February is National Cancer Prevention Month, a time for cancer doctors, patients, researchers, and millions of advocates around the world to reflect on the ways in which people develop cancer.
While around 30-40% of all new cancer diagnoses can be attributed to preventable causes, the majority are the result of environmental factors. Smoking, physical inactivity, excess body weight, and prolonged sun exposure are all associated with a higher risk of developing cancer. By reducing such risks, you stand a better chance of remaining cancer-free.
But for many people, a cancer diagnosis is as shocking as it is inescapable. According to the U.S. Department of Health (DOH), exposure to natural and man-made substances accounts for at least 67% of all new cancer cases in the United States.
For these people, a potentially life-altering diagnosis is made all the more confusing by the inability to pinpoint cause. What caused the cancer? Was it a virus, like human papillomavirus (HPV) or hepatitis C? Was it exposure to a toxic substance like arsenic or asbestos? Or was the culprit more... manmade?
In our third National Cancer Prevention Month blog post, we will take a closer look at the cancer risks of manmade chemicals, with a particular focus on a toxic substance known commonly as “firefighting foam.”
PFAS Are Only the Latest Iteration of Corporate Greed
History is, unfortunately, bursting with examples of corporations putting profits before people.
Greed, regulatory failures, and general indifference to the wellbeing of local communities has allowed private companies to pump toxic chemicals into the air, place them in landfills, or dump them into waterways. In turn, these carcinogens make their way into the bodies of human beings.
Perhaps one of the best — and more recent — examples of this corporate injustice is per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), better known as “forever chemicals.” For decades, companies like 3M and Dupont used these substances for the production of non-stick cookware, food packaging, stain-resistant fabric, firefighting foams, and other products.
PFAS chemicals are favored by manufacturers, but they are also extraordinarily toxic to human health. In essence, they are extremely anti-corrosive — to the extent that they do not break down naturally. Instead, they accumulate in the body over time and cause various types of cancer as a result.
For example, firefighting foam, which is made from PFAS, is associated with an increased risk of:
- Kidney (renal) cancer
- Testicular cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Bladder cancer
- Neuroendocrine tumors
- Prostate cancer
- Liver cancer
- Breast cancer
- Colorectal cancer (colon and/or rectal cancer)
As with most toxins, it’s the quantity that makes the poison, but because PFAS compounds include a class of more than 5,000 different chemicals, they are lightly regulated and mostly legal. The legality of PFAS gravely imperils the communities where they are produced.
One such community is Parkersburg, West Virginia, where for over half a century DuPont manufactured Teflon using a chemical called PFOA. The company knew as early as 1961 that the compound was toxic, but it kept that information hidden from regulators and the wider public.
Not surprisingly, a cancer cluster formed in Parkersburg, with nearby residents developing markedly higher rates of testicular and kidney cancer, as well as ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, and birth defects.
Cancer Nation: The Chemical Hazards in Our Own Communities
Unfortunately, Parkersburg, West Virginia, is just the tip of the iceberg. A closer investigation of community-level contamination reveals a country riddled with high levels of carcinogenic substances.
The stretch of the Mississippi Valley between New Orleans and Baton Rouge has earned the nickname “cancer alley,” thanks to the swath of petrochemical plants that billow untold tons of cancer-causing chemicals into the air.
Washington County, Pennsylvania is the focus of a state investigation into a possible cancer cluster, which locals believe stems from the largest concentration of deep shale gas wells in the state and the network of pipelines and processing plants built to support oil extraction.
In a neighborhood in Houston, Texas, officials are investigating a cancer cluster likely formed through creosote contamination at a local rail yard. A probable carcinogen, creosote was used for more than 80 years in and around the historically black neighborhood, such that the owner of the yard, Union Pacific, urged locals to drink water from wells when it purchased the property in 1996.
In San Diego, hundreds of workers in a downtown skyscraper may have been needlessly exposed to asbestos, despite warnings from officials that the building contained a high volume of asbestos-containing materials. Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma, one of the deadliest cancers known to man.
Cancer Prevention: Individual or Society — or Both?
When we talk about cancer prevention, it seems the conversation must include more than just personal responsibility. We are, in many cases, the products of our environment. But what if our environment is captured by corporate greed, negligence, and corruption?
Basic moral decency compels us, then, to turn the spotlight on certain bad actors — the corporate powers responsible, in many cases, for poisoning the air, environment, and water for increased profit.
When it comes to the real health risks and consequences of firefighting foam, the story is one that has been told thousands of times: Corporate greed puts profits ahead of people.
National Cancer Prevention Month
To learn more about National Cancer Prevention Month, be sure to visit our previous blog post, which introduces the awareness campaign and its goals.
The Prevent Cancer Foundation recommends that we all do our part in preventing cancer by cultivating 7 preventative habits, including:
- Don’t use tobacco
- Protect your skin from the sun
- Eat a healthy diet
- Maintain a healthy weight and be physically active
- Practice safe sex and avoid risky behaviors
- Get immunized (HPV and hepatitis vaccines)
- Know your family medical history and get regular cancer screenings
This month, you can also do your part by educating yourself on cancer, spreading news and information regarding preventative measures, and donating to outreach and research efforts.