By Denise Tessier
A week ago today, the Albuquerque Journal carried a story about a government report that was momentous in scope.
But it was carried in a way that betrayed its importance. Its headline “New Cancer Strategy Called For,” was squeezed into a single column atop a story tucked in the bottom corner inside the A-section. Its subhead said: “Panel warns of unregulated chemicals in air, food, water,” and it led with this:
An expert panel that advises the president on cancer said Thursday that Americans are facing “grievous harm” from chemicals in the air, food and water that have largely gone unregulated and ignored.
Five paragraphs later, the story said things are so bad, that:
“To a disturbing extent, babies are born ‘pre-polluted,’ ” the panel wrote.
This story has stayed with me, not only because of its content, but because of its lack of follow-up. When a similarly momentous report was released in April 1983 about the state of America’s education, the story ran on the front page of the Journal, was editorialized upon and a local education series was launched. The sobering and shocking “A Nation at Risk” report was given the serious treatment it deserved by media nationwide.
The Washington Post story on last week’s cancer report, prepared by a panel appointed by President Bush, was not only buried by the Journal, it was cut to fit its 10-inch slot at the page bottom. Here is what the Journal left out:
In 2009, about 1.5 million American men, women and children had cancer diagnosed, and 562,000 people died from the disease.
“There are far too many known and suspected cancer-causing chemicals in products people, young and old, use every day of their lives,” said Kenneth A. Cook, president and co-founder of Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy group. “Many of these chemicals are believed to be time bombs, altering the genetic-level switching mechanisms that lead to cancerous cellular growth in later life.”
The panel said the country needs to overhaul existing chemical laws, a conclusion that has been supported by public health groups, environmental advocates, the Obama administration and even the chemical industry.
The current system places the burden on the government to prove that a chemical is unsafe before it can removed from the market. The standards are so high, the government has been unable to ban chemicals such as asbestos, a widely recognized carcinogen that is prohibited in many other countries.
About 80,000 chemicals are in commercial use in the United States, but federal regulators have assessed only about 200 for safety.
Entitled “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now,” the report itself is prefaced with this message from the authors to President Obama:
The American people—even before they are born—are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures. The Panel urges you most strongly to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our Nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.
What is important about this report is that it points up how little is being done to curb the carcinogens all around us – from agriculture, the medical profession, the military, industry, even the natural environment.
While laudable attention is focused on finding cures for cancers, this report makes it clear that prevention deserves much more attention.
Which brings me to a line in a Journal story that ran April 26.
Journal reporter Aurelio Sanchez wrote a touching piece about a breast cancer walk that drew 20,000 people. The story, “Inspired by Survival, Loved Ones,” was beautifully written from the standpoint of those who walked, and reported that more than $530,000 was raised for the American Cancer Society.
The story ended with this line about the American Cancer Society, which is true:
It promotes knowledge of warning signs to find the disease early, offers support after a cancer diagnosis, provides funding for cancer research, and helps to rally communities worldwide to join the fight.
But the reporter inadvertently perpetuated a myth in his closing paragraph with the line that preceded that one (my emphasis added):
Money raised through Making Strides helps the American Cancer Society save lives by showing people how to prevent and cure cancer.
Studies have shown that individuals can flush cancer cells from their bodies through an alkaline diet and other measures, but the American Cancer Society is not known for advocating this diet. Nor is it known for lobbying to remove or alleviate the number of carcinogens in the environment. The society cannot even claim credit for raising the awareness about the dangers of smoking: That was done by the American Lung Association.
The visibililty of groups like the American Cancer Society in some ways provides a false assurance that someone is out there helping to eliminate the carcinogens around us.
None of us can individually prevent and cure cancer when carcinogens are ever-present. We must approach the problem as a nation and tackle it at its source.
The report issued last week is both a blueprint and call to arms to put us on that path, and it deserves more attention.