Congress Needs to Realize That the Environment Doesn’t Cause Cancer

By Michael Gough
March 5, 1997

Richard Klausner, director of the National Cancer Institute, said, “This is the news we’ve been waiting for” about two studies that show cancer rates are falling, but don’t expect environmental organizations or the Environmental Protection Agency to applaud the news. For two decades they have shouted that environmental pollutants are causing a cancer epidemic and ever-increasing cancer rates. The good news would blunt their fear-based fundraising, and even accomplished environmental tale-spinners will not be able to twist the news to suggest that environmentalists and the EPA have much, if anything at all, to do with the improvements.

In November Philip Cole and Brad Rodu of the University of Alabama in Birmingham published an analysis showing that death rates from cancer began to decrease in 1990 and that the rate of decrease is accelerating. NCI researchers, preparing a report for release this year, have confirmed Cole and Rodu’s results.

The incidence of cancer has decreased because Americans have reduced their smoking, drinking and exposure to sunlight, and they probably eat more vitamin-laden fruits and vegetables. In addition, reduced exposure to workplace chemicals may have played a role, and improvements in cancer detection and treatment methods certainly have.

Cole and Rodu don’t mention “environmental chemicals.” There’s good reason. They have little to do with cancer.

When the EPA was established in 1970, the public and Congress, convinced by “the environment causes cancer” rhetoric, had a clear expectation that cleaning up the air, water and soil would improve human health. However flimsy its basis, the idea is attractive because it explains the origins of cancer, and even more satisfyingly, if chemical causes can be identified and eliminated, cancer rates should fall.

In 1981 Sir Richard Doll and Richard Peto, both at Oxford University, cataloged the causes of cancer in the United States. They calculated that smoking accounted for more than 30 percent of all cancer deaths (that figure is higher now). They also associated diet with 35 percent of all cancer deaths. Although the exact role of diet requires clarification, eating the right things—fresh fruits and vegetables—and not overeating are far more important than any tiny cancer risks (less than 1 percent) that may reside in food additives.

Doll and Peto associated pollution with about 2 percent of all cancers. The EPA’s 1987 report Unfinished Business agreed. The EPA associated chemicals in the environment with 1 to 3 percent of cancer.

In a 1990 paper in “Risk Analysis”, I calculated that the EPA could reduce cancer rates by between 0.25 and 1.3 percent if the agency’s estimates of cancer risks from environmental exposures were correct (they are surely exaggerated) and if its regulatory programs were 100 percent effective (they can’t be). The actual reduction could be far less, maybe zero.

However little they accomplish, EPA programs cost a lot. According to Harvard’s Center for Risk Analysis, EPA regulations—many directed at environmental carcinogens—cost $7.6 million for each year of life saved—probably an understatement because the EPA’s methods exaggerate the benefits of its regulations. (In contrast, the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency saves a year of life for every $78,000, or 100 times less.)

Far more troubling, the EPA’s regulation of pesticides, a capstone of efforts directed at environmental carcinogens, may cause cancer. Bruce Ames, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, has shown that the regulations, which have negligible, if any, effects on cancer rates, drive up food prices. As prices climb, consumption of fruits and vegetables decreases, and cancer risks increase.

It’s all far different from what we “knew” when environmentalists persuaded Congress to set the EPA on the trail of environmental carcinogens in 1970. Has the new knowledge made any difference in the EPA’s regulatory fervor? No. Can we expect it to? Yes, but only if Congress can be convinced to investigate the underpinnings for expectations that EPA regulations will effect cancer rates. Such an undertaking would be the antithesis of “regulatory reform” efforts that have involved incremental, pecking-around-the-edges changes in risk assessment procedures. It would open to public view the emotion and hyperbole that have guided federal policy, and the public and Congress could turn from chasing wills-o’-the-wisps to efforts that can make a difference in the fight against cancer.

Congress has to be the major player. “The environment causes cancer” argument has always had greater political importance than scientific justification. Until Congress, where the argument won some of its most fervent adherents, entertains serious debate, citizens will be reluctant to accept the legitimacy of criticisms of the environment-cancer link.

Michael Gough is director of science and risk studies at the Cato Institute.