable level of fine particulate matter, a pollutant released by burning fossil fuels, in our outdoor air.

The State Ports Authority's own environmental assessment of the expansion predicts their emissions will exceed the "safe" level of 35 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter of air. If Charleston gets over 35, that could put a mandated halt on other industry development until we figure out ways to get back below the threshold.

Dr. Julia Brody, the executive director of the Silent Spring Institute, an organization that explores links between the environment and women's health, spoke to the President's Cancer Panel, using the analogy of a gunshot wound to describe the difficulty in identifying cancer's causes. Cancer doesn't leave a bullet hole or necessarily enter a victim through their lungs or breasts. It can build for years before symptoms occur.

click to enlarge _trucks-entering-interstate.jpg

Epidemiologists are breaking ground every day though, and we're now able to attribute percentages of cancer cases to particular sources. Twenty-two percent of deaths in S.C. are due to cancer, with lung cancer far and away the most prevalent. It's responsible for more deaths than the next three cancer killers combined (colon/rectal, breast, and prostate). About 10 percent of lung cancer cases worldwide are attributable to outdoor air pollution, according to Dr. John Vena, the head of epidemiology at the University of Georgia and a panel speaker.

One of the biggest problems for scientists isn't what they don't know about cancer, it's the inability to convey their knowledge to the public. For example, regularly consuming grilled and smoked meats has been found to increase breast cancer risks 60 percent. Also, many homes contain radon, a naturally-occurring carcinogen that rises from the ground and is attributable to 10 percent to 14 percent of lung cancer deaths. A simple pipe to release radon into the air above a house can easily remedy the problem, but it's not required and rarely included in home construction.

Capt. Susan Conrath, an EPA official with the Office of Air and Radiation, sat on last week's panel. She says that the EPA tries to get the word out through public service announcements, but the outreach program has dwindled.

"It was much more robust when we started out," says Conrath. "They usually get on (television) late at night when they're not competing with anything else."

In South Carolina, the Cancer Information Service works to inform the public about cancer information, but after 30 years, the National Cancer Institute has not committed to renewing CIS funding when it expires in January 2010. Without an informed public, mitigating cancer risks requires government action and market pressure. One million people have died from radon exposure in the last half century, but the feds still hesitate to require radon testing prior to home sales.

click to enlarge The president's cancer panel heard the concerns and research of scientists - STRATTON LAWRENCE
  • Stratton Lawrence
  • The president's cancer panel heard the concerns and research of scientists

Tap water is another leading cause for concern. Richard Wiles, the executive director of the pollutant-watchdog Environmental Working Group, spoke to the panel about tap water's risks.

"Tap water may be great for washing your car or watering your lawn, but it may not be what you want a pregnant woman to drink," says Wiles. His organization found 287 chemicals in a baby's blood in the womb, much of which he attributes to chlorination by-products in drinking water. Wiles says a Brita pitcher filter can eliminate up to 90 percent of those toxins, but it's another case where the main problem lies in conveying that knowledge to the public.

Charleston has fortunately seen a dramatic improvement in the quality of indoor air since the passing of a smoke-free ordinance. Second-hand smoke exposure accounts for an estimated 38,000 deaths nationwide amongst people who never smoke, according to figures given to the panel. In downtown Charleston, the average micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter in places that formerly allowed smoking has dropped from 369 ppm to 14 ppm, according to tests by the Smoke Free Action Network, which pushed for the ban.

"The only difference between second-hand smoke and diesel particulate matter is nicotine," says Dan Carrigan, director of SFAN, who says he supports the Coastal Conservation League's effort to clean up outdoor air by opposing the new port. "It would be terribly ironic to have clean indoor air and then to step outside and you can't breathe."

During a public comment session at the panel, Nancy Vinson, a project manager for the league, asked that the panelists recommend to the Obama administration that they take action to clean up the nation's ports, citing Charleston specifically as the 14th worst city in the nation for year-round toxic particle pollution.

Despite the growing body of knowledge linking environmental factors to cancer, without funding, changes and outreach are impossible. The S.C. Department of Education recognizes the grave health risk children face from diesel exhaust on old school buses, and made a commitment last year to replace 15 percent of the state's fleet each year for perpetuity. However, due to the ongoing budget crunch, the 2009 budget does not include a single new bus.

One in 2.5 South Carolinians (and one in three Americans) will get cancer in their lifetime. There's certainly a case for presidential action. Without easily accessible preventative information, even a sagging economy won't lessen the $8.7 million a year that S.C. citizens currently spend treating the disease.


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