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FASEB J. 1997 Nov;11(13):1041-52.

Environmental pollution, pesticides, and the prevention of cancer: misconceptions.

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Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of California, 94720, USA.

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  • FASEB J 1997 Dec;11(14):1330.


The major causes of cancer are: 1) smoking, which accounts for about a third of U.S. cancer and 90% of lung cancer; 2) dietary imbalances: lack of sufficient amounts of dietary fruits and vegetables. The quarter of the population eating the fewest fruits and vegetables has double the cancer rate for most types of cancer than the quarter eating the most; 3) chronic infections, mostly in developing countries; and 4) hormonal factors, influenced primarily by lifestyle. There is no cancer epidemic except for cancer of the lung due to smoking. Cancer mortality rates have declined by 16% since 1950 (excluding lung cancer). Regulatory policy that focuses on traces of synthetic chemicals is based on misconceptions about animal cancer tests. Recent research indicates that rodent carcinogens are not rare. Half of all chemicals tested in standard high-dose animal cancer tests, whether occurring naturally or produced synthetically, are "carcinogens"; there are high-dose effects in rodent cancer tests that are not relevant to low-dose human exposures and which contribute to the high proportion of chemicals that test positive. The focus of regulatory policy is on synthetic chemicals, although 99.9% of the chemicals humans ingest are natural. More than 1000 chemicals have been described in coffee: 28 have been tested and 19 are rodent carcinogens. Plants in the human diet contain thousands of natural "pesticides" produced by plants to protect themselves from insects and other predators: 63 have been tested and 35 are rodent carcinogens. There is no convincing evidence that synthetic chemical pollutants are important as a cause of human cancer. Regulations targeted to eliminate minuscule levels of synthetic chemicals are enormously expensive: the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that environmental regulations cost society $140 billion/year. Others have estimated that the median toxic control program costs 146 times more per hypothetical life-year saved than the median medical intervention. Attempting to reduce tiny hypothetical risks has other costs as well: if reducing synthetic pesticides makes fruits and vegetables more expensive, thereby decreasing consumption, then the cancer rate will increase, especially for the poor. The prevention of cancer will come from knowledge obtained from biomedical research, education of the public, and lifestyle changes made by individuals. A reexamination of priorities in cancer prevention, both public and private, seems called for.

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