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The Failing War to Prevent Cancer
A Brain Cancer Cluster in New Jersey is a Reminder of How Little We Know About Environmental Carcinogens
A medical mystery at a New Jersey high school has alarmed local residents that an undetected environmental toxin might be responsible for 108 diagnoses of brain tumors dating back thirty years. The city of Woodbridge and federal health officials are investigating what might have caused the cluster of often deadly malignancies at Colonia High School. They are scouring everything from the grounds to buildings at Colonia High School searching for traces of radiation, a likely culprit.
If the history of trying to link environmental carcinogens to cancer clusters is any guide, the current probe for answers is unlikely to produce much satisfaction.
A 1998 report by the U.S. Health And Human Services examined whether “radiological and chemical contamination” from the Maywood Area Superfund sites might have caused an increase in cancer cases. That is only 20 miles from the current cancer cluster.
That investigation found no spike in cancer cases except for one: “brain and central nervous system cancer in females was double the expected amount.”
What did the federal government do about that alarming finding?
Not much. It recommended “continued surveillance of brain cancer in the study area.”
Twenty-four years later there has been no thorough study or follow-up.
That is unfortunately typical when it comes to a core question about cancer: do spiraling rates of cancer have less to do with advanced screening techniques and early detection and more to do with cumulative carcinogens to which we are exposed at home, in the workplace, and in our food chain?
Aside from smoking and asbestos, chemical and industrial firms have largely succeeded over the decades in arguing that there is no conclusive proof that the tens of thousands of toxic carcinogens to which the public is exposed are responsible for increased cancer rates/clusters. The drug industry is their unofficial and indispensable ally. Pharma – with a $176 billion annual oncology industry - is not worried about what might have caused cancers, only in treating them.
In his March State of the Union address, President Biden called for a massive, renewed effort – “a new moonshot” – to slash the cancer death rate by half in 25 years. Biden, whose son Beau had died at the age of 46 in 2015 from a particularly virulent form of brain cancer, proposed a “cancer cabinet” position to “supercharge” the new effort. His goal, he assured Americans, was to “end cancer as we know it.”
That tough language is reminiscent of what every president has said since Richard Nixon in 1971 declared a war on cancer, “a national crusade, the kind of herculean effort that split the atom and took man to the moon.” Government agencies and nonprofits since 19871 have funneled a quarter trillion dollars into research. Although America spends far more per capita on all healthcare, particularly cancer, a dozen nations who spend a fraction as much have lower cancer death rates.
Cancer industry insiders tell me that except for some breakthroughs on a handful of rare cancers, the federal war on the disease has largely failed. Even with the dramatic decline in smoking, the current mortality rate for all cancers in America is 27% higher than when the government first started collecting data in 1930.
The American Cancer Society, the industry’s main cheerleader and the recipient of huge donations from biomedical companies, claims the flood of money has “averted millions of cancer deaths. There are improved treatments for a handful of rare blood, bone marrow, and pediatric cancers. And scientists deserve credit for unraveling some of cancer’s complex biology. The industry’s top talking point, however, is that cancer mortality rates have dropped almost 30 percent since 1991. The highlight is a twenty-year drop in lung cancer deaths.
When the propaganda is stripped away, the unvarnished numbers reveal that no one is winning the war on cancer. The thirty-year decline in mortality follows more than sixty years of increases, pretty much tracking the rise and fall of smoking. The current mortality rate for all cancers in America is a third higher than when the government started collecting data in 1930. As for lung cancer, its death rate is higher than it was in the 1960s, especially among women. Lung cancer remains the deadliest, killing more people every year than breast, prostate and colon cancers combined. That is seldom discussed since it would demolish the carefully crafted perception that revolutionary advances in treatment have prolonged lives.
The New Jersey mystery brain cancer cluster is an unfortunate reminder of the degree to which the government has mostly failed to protect the public from environmental cancers. Industries that profit from products with toxic chemicals and carcinogens have for too long influenced public health policy. So long as the NIH, academic researchers, and cancer charities, put almost all their time and money into treatment only, it is certain there will be mystery cancer clusters like the one in New Jersey.