Beating Cancer: We need to stop denying the link between cancers and environmental pollution

It is only by reducing our exposure to environmental pollutants that we can reduce the incidence of cancer in Europe, argues Michèle Rivasi.
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By Michèle Rivasi

Michèle Rivasi (FR, Greens/EFA) is a member of Parliament’s Special Committee on Beating Cancer

18 Oct 2020

In the fight against cancer we must give priority to reducing our exposure to carcinogenic substances. There have never been so many cases of cancer. One European in three will develop cancer during their lifetime. Each year in the European Union, around 1.3 million people will die of cancer, representing a little over 26 percent of all deaths.

We are facing what some specialists are calling a genuine epidemic. For example, let us look at breast cancer. Next to lung cancer, colorectal cancer and prostate cancer, breast cancer is one of the most common cancers with unfortunately, one woman in eight in France affected during their lifetime.

Between 1990 and 2013, the incidence of breast cancer worldwide increased by 99 percent, but only 33 percent of this is due to ageing of the population. Is this increase merely a consequence of screening, which allows tumours to be detected more easily?

In Sweden, the country where screening is the most widespread, incidence rates are not the highest, whereas in France, general screening was introduced in 2004 but the disease has been on the rise since 1950.

Breast cancer, for which both women and society pay a heavy cost, is representative of those types of cancer that are sensitive to environmental influences. It is not alone; lung cancer, for example, is a consequence of smoking, as everybody knows. Air pollution is also a clear factor in causing cancer, particularly as a result of fi ne particulates emitted by trucks and by those cruise ships that call into Mediterranean ports and pollute the air of cities.

In Europe, this means 400,000 premature deaths every year. Residues from agricultural pesticides, additives to meat such as nitrites, endocrine disrupters in cosmetics and packaging, electromagnetic pollution from mobile phones and electricity networks; we are all widely exposed to a multitude of proven or suspected carcinogenic pollutants. All this pollution accumulates in our bodies, producing a cocktail of low doses of these molecules and their metabolites.

It is only by reducing our exposure to such environmental pollutants that we can reduce - at source - the incidence of cancer in Europe. The European Commission has been promising a great deal, and for a long time. Yet the years have passed and there has been no decisive progress in statutory provisions.

“It is only by reducing our exposure to environmental pollutants that we can reduce - at source - the incidence of cancer in Europe”

To combat endocrine disrupters, pesticides and other environmental risk factors, we need ambitious, specific and effective legislation, not half-measures that mask industrial interests running counter to public health requirements.

Research into the causes of cancer must be encouraged, together with precautionary actions in view of the widespread distribution of toxic substances in the environment. Global prevention should be given its proper place - at the forefront - and we need to stop denying the link between cancers and environmental pollution. We, the politicians, have a duty to take action.

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