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Drug Metab Rev. 1998 May;30(2):201-23.

The prevention of cancer.

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University of California, Berkeley 94720, USA.


1. The major causes of cancer are as follows: (a) Smoking: about a third of U.S. cancer (90% of lung cancer). (b) Dietary imbalances, e.g., lack of dietary fruits and vegetables: The quarter of the population eating the least fruits and vegetables has double the cancer rate for most types of cancer compared to the quarter eating the most; micronutrients may account for much of the protective effect of fruits and vegetables. Excess calories may also contribute to cancer. (c) Chronic infections: mostly in developing countries. (d) Hormonal factors influenced by life-style. 2. There is no epidemic of cancer, except for lung cancer due to smoking. Cancer mortality rates have declined 16% since 1950 (excluding lung cancer and adjusted for the increased life span of the population). 3. Regulatory policy that is focused on traces of synthetic chemicals is based on misconceptions about animal cancer tests. Recent research contradicts these ideas: (a) 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." (b) There are high-dose effects in these rodent cancer tests that are not relevant to low-dose human exposures and which can explain the high proportion of carcinogens. (c) Though 99.9% of the chemicals humans ingest are natural, the focus of regulatory policy is on synthetic chemicals. Over 1000 chemicals have been described in coffee: 27 have been tested and 19 are rodent carcinogens. Plants that we eat contain thousands of natural pesticides which protect plants from insects and other predators: 64 have been tested and 35 are rodent carcinogens. 4. There is no convincing evidence that synthetic chemical pollutants are important for human cancer. Regulations that try to eliminate minuscule levels of synthetic chemicals are enormously expensive: EPA estimates that total expenditures on environmental regulations cost $140 billion/year. It has been estimated by others that the United States spends 100 times more to prevent one hypothetical, highly uncertain death from a synthetic chemical than it spends to save a life by medical intervention. Attempting to reduce tiny hypothetical risks also has costs; for example, if reducing synthetic pesticides makes fruits and vegetables more expensive, thereby decreasing consumption, then cancer will be increased. 5. Improved health will come from knowledge due to biomedical research and from life-style changes by individuals. Little money is spent on biomedical research or on educating the public about lifestyle hazards, compared to the cost of regulations.

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