Cancer and the Environment Symposium

Photo credit (left, right): Mark Dixon/Blue Lens; center image: Scott Roller. Photo credit (left, right): Mark Dixon/Blue Lens; center image: Scott Roller.

New data, personal stories bring urgency to examining link between cancer and our environment

Capacity crowd gathers for “Cancer and the Environment Symposium”

On a frigid, pre-polar vortex day in late January, more than 150 people passed through the lush greenery of the Tropical Forest Room at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens as they made their way to the  day-long “Cancer and the Environment Symposium: Priorities for Research, Policy, and Clinical Practice.” The program was designed to inform cancer-focused researchers and groups that typically do not consider environmental carcinogens as important contributors to disease about recent cancer science, and to build relationships among scientists, health professionals and community leaders.

The University of Massachusetts, Lowell/Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, a Heinz Endowments grantee, organized the free event in conjunction with national and regional partners.

“We were registered to capacity several weeks prior to the event,” said Lowell Center’s Dr. Polly Hoppin, “and that exemplifies the intense, of-the-moment interest this topic holds for both southwestern Pennsylvania and the country.”

Students, scientists, doctors, nonprofit leaders and local parents soaked in eye-opening statistics, including Allegheny County’s ranking in the top 2 percent of all counties nationwide for cancer rates. It was personal stories, though, that most captivated those attending, including that of Dr. James Fabisiak of the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities.  

“I lost my father to cancer three years ago,” said Dr. Fabisiak, “and like any child that loses a parent, it moved me to wonder about the cause, and what could have been done differently.” As an image of his smiling father projected on two massive screens, Dr. Fabisiak said that while his dad lived “a full and long life,” his death brought lingering questions about the role environmental causes may have played.

“Singular factors that pose cancer risks, like radon, asbestos and air pollution, significantly increase the likelihood of cancer or severity of cancer when more than one of those factors is present,” said Dr. Fabisiak. The news is especially troubling for those in the Pittsburgh region regularly exposed to point source emissions, such as those coming from power plants, foundries, refineries and chemical plants. A slide in Dr. Fabisiak’s presentation highlighted this sobering fact: Among all counties in the United States, Allegheny ranks third in cancer risk from point source emissions.

That the risks of cancer from environmental factors are elevated further for people of color in the region was front and center at the symposium. “The challenges of reducing exposure and limiting risks are far greater for black, brown, and low-income and low-wealth families and communities,” said Dr. Jamil Bey, president and CEO of the UrbanKind Institute, which advances policies, practices, and programs that are kind to urban people and environments.

Traditional narratives that communities of color lack the time or resources to worry about how the environment is affecting their health or seek quality healthcare are shortsighted, Dr. Bey contended. Rather, systemic trust issues between these communities and health professionals, based on long and painful histories of betrayal, make data collection, information distribution and early detection of cancer indicators a formidable undertaking.

“How do you take [research and data] and get it into the hands of folks who can do something with it to make a difference?” Dr. Bey asked the medical professionals in the room. “What would it take to join a circle or interdisciplinary network of people that may include artists, activists, nonprofit leaders or others who can translate and activate your work for everyday folks?”

Working to help close that loop between science and the individual, Dr. Robin Dodson of the women’s health advocacy group Silent Spring insisted, “pollution is personal.” Dr. Dodson’s interest in pollution was first sparked when she was in the sixth grade and learned how chlorofluorocarbons from aerosols in deodorants and hairsprays were causing chemical changes in our atmosphere.

 “The products we use have chemicals that do not go away,” she said. “They are in our bodies, our air, water and dust.” They are largely unregulated, too, with less than 10 percent of the nearly 80,000 chemicals found in U.S. commerce examined for safety. Dr. Dodson offered hope for those who want to address the chemicals in their lives, noting that technology can help connect science to citizens. “We have launched the Detox Me app, which helps users master simple, research-based tips that can reduce their exposure to potentially harmful chemicals where they live and work.”

Dr. Shaina Stacy of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and UPMC Hillman Cancer Center brought the oft-discussed tension between a healthy environment and regional workforce development – notably regarding the fracking industry – to the forefront. Presenting research on the impact that proximity to fracking sites has on infant health outcomes, Dr. Stacy explained that data suggests there may indeed be adverse effects. The process of unconventional natural gas development, or fracking, involves pumping large amounts of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, under high pressure to fracture shale that surrounds natural gas pockets, and has long been cause for concern by environmentalists and medical professionals. Dr. Stacy’s presentation did little to quell those worries.

 “In one study, individuals ages five to 24 who were diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, were found to be 4.3 times more likely than control subjects to have lived in close proximity to an unconventional natural gas development site,” she said.

Medical professionals and community leaders were not alone in expressing their concern for the impact environmental factors – including chemicals found in fracking processes, personal care products, building and furnishing materials, and our air and water – have on our health.

 “My daughter Amy died of liver cancer,” said local resident Arlene Mercurio when she was handed the microphone during the symposium’s closing question and answer session. “She was 35 years old, and didn’t smoke or drink. She lived in New Kensington, and since her death in 2004, I’ve been involved with finding answers to the question of how elements in her environment affected her health.”

Ms. Mercurio was adamant that resources go not only to cancer care, but to prevention. “No mom should have to say goodbye to their child when we know there are things we can do to prevent it.”

 

Read further coverage of the symposium by grantee Environmental Health News here


Photos by Mark Dixon/Blue Lens in order of appearance:

Dr. Polly Hoppin, The University of Massachusetts, Lowell/Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, stressed cross-sector cooperation.

Dr. James Fabisiak of the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health shared his data and personal story.

UrbanKind Institute president and CEO Dr. Jamil Bey brought focus why risks of cancer from environmental factors are elevated further for people of color in the region.

Dr. Robin Dodson of the women’s health advocacy group Silent Spring: “Pollution is personal.”

Dr. Shaina Stacy of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and UPMC Hillman Cancer Center presented on the impact that proximity to fracking sites has on infant health outcomes.

Local resident Arlene Mercurio’s loss of daughter Amy to cancer inspired her to speak out about the importance of funding preventive research and action.