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Acta Oncol. 2008;47(3):347-54. doi: 10.1080/02841860701753697.

Pesticides, soft-tissue sarcoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma--historical aspects on the precautionary principle in cancer prevention.

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  • 1Department of Oncology, University Hospital, Orebro, Sweden.



After the 2(nd) World War a long range of chemical agents have been introduced on the market, both in Sweden and most other countries. From the 1950's several pesticides gained increasing use in agriculture and forestry. In the 1970's public concern increased in Sweden especially regarding use of phenoxy herbicides to combat deciduous wood, although statements from different authorities were reassuring of the safety.


At the end of the 1970's the author and his colleagues published the first scientific evidence of an association between exposure to phenoxyacetic acids, chlorophenols and certain malignant tumours, i.e., soft-tissue sarcoma and malignant lymphoma. The study subjects were also exposed to contaminating dioxins such as 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD). Later studies showed also an association between certain persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) with an interaction with titers of antibodies to Epstein-Barr virus early antigen. These results have been corroborated in other studies.


Over the years industry and its allied experts have attacked our studies, but in 1997 IARC classified TCDD as a human carcinogen, Group I. The increasing incidence of NHL in Sweden levelled off about 1990. The author postulated that the regulation or ban of the use of chlorophenols, certain phenoxy herbicides and some persistent organic pollutants in Sweden back in the 1970s has contributed to the now decreasing incidence of NHL. Unfounded criticism from industry experts may prohibit the precautionary principle and early warnings of cancer risk can be ignored. Cancer risks by certain chlorinated phenols may serve as a model of how the precautionary principle should be used by taking early warnings seriously.

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