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Elevated Cancer Rates Linked to Environmental Quality

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Smog hovers over downtown Los Angeles. Shutterstock

With the Trump administration slashing environmental regulations and House Republicans passing their controversial health care bill last week, this new study might put you on edge. Researchers have found a link between environmental quality and cancer incidence across the U.S.

"Our study is the first we are aware of to address the impact of cumulative environmental exposures on cancer incidence," said Dr. Jyotsna Jagai of the University of Illinois, who led the research team.


For the study, the researchers cross-referenced the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program's state cancer profiles with the Environmental Quality Index (EQI) and determined that the average cancer rate in roughly 2,700 counties was about 451 people in every 100,000 between 2006 and 2010.

But in counties with poor environmental quality, the researchers found a 10 percent higher incidence of cancer cases—or an average of 39 more cases per 100,000 people. The higher numbers were seen in both males and females, especially prostate and breast cancer.

The authors noted that prior studies on the environment's effect on cancer usually focus on specific environmental factors, such as air, water, land quality, sociodemographic environment and built environment.

However, the current study examines how cancer development is dependent on the totality of exposures we face, including social stressors.

"This work helps support the idea that all of the exposures we experience affect our health, and underscores the potential for social and environmental improvements to positively impact health outcomes," Dr. Jagai said.

"Therefore, we must consider the overall environment that one is exposed to in order to understand the potential risk for cancer development."

The experts warned that recent legislative proposals could jeopardize research on the links between cancer and the environment. This includes measures attempting to dismantle the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and efforts to nullify the federal collection of geospatial data, or the Local Zoning Decisions Protection Act of 2017.

"H.R.861, which was introduced on February 3, 2017, to 'terminate the Environmental Protection agency'—the source of the environmental data used in the study by Jagai [and colleagues]—will have severe repercussions on the scientific community's ability to produce this type of valuable research," Scarlett Lin Gomez, PhD, MPH, research scientist from the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, and colleagues wrote in a related editorial.

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