Commentary

Where’s the News About Cancer Rates?

By Michael Gough and Peter Van Doren
This article originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee.

A recent paper in Cancer, the journal of the American Cancer Society, documents a significant drop in cancer rates. But the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups have been conspicuously quiet about the good news. For years they have thrived on bad news about cancer and on fear of chemicals in the environment. The reduction in cancer rates provides little for the EPA and environmentalists to like. The downward trends show that environmental chemicals have little to do with cancer and that the EPA’s efforts to reduce exposure to them have little to do with health improvements.

It’s easy to imagine the reaction of the EPA and environmental groups if there had been bad news about cancer. They would have held press conferences and filled the talk shows and Op-Ed pages with the need for more federal funding and regulation to protect the population from carcinogens in the air and water.


In the environmentalists’ view, air pollution causes lung cancer. In fact, air pollution has fallen dramatically over the last 50 years, but the report doesn’t link those improvements with declining lung cancer. Instead, it concludes that the overall decrease in lung cancer — the most common cancer — almost certainly results from decreased smoking rates.


You might think that they would take some credit for the declines, but even accomplished environmental tale spinners will not be able to twist the news to that extent. The authors of the report about cancer rates — scientists from the American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute, National Center for Health Statistics and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — reach some cautious conclusions about possible causes of the declines. Nowhere do they mention environmental exposures.

In the environmentalists’ view, air pollution causes lung cancer. In fact, air pollution has fallen dramatically over the last 50 years, but the report doesn’t link those improvements with declining lung cancer. Instead, it concludes that the overall decrease in lung cancer — the most common cancer — almost certainly results from decreased smoking rates.

Environmentalists have waged a long campaign to link breast cancer with pesticides and PCBs in the environment. The report does not explain why the breast cancer incidence rate has not increased since 1990, but it concludes that screening for early breast tumors has caused the decrease in breast cancer mortality. The report does not mention pesticides or PCBs.

Between 1973 and 1990, the incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (HNL) skyrocketed. Everyone agreed that much of the increase occurred in AIDS patients, but environmentalists, pinning their conclusions on a few poor studies, indicted herbicides as a cause of NHL. The NHL incidence rate has fallen since 1990. The reason? It’s probably better treatment for AIDS.

President Nixon created the EPA in 1970 against a background of claims that “the environment causes 90 percent of cancer.” There was never any truth in those claims.

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) and that pollution was associated with about 2 percent of all cancers. The EPA agrees. Its 1987 report “Unfinished Business” associated chemicals in the environment with 1 to 3 percent of cancers. In 1990 one of us (Gough) published a paper that concluded 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 (although they are surely exaggerated) and if its regulatory programs were 100 percent effective (although they can’t be). The actual reduction the EPA could accomplish is 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. That probably underestimates the EPA’s costs because the EPA’s methods exaggerate the benefits of its regulations. In contrast, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spends 100 times less, $78,000, to save a year of life.

In April the Senate Appropriations Committee will consider the EPA’s budget request for next year. If history is a guide, there will be no questions about the effects of EPA programs on cancer rates. If, on the other hand, lawmakers examine the EPA’s record, Congress may begin to understand the house of cards — cancer risk assessments and environmental hyperbole — that supports the EPA’s expensive, intrusive and unnecessary regulatory programs.

Michael Gough is director of risk and science studies, and Peter VanDoren assistant director of natural resource studies, at the Cato Institute.