Thursday, February 3, 2011

World Cancer Day: are we heading toward an American standard of cancer?

Treatment is improving, as is diagnosis. But it increasingly seems that humans--and the pollutants we manufacture, eat and breathe--are responsible for most cancer.

I think about cancer a lot. A good friend of mine in Pune has been battling it for the past 6 months.  Two of my grandparents and an aunt died of it. My mother and another aunt are cancer survivors. So are two of my closest friends from university and the daughter of another. So is the wife of one of my regular auto rickshaw drivers...the list goes on--and some nights it keeps me up worrying. The good news is that treatment of most forms of cancer is much more effective than it was even a decade or two ago. The bad news is that cancer seems to be getting more common than it was.

Tomorrow, February 4, is World Cancer Day.  This year, we are supposed to teach young people to avoid overexposure to the sun. That's a good idea.

But let's not forget that skin cancer is on the rise due to human causes: the sun is more dangerous than it once was due to the fact that humans have punched a hole in the ozone layer.

Pollution isn't just ugly; it makes us sick!
Other forms of cancer also have human causes. We all know that tobacco causes lung and mouth cancer. But our modern urban lifestyle is dangerous in other ways as well. Diet, pollution, environmental poisons all contribute to cancer. In fact, new evidence suggests that cancer may be almost entirely a human-made disease. British scientists studying ancient human remains have concluded that cancer was probably extremely rare in the ancient world.  That, my friends, is really an astounding revelation, if it turns out to be true.

In fact, even in the modern world, evidence seems to suggest that the more 'developed' we get, the more cancer we get. According to a study in the International Journal of Epidemiology, white Americans get more cancer than Indians who live in India. Diagnosis may have something to do with this, but other factors, such as diet and environmental pollutants, seem to be more important. (Indians who live abroad tend to have higher rates than Indians that live in India--in time, they may attain an overseas standard of cancer as well).

In most parts of the world, including India, cancer is more common in urban areas than it is in rural areas. Urban Indians may attain an American standard of cancer if something isn't done soon. 

What can we do? In the long run, we may need to learn how to live more simply: if we buy less stuff we don't need, there will be less poison in our rivers and air. We can start by making companies and consumers pay the full cost of the stuff they consume. (Bhagwad has an interesting discussion of this here.) For example, the full cost of the computer I am typing this on should probably include some sort of tax (either indirect or direct) to pay for the health affects of the pollution required to make it.  

Read this book.
In the short run, you should wash your fruits and vegetables thoroughly. A lot of heavy metals and pesticides can be washed away with water! Sure it's better to buy organic. But even organic food picks up a lot of poison in the transportation process--so wash.  There are many other ways you can reduce your exposure to toxics.  For ideas, read our review of Our Toxic World, by Toxic Link. Then go out and borrow or buy the book. That's as good a place to start as any.


For related posts, go see our toxics and trash page.


  1. Its the high time to rethink the model of development which is cancerous in nature.
    The whole southern belt of Punjab is dying all because of cancer which has "green revolution" & thermal power plant in its background.
    Hope people, state wake up to alarm bell.

  2. This is true. Too often we overlook the price of 'progress.'


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