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Cancer Prevention Needs Attention Too: What if We Weren’t Exposed to 80,000 Toxic Chemicals Every Day?

Health + Wellness
Cancer Prevention Needs Attention Too: What if We Weren’t Exposed to 80,000 Toxic Chemicals Every Day?

Vice President Biden and I have something in common that I wish we did not share. We have both lost a loved one to brain cancer.

The Vice President's 46 year old son, Beau Biden, died from the disease earlier this year.

Fifteen years ago, I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area, enjoying a blissful summer-long reunion with a dear college friend from the Midwest. Her joyful revelry in discovering San Francisco as an outgoing young, butch, queer woman, was occasionally interrupted by severe headaches. We were all shocked when she was diagnosed with brain cancer at the end of the summer. She died 20 months later, five days shy of her 29th birthday. I was heartbroken and still, so many years later, still sometimes lose my breath at the realization that she is no longer here.

My fabulous friend Danielle Drumke was the first person in my inner circle to die of cancer. I wish I could say that she was the last.

As the first meeting of the government's new “moonshot" initiative on cancer convened today, headed up by Vice President Biden, I'm reflecting on what could come of this initiative—and what's missing from its framework.

According to the National Cancer Institute, nearly 1.7 million people in the U.S. are diagnosed with cancer each year. Approximately 600,000 people die of cancer. It's estimated that one in two men and one in three women will experience cancer in their lifetimes.

Though there have been a handful of dramatic advances for some cancers in recent years, many other cancers lag behind with few treatment options. In the more than 40 years since President Richard Nixon launched the War on Cancer, cancer treatments have moved beyond radical surgeries and mega-dose chemotherapies to include new, less-damaging chemotherapy regimens and also new targeted therapies for some cancers.

Unfortunately, many of these systemic treatments are highly toxic, taking both an immediate and all too often a long-term toll on the health and well-being of cancer patients. Anyone who has experienced or supported a loved one through common treatments for cancer is familiar with the terrible physical effects. Some of these—such as mouth sores and diarrhea—people experience while in treatment, and others—like heart disease—they may not experience until years later.

The millions of cancer patients undergoing treatment desperately need more effective, less toxic and less costly treatments. And my sincere hope is that we will see major advancements, especially for the most lethal cancers, with new treatments which extend and improve overall survival and do not come at the cost of serious, even life-threatening, side effects or bankruptcy.

I wish there had been this option for my friend Danielle, and for my loved ones who have been diagnosed with cancer in the years since she died.

Like so many people diagnosed with cancer, Danielle couldn't help but ask “Why?" Why her? Why did a healthy young woman develop brain cancer in her 20s?

No one knows.

Most brain tumors are unexplained, although age is thought to be a risk factor for cancer in general. Exposure to radiation is one of the only known risk factors for brain tumors, although, like many cancers, some chemicals have been linked to increased risk of brain cancer.

What we do know is that the overall incidence of cancer has been increasing in recent decades. And there is a compelling—and growing—body of evidence linking this troubling trend to toxic chemicals in our daily environments: carcinogens in our air and water, hormone disruptors in our food packaging and personal care products.

There are more than 80,000 chemicals in commercial use. Chemicals in products we all use every day. Chemicals to which we are all exposed throughout the course of our lives—no matter how much we may told to try to shop our way out of it.

The legislation “regulating" chemicals is the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA). I put the word regulating in quotes because when it was passed in 1976, TSCA exempted about 60,000 chemicals from testing for safety. And in the 40 years since TSCA was passed, only 200 chemicals have been tested for human safety. Out of these, only five chemicals have ever been restricted due to their harmful impact on human health.

The conclusion is not that we have about 80,000 harmless chemicals on the market; the shameful truth is that our regulators and legislators have been asleep at the wheel while we've all been exposed to countless toxic chemicals linked to cancer and other health problems.

Even those chemicals which are widely recognized to be harmful to human health have proven extremely hard to limit. To put things in perspective, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tried to use TSCA to restrict asbestos 20 years ago and failed. It hasn't tried since. And the law has never been updated since its passage in 1976.

The prevalence of chemical exposures and the gaps in our regulatory system cannot be ignored in the context of rising cancer rates more broadly. The same chemicals that can increase the risk of cancer are also thought to be linked to other diseases and health disorders: fertility issues, autism, diabetes, even obesity.

Not so many years before President Obama announced the Precision Medicine Initiative at the 2015 State of the Union, and the “Moonshot" Initiative in his 2016 State of the Union, the President's cancer panel released a report in 2010 pointing to the role of environmental exposures to chemicals in a range of cancers. The report was an urgent call to action: “The panel was particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated."

We have come a long way in our understanding of the links between environmental toxins and human health harms in the 50 years since Rachel Carson sounded the alarm on DDT; role of everyday chemicals in increasing the risk of cancer has become widely recognized. If we want to truly end the epidemic of cancer that we're seeing, we need much better treatments, but we also need more than that. We need aggressive, public-health centered action on the toxic chemicals we're all exposed to that increase our risk of cancer. Without emphasizing prevention in addition to cures, no “moonshot" initiative to end cancer's death toll will succeed.

In announcing that he is putting Vice President Biden in charge of the new “moonshot" initiative, President Obama poignantly said: “For the loved ones we've all lost, for the family we can still save, let's make America the country that cures cancer once and for all."

While there is no question that we desperately need new, safe, effective and affordable treatments for many cancers, there is another equally important path we must also pursue: preventing cancer in the first place.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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