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Cancers are preventable but won't be if it requires curbing the profits corporations reap from sickness

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Equipment in doctor's office. Photo: Morgan/Flickr

It is now generally agreed upon by health specialists that many cancers are caused either by exposure to radiation or by carcinogens that have been spewed into the environment. In contrast, relatively fewer cancers can be traced to defective genes inherited from our parents.

Although cancers caused by exposure to radioactivity are not nearly as prevalent as those caused by exposure to environmental toxins, they do sicken thousands of people. Radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power plants has risen to a global stockpile of 260,000 tonnes, and is growing by some 10,000 tonnes a year, according to the International Atomic Agency. The incidence of many forms of cancer has been found to be significantly higher in the vicinity of nuclear plants.

But the World Health Organization estimates that, although radioactivity is a serious threat in some places, a significant number of cancers are now the result of exposure to environmental toxins.

Sales of chemicals, including the most toxic, have increased the profits of the global chemical industry from US$1.8 trillion in 2012 to $4.3 trillion in 2017. Between 70,000 and 100,000 chemicals are currently on the world market, and another 1,000 new chemicals are being introduced each year.

No health or environmental data are made available for most of these chemicals, and no more than 10 per cent of them are being tested for possible adverse health effects.

Health Canada and our other public health "guardians" prefer to wait until the deadly effects of a chemical become so obvious -- and claim so many victims -- that they are finally forced to ban or restrict its use. They fail or refuse to admit that cancer is mainly a preventable disease and that steps to prevent it should take precedence over belated attempts to cure it.

Political malfeasance

Such a preventive approach would be based on the "precautionary principle" -- putting the onus on the manufacturer of a chemical to prove it's safe instead of waiting for the subsequent toll of sickness and death to prove it's not.

Such a positive reversal of priorities, however, is fiercely opposed -- not just by the manufacturers of these carcinogenic products, but also by the many other industries that use them in the production of their own goods.

Such a bad business coalition, of course, would not be allowed to cause so many preventable early deaths if it were not for the connivance of politicians. Even when a chemical has irrefutably been proven harmful, its immediate ban by a government is by no means certain. We experienced several incidents of such political malfeasance in Canada and the United States, when many thousands of people continued to be prescribed detrimental drugs and undergo injurious medical procedures even after their baneful effects had been revealed. 

Take Vioxx, for example. A few decades ago, this dangerous drug continued to be prescribed even after it was found to have caused thousands of heart attacks. The specious rationale, believe it or not, was that a "risk assessment" had found that it benefited more patients than it killed!

In sharply denouncing this malignant practice, biologist Joe Thornton cited its two fatal defects: 1) It foolishly assumes that testing of this sort can identify all the ways that every individual chemical can cause harm to humans and the environment; and 2) it ignores the centuries-long duration of many chemicals and their tendency to move from place to place.

Thousands of Vioxx victims

Testifying before a U.S. Senate committee looking into the Vioxx-induced heart attacks of an estimated 100,000 Americans (and probably as many as 10,000 Canadians), Dr. David Graham declared that "such a terrible tragedy could have been prevented, but wasn't." Why not? Because the agency assigned to ensure the safety of pharmaceutical drugs -- the U.S. Food and Drug Administration -- is focused almost entirely on assessing the alleged benefits instead of its potential harm.

"As now structured and operated," Dr. Graham warned, "the FDA is incapable of protecting the country against another Vioxx."

This was not just the opinion of a family physician. Dr. Graham at that time was not only a specialist in pharmacology and epidemiology, but also served as associate director for science and medicine in the FDA's Office of Drug Safety. He knew firsthand about the FDA's preference to protect the interests of the big pharmaceutical companies (which it regards as "clients") instead of protecting the people who take FDA-approved drugs.

All of the criticism levelled by Dr. Graham against the FDA can also regrettably be applied to its Canadian counterpart, Health Canada (which should more aptly be re-named Ill-Health Canada). Don't take my word for it. The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) also took Health Canada to task in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) for its continued approval of Vioxx "even though it was aware of the increased risk of cardiovascular adverse effects long before the drug was finally withdrawn from the market."

