Experts at UN meeting urge action to combat environmental causes of cancer

18 March 2011

Medical experts attending a United Nations-convened scientific meeting today called for action to address preventable environmental and occupational causes of cancer, noting that nearly one in five of all cases of cancers are attributable to the environment, including work settings.

“Many environmental and occupational factors, including certain chemicals, radiation and airborne particles, can cause cancer,” said Maria Neira, the Director for Public Health and Environment at the UN World Health Organizations (WHO), which convened the meeting in the Spanish Principality of Asturias.

“These cancers could be prevented and reduced by changes in national and international policy to limit people’s involuntary exposure to these substances,” she added.

The cancers related to the environment, which comprise roughly 19 per cent of all cancers and cause 1.3 million deaths each year, are often the result of situations where people have limited control over the quality of air they breathe, the water they drink, and the level of chemical contamination in indoor and outdoor environments and at places of work.

In their “Asturias Pledge,” the experts urged governments to include environmental and occupational preventive measures in their national cancer control programmes, and ensure enforcement of national and international standards for environmental and occupational carcinogens.

They recommended that WHO lead a global effort in highlighting the importance of primary prevention of cancer, assess the impact of environmental and occupational interventions on primary prevention of cancer, and develop guidance for implementation of evidence-based interventions.

Civil society should raise awareness about practices and processes that increase carcinogenic risks, raise awareness, educate and advocate for funding to implement effective primary prevention of those types of cancers, the experts suggested.

Industry, for its part, should support and implement measures aimed at preventing the cancers. It should also contribute to policy development relating to the mitigation of occupational risks and workers’ exposures; eliminate or reduce exposure to known and probable carcinogens, and better inform workers on the risks they face in the workplace and protect them from carcinogens.

Reducing and eventually eliminating the exposure to environmental and occupational carcinogens is the most effective way to prevent a number of cancers, according to WHO. Stopping the use of asbestos can prevent lung cancer, mesothelioma and cancers of the larynx and ovaries, for example. Replacement of benzene with safer solvents will prevent leukaemia, the agency said.


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