by Robert Sanders
Despite a lack of convincing evidence that pollution is an important cause of human cancer, this misconception drives government policy today and results in billions of dollars spent to clean up minuscule amounts of synthetic chemicals, say two researchers.
This is only one of many misconceptions, they say, that serve to divert money from the most important causes of cancer: smoking, poor diet, our own hormones and chronic infections.
"One of the big misconceptions is that artificial chemicals such as pesticides have a lot to do with human cancer, but that's just not true," says Bruce Ames, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and co-author of a new review of what is known about environmental pollution and cancer. "Nevertheless, it's conventional wisdom and society spends billions on this each year."
"We consume more carcinogens in one cup of coffee than we get from the pesticide residues on all the fruits and vegetables we eat in a year," he adds.
Though there may be many excellent reasons for cleaning up pollution of our air, water and soil, the researchers say, prevention of cancer is not one of them.
The message is the same one Ames and co-author Lois Swirsky Gold have hammered out for more than 15 years-that trace chemicals in the environment, such as pesticide residues on food, are not significant causes of human cancer, while the main causes are lifestyle factors.
"The problem is that lifestyle changes are tough," says Gold, director of the Carcinogenic Potency Project at Berkeley's National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences Center and a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
"But by targeting pesticide residues as a major problem, we risk making fruits and vegetables more expensive and indirectly increasing cancer risks, especially among the poor."
The review by Ames and Gold appears in the November issue of the FASEB Journal, the official publication of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.