The CMAJ went on to chastise both the FDA and Health Canada for "putting their resources into assessing the alleged benefits of drugs instead of their potential harms. The current FDA/Health Canada emphasis on 'partnerships' with industry and rapid drug approval conflicts with the public's expectation that these agencies exist to protect them by confining approval of drugs to those that have been thoroughly tested."

Dr. Graham compared the magnitude of the Vioxx carnage to a comparable number of deaths from airline crashes. He estimated that it would have taken the crashes of two to four jetliners every week for five years to add up to the ghastly toll of lives racked up by Vioxx.

Dying from Red Dye

Another stark example of the political tolerance of toxic chemicals was the widespread use of Red Dye 2, an artificial colouring that was widely used in candy bars, cakes, sausages, salad dressing, lipstick, pill coatings, and numerous other products before eventually being recognized as a carcinogen.

It was then promptly banned in Europe and cited as a dangerous ingredient by the World Health Organization. But it continued to be approved for unlimited use in the U.S. and Canada for several more years. Not surprisingly, given that the corporations that made the dye and those that put it in their products wielded enough political influence to keep it on the market.

It is quite understandable, then, why most of the millions of dollars allocated to dealing with cancers and other deadly diseases is spent on "treating" the stricken victims and in costly searches for cures instead of efforts to keep people healthy. Why so little as 5 per cent of funding devoted to prevention? The answer is glaringly obvious: Because the higher the rate of illness, the higher the profits of the pharmaceutical companies and those that manufacture X-ray machines and other high-tech medical devices.

As long as cancers are profitable and health unprofitable, prevention will be neglected, confined mainly to advising patients not to smoke or get fat while they continue to be assailed by environmental toxins. A comparison of the health-care spending of its member nations by the OECD a few years ago found that Canada's spending of only a meagre 5 per cent of total health-care financial resources on prevention was one of the lowest recorded.

So the virulent and uncontrolled exposure to carcinogens now affects everyone in Canada to varying degrees and duration, but remains unexamined and ignored by our business and political leaders. Some studies, however, have been made by public non-profit agencies that have listed the number, nature, and concentration of the chemicals that now pollute our air, water, soil, and food.

Chemical toxins in our bodies

Probably the scariest study was conducted by Environmental Defence Canada, which tested the blood of 11 volunteers across the country for the presence of 88 toxic chemicals. It found that every one of these Canadians -- including the renowned wildlife artist Robert Bateman -- had dozens of these contaminants in their bodies.

However, because only 11 people were tested (such elaborate tests are quite expensive), Health Canada dismissed the results as "not statistically significant." This was the typical reaction of an agency with such a dubious record of health-care protection. The fact that the 11 volunteers varied in age, gender, location, occupation and lifestyle, and that every one of them had chemically-tainted blood was surely very significant.

As Dr. Rick Smith, former executive director of the agency, argued in responding to the test results, "The bottom line is that we are all polluted. It doesn't matter how old we are, how clean-living we are. We all carry large numbers of different pollutants inside us, and these things are accumulating inside our bodies every day."

Bateman was shocked to learn that his body was a repository of 48 toxic elements. Living as he was on British Columbia's idyllic Salt Spring Island, far from any industrial smokestacks, eating mainly organic food, and exercising regularly, his "body burden" of pollutants was still that of an average Canadian anywhere.

Toxins impossible to escape

The 88 chemicals tested for in the study included heavy metals, PCBs, pesticides, and other hormone-disrupting substances. They are so pervasive and are carried so widely by air and water and in the food we eat that, short of living in a glass bubble, it is impossible to avoid them.

However, this accumulation of toxins in our bodies, though inescapable, does not inevitably lead to cancer. A balanced and nutritious diet, ample exercise, and a strong immune system can combine to keep a person cancer-free for life. That's why millions of us are still living into our 80s and 90s. But, unfortunately, many millions more don't have a healthy lifestyle, often because they neglect self-protective measures and sometimes because they simply can't afford it.

That's why they need the help of government services to address the social and economic determinants of ill-health, such as poverty, hunger and homelessness, which weaken people's immune systems and render them more vulnerable to environmental carcinogens.     

Tragically, we have the misfortune of living in a country in which preventable cancers will not be prevented if it necessitates curbing corporate profits and achieving a more equitable distribution of wealth.

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer’s apprentice, reporter, columnist, and editor of that city’s daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.

Photo: Morgan/Flickr

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