President’s Cancer Panel Report focuses on environmental toxins, including arsenic, asbestos and mercury from historic mining

WASHINGTON, DC, 6 May 2010 – In a strongly worded report released Thursday, May 6, 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel addresses what has been ignored far too long:  cancer caused by toxins in our everyday environment and workplace. 

“Approximately 41 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, and about 21 percent will die from cancer,” reports the President’s Cancer Panel in Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk:  What We Can Do Now

According to the Panel, “the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated,” and “the public remains unaware of many common environmental carcinogens…and that children are far more vulnerable to environmental toxins and radiation than adults.”  The Panel charges all levels of government to work to inform the public of harmful exposures and how to prevent them, and to effectively regulate environmental pollutants.

Sierra Nevada residents need to be aware that arsenic, asbestos and mercury left over from historic mining are a serious and long neglected risk for environmental exposure.  These three known carcinogens are addressed in the Panel’s report, see excerpts below. 

Millions of pounds of mercury were brought to the Sierra to use in gold processing, and approximately 13 million pounds of it pollute our rivers and fish today.  California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) advises that some species of fish in the Sierra Nevada are so contaminated with mercury today that children and women of child bearing age should not eat any amount. 

According to the Panel’s report: 
More than 600,000 children born each year test positive for unhealthy levels of methylmercury, exposures that may put them at risk for brain damage and future learning disabilities. Methylmercury accumulates in body tissues, and while it is removed from the body naturally, it may take over a year for levels to drop significantly in people who regularly eat fish containing high levels of mercury.

Arsenic and asbestos, on the other hand, occur naturally in Sierra soils but are a much greater risk to humans since they were crushed and distributed on the surface during ore processing.  People may be exposed to arsenic and asbestos from breathing dust near abandoned mines.

According to the Panel’s report: 
Inorganic arsenic, a potent toxin, is found in bedrock at varying levels worldwide. Most inorganic arsenic in drinking water is from natural sources, but human activities such as mining, ore processing, use of arsenic-containing pesticides, and burning of fossil fuels are major contributors to waterborne arsenic in the U.S. … Inorganic arsenic in drinking water has been linked to skin, lung, bladder, and kidney cancer in both sexes and with prostate cancer in men, as well as numerous non-cancerous conditions including endocrine, reproductive, and developmental effects.

Inhalation of asbestos is the primary cause of mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the mesothelium, More than 70 percent of people with mesothelioma have a history of asbestos exposure at work. However, in industrialized nations, nearly one in three people with mesothelioma have no history of workplace exposure to asbestos.

As recommended by the Panel, more research needs to be done on exposure to environmental toxins such as arsenic, asbestos and mercury in the Sierra.  Federal, state and local governments need to work to prevent exposure.  And above all, the public needs to be aware of the dangers and how to protect themselves and their families. 

The President’s Cancer Panel concludes: “In 2009 alone, approximately 1.5 million American men, women, and children were diagnosed with cancer, and 562,000 died from the disease. With the growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures to cancer, the public is becoming increasingly aware of the unacceptable burden of cancer resulting from environmental and occupational exposures that could have been prevented through appropriate national action.”

The Sierra Fund applauds the efforts of President’s Cancer Panel to raise awareness and spur the nation to action in reducing environmental cancer risks.  Through our Mining’s Toxic Legacy Initiative, we continue to work in California to bring funding and other resources to address historic mining pollution in communities of the Sierra Nevada.