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CCS Environment Report: It’s a start, but…

By Liz Armstrong, past Co-Chair of Prevent Cancer Now

All Canadians – with the exception of the chemical industry and some lawn care guys still addicted to spraying noxious weed-killers – are grateful to the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) for its stand in 2000 against ‘ornamental pesticides’.

This policy has helped countless communities across Canada adopt pesticide bans and restrictions, and no doubt played a role in Ontario’s upcoming anti-pesticide legislation.

We’re also appreciative of the 2007 CCS declaration that all types of asbestos cause cancer, and for calling on the Canadian government to develop a comprehensive strategy, including the eventual phase-out of asbestos mining and export. Eventual? Why not ‘urgent and immediate’? – that might have helped achieve the international consensus required to add chrysotile asbestos to the Rotterdam Convention, the global watch list of harmful substances, which failed once again in November ’08, to Canada’s shame and the world’s frustration. We also wonder how many Canadians might still be alive if the CCS had taken a stand on asbestos 20 years ago, when the International Agency for Research on Cancer came to the conclusion that this deadly substance was a Group 1 Carcinogen – the most potent class. How many more Canadians might have escaped deadly asbestos-related mesothelioma if our cancer agencies had sounded the alarm 45 years ago, when Dr. Irving Selikoff’s landmark study of American workers clearly established the link between asbestos and cancer?

But we digress.

Back to the brighter notes: The Canadian Cancer Society is leagues ahead of its US counterpart when it comes to acknowledging links between cancer and environmental/occupational toxins. It’s doubtful that the American Cancer Society is even talking about toxics use reduction, let alone ready to partner on an initiative called Take Charge on Toxics which challenges the Ontario government to protect all Ontarians from exposure to cancer-causing substances at home, at work and in their environment. Another good step, which PCN is proud to be part of.

CCS has also adopted a fairly strong statement on occupational exposures, although it tends to diminish the import of work-related cancers with this lead-in statement: occupational exposure to cancer causing substances is associated with a small percentage of cancers. Some experts say workplace-related cancers are as high as 20 per cent of our total cancer burden – not small. Even 9 per cent, a more accepted percentage, adds up to 15,000 new cases every year and 6,500 deaths in Canada – not insignificant.

To its credit, CCS adopted the Precautionary Principle several years ago – the better-safe-than-sorry, ounce-of-prevention-pound-of-cure approach. And it has declared wholehearted support for a community’s right-to-know about all its exposures to toxic and carcinogenic substances.

But about the recent CCS report, The Environment, Cancer and You? Given the aforementioned positive steps CCS has taken, we hate to damn with faint praise. However, about the best we can say is: ‘It’s a start’.

Not to belabour the point, the report names just two of 105 Group 1 Carcinogens – asbestos and radon. It follows with information on six more ‘Substances and issues we’re concerned about’, including: electromagnetic fields, flame retardants, labeling of consumer products, phthalates, Teflon/non-stick cookware, and water chlorination by-products. All are important, and yes, we’re concerned about them too. But why these, and why so few? Is this more about PR than substance?

For its part, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization lists more than 400 known, probable and possible carcinogens. CCS chooses this rather odd assortment of eight, with virtually no history or context. Where is benzene in gasoline (or gasoline itself)? What about formaldehyde in home building products, or CAT-scans for kids? What about perchlorethylene, the dry-cleaning fluid?

What about multiple exposures to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors? We know from Environmental Defence’s Toxic Nation studies that Canadian adults have an average of 30 to 40 carcinogens in their blood and urine – and, we add, probably a lot more if fatty tissue had been tested. And what about the 180 cancer-causing chemicals that the Environmental Working Group discovered in the umbilical cord blood of 10 US newborns?)?

What about safe alternatives?

We actually wouldn’t quibble about the CCS’s eight substances, if they had been presented with the background, thoroughness, and sense of urgency reflected in the City of Toronto’s excellent 2002 report, Ten Key Carcinogens in Toronto Workplaces and Environment: Assessing the Potential for Exposure

And about that CCS Precautionary Principle? It’s very good in theory and definitely worth (everyone) endorsing, but as the IARC list of 400 known and suspected carcinogens makes clear, hundreds of cancer-causing horses are already out of the stable – and have been for a long time. Perhaps the Canadian Cancer Society might also consider adopting the Post-Cautionary Principle, articulated by Lisa Heinzerling, an American lawyer appointed by the Obama administration to regulate greenhouse gases/climate change. If you substitute the phrase climate change in the following paragraph with carcinogens, you will get the gist

“We should stop thinking of responses to climate change (carcinogens) in terms of the precautionary principle, which counsels action even in the absence of scientific consensus about a threat. We should speak instead in terms of a “post-cautionary” principle for a post-cautionary world, in which some very bad effects of climate change (carcinogens) are unavoidable and others are avoidable only if we take dramatic steps, and soon. These points are related insofar as they together create a moral imperative both to adapt to the changes we cannot prevent and to mitigate those we can. Without these efforts, people will fall ill and many will die, and we know now that this will occur {has already occurred re cancer}. No fancy moral theory is required to condemn, and to make every attempt to avert, this large-scale knowing killing.”

We know the CCS has the resources, and it knows the Canadian public is eager to act on primary prevention of of this disease which now strikes almost half of Canadian males, and nearly 40% of females. We urge a more comprehensive environmental and occupational approach that challenges all of our governments (and itself!) to take bolder, quicker steps to adopt green chemistry, eliminate toxic products and processes, and to name safe alternatives.