by Marion Nestle
May 7 2010

Presidential panel says: choose organics!

Thanks to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times (“New alarm bells about chemicals and cancer“) for telling readers about a report on chemicals and cancer just released by the President’s Cancer Panel.

I had never heard of this panel – appointed during the Bush Administration, no less – and went right to its 2008-2009 annual report.

The Panel says that the “risk of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated,” that “nearly 80,000 chemicals [are] on the market in the United States, many of which are…un- or understudied and largely unregulated,” and that “the public remains unaware…that children are far more vulnerable to environmental toxins and radiation than adults.”

evidence suggests that some environmental agents may initiate or promote cancer by disrupting normal immune and endocrine system functions. The burgeoning number and complexity of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compel us to act to protect public health, even though we may lack irrefutable proof of harm.

I’m guessing this report will cause a furor.  Why?  “Lack irrefutable proof” means that the science isn’t there.  In this situation, the Panel advises precaution.  Check out these examples selected from the recommendations:

  • Parents and child care providers should choose foods, house and garden products, play spaces, toys, medicines, and medical tests that will minimize children’s exposure to toxics.  Ideally, both mothers and fathers should avoid exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
  • It is preferable to use filtered tap water instead of commercially bottled water.
  • Exposure to pesticides can be decreased by choosing…food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers [translation: organics] and washing conventionally grown produce to remove residues.
  • Exposure to antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxic run-off from livestock feed lots can be minimized by eating free-range meat [translation: don’t eat feedlot meat].

Expect to hear an uproar from the industries that might be affected by this report.  The American Cancer Society (ACS) doesn’t like it either, since the report implies that the ACS hasn’t been doing enough to educate the public about this issue.  The ACS said:

Elements of this report are entirely consistent with the recently published “American Cancer Society Perspective on Environmental Factors and Cancer”…Unfortunately, the perspective of the report is unbalanced by its implication that pollution is the major cause of cancer, and by its dismissal of cancer prevention efforts aimed at the major known causes of cancer (tobacco, obesity, alcohol, infections, hormones, sunlight) as “focussed narrowly”…it would be unfortunate if the effect of this report were to trivialize the importance of other modifiable risk factors that, at present, offer the greatest opportunity in preventing cancer.

ACS says the Panel does not back up its recommendations with enough research [but see May 14th note below].  Maybe, but why isn’t ACS pushing for more and better research on these chemicals?   However small the risks – and we hardly know anything about them – these chemicals are unlikely to be good for human health.   Doesn’t precaution make sense?  I think so.

Addition, May 7: Here’s Denise Grady’s take on the report from the New York Times: “Cancer society criticizes federal panel as overstating risks.”

Addition, May 14: I received a note from Michael Thun,  retired Vice President for Edemiology & Survey Research of the American Cancer Society requesting a clarification of my statement.  He says:

I hope that you can correct your report to say that ACS actually is pushing for more and better research, and has never discouraged people who choose to eat organic food from doing this. The only thing we object to is unsupported claims that the effect of current level of pollution on cancer has been “grossly underestimated”.

In 1996, I chaired an ACS committee writing dietary guidelines for cancer prevention and worked with Dr. Thun on our report.  I’d take his word for this.

National Home Office | American Cancer Society, Inc.


  • Anthro

    I think so too! Kristof got a lot of praise and flak in the comments, a taste of what’s to come.

    Personally, I’ve been doing mostly the right thing all along and having made it this far, can’t complain. But I am concerned for my children and grandchildren as these chemicals continue to proliferate in food and everyday products.

    It would seem to make sense for ACS to join with the panel in advocating for testing, no? The panel consisted of only three people, one of whom didn’t participate, so I do wonder about the qualifications of those two people. Kristof did not elaborate.

  • And right on the heels of this report’s release comes the news that California has approved methyl iodide gas for use on strawberries, without requiring that neighbors be notified before it’s used. Really troubling.

  • If there was no cancer, the ACS would be out of business and everybody there, unemployed.

    Bottom line… there’s no profit in preventing cancer.

    It’s the same reason why you won’t hear them promoting vitamin D for cancer prevention. Studies show that if everyone had optimal levels of vitamin D, the rate of cancer would drop by as much as 70% — almost immediately!

  • Why would the American Cancer Society protest these assessments?

    Well… If the ACS went along with these recommendations, it would hurt the profits of all the corporations that donate to the ACS. And that’s their primary concern, not a cure for cancer.

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  • This is such an important development in raising public awareness on the link between harmful chemicals (ie, pesticides) and cancers. It seems intuitive, but so many second guess themselves due to the government (and physicians) lack of public concern.

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  • […] I can only breath a sigh of relief that someone in government is taking an unequivocal stand for the health of the populace rather than a vague utterance shadowed by special interests.  Read the full report – the Executive Summary is informative – or Dr Nestle’s summary in Food Politics. […]

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