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Report On Chemical Risks Sparks Backlash

Lay off the chemical gloom and doom, says the American Cancer Society.

Early media coverage of a report from the President's Cancer Panel emphasized the "grievous harm" pronouncement about cancer risks posed by chemicals in the environment.

The ACS's Michael J. Thun, MD, vice president emeritus for epidemiology and surveillance research, took a deeper look at the report and concluded, "Unfortunately, the perspective of the report is unbalanced by its implication that pollution is the major cause of cancer."

Sure, the cancer group agrees that we ought to know more about the synthetic chemicals piling up in the environment and the food chain. And the effects on kids bear special attention. (For a fuller view of the ACS's assessment of chemical risks, see this journal article published last fall.)

But don't go overboard worrying about the potential problems from chemicals when there's already ample evidence to show that the biggest cancer threats are posed by things we already know about and can do something to control, the ACS says.

What should you be paying attention to? Start with tobacco use, obesity, alcohol, and sunlight. Sexually transmitted diseases and hormones are other important categories of risk.

Thun takes issue with the report's conclusion that chemically-linked cancers have been "grossly underestimated." That's not the scientific consensus, Thun writes, and is instead just "one side of a scientific debate that has continued for almost 30 years."

Howard University surgeon, Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr., chairman of the panel defended the conclusions. "This is an evenhanded approach, and an evenhanded report," he told the New York Times. "We didn’t make statements that should not be made."