Environment and Cancer

In my latest book, Backfill, a Chinese alternative medicine doctor is trying to find a cure for pancreatic cancer, which took my mother at age 63 and many famous people including Apple CEO Steve Jobs, actors Patrick Swayze and Jack Benny, and opera singer Luciano Pavarotti. There is still no cure for pancreatic cancer and only 8% survive for five years from diagnosis according to the National Cancer Institute. Cancer is the No. 2 cause of death of Americans. (No. 1 is heart disease). About one-third of all Americans will get some sort of cancer in their lifetimes. The most common type of cancer in the U.S. is skin cancer. I started getting non-melanoma skin cancer in my late 30’s due to my fair skin and tennis playing in my early years. But the leading cause of cancer deaths world-wide is lung cancer, followed by liver, colorectal, stomach and breast cancer according to the World Health Organization.  Lung cancer (No. 1) causes over 150,000 deaths in the U.S. annually and is not just a smoker’s disease.  Up to 20 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked. SOURCE

Can we blame environmental factors on cancer?  We are all exposed to carcinogens in our food, water and consumer goods. From plastics to pesticides, we eat, drink or breathe toxins unknowingly every day. Some scientists say that less than 4% of cancer is attributed to the environment, but others say as much as 19% is from environmental exposures according to the National Cancer Institute. Much depends on where you live or work. Some environmental factors are out of our control, such as air or water pollution.  After living in China for four years, I can tell you that the air pollution in China was terrible. According to the World Bank, 16 of the world’s 20 most air polluted cities are in China. This is mostly due to heavy industry and the use of coal. Air pollution in the U.S. is much better due to stronger standards for automobiles and power plants. Ozone is still a problem, largely related to automobile exhaust and weather. The EPA tracks criteria pollutants which are the six most common air pollutants. All have dropped significantly since 1990 as you can see in the chart from the EPA Air Quality Trends Report.

So what causes cancer in the U.S.?  More than 60% of U.S. deaths are caused by smoking and diet. Smoking alone accounts for 30%. Many factors influence whether a person exposed to a carcinogen will develop cancer including the amount and duration of the exposure, workplace, and genetic background.  For example, occupational exposure to asbestos, vinyl chloride (used to make PVC pipes), hexavalent chromium (corrosion inhibitor) and many other products can result in increased risks of lung cancer, leukemia, and skin cancer. Click HERE to read more about environmental carcinogens according to the National Cancer Institute.  

What does a person do to prevent exposure to environmental and other cancer-causing toxins?

–Avoid smoking and exposure to tobacco smoke (second-hand smoke).

–Protect yourself against the sun’s rays by covering up or using suntan lotion.

–Take adequate precautions when using toxic chemicals such as gloves, masks.

–Use appropriate safety equipment when working with asbestos, paint or varnish, concrete, ceramics, acids.

–Limit alcohol use which can increase risk of cancer SOURCE

–Limit eating much charred meat which can create harmful chemicals when grilled or pan fried. SOURCE

–Don’t microwave plastic food containers and avoid handling store receipts due to exposure to BPA (Bisphenol A.) Use glass water bottles when traveling. SOURCE

–Wash and scrub produce to remove pesticide residue. Click HERE for EPA’s dirty dozen list of foods that have highest pesticide residues.

I welcome comments on this blog post!

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