Does Pollution Cause Cancer?

Human knowledge evolves over time. And the law follows in its wake. We often believe, erroneously, that we know how the world works. Any hindsight will show us that such belief is wrong.

The ancient Egyptians practiced medicine and devoted a lot of effort toward understanding disease. They came up with cures that they thought were sound. For example, if a person had a burn, the Egyptians had a cure: take breast milk from a woman who had borne a male child, mix it with gum and ram's hair and apply it to the burn while chanting special words. For indigestion, they prescribed crushing a hog's tooth, putting it inside four sugar cakes and eating one cake a day. Do we still believe that is good medicine?

Modern history isn't much better. Fifty years ago, smoking cigarettes was not only socially acceptable, it was encouraged. Magazine ads said: more doctors recommend this brand for its smooth taste. Advertisements showed pictures of doctors smoking with a big smiles on their faces. That wasn't long ago.

The reality is, we often know something about our physical world — but not everything. Even today, this is true when it comes to cancer. Despite the prevalence of cancer, we are still terribly ignorant about its causes and development.

Cancer affects one out of every two men who reach 70 years old and one out of every three women who reach 70 years old. And, obviously, it kills many people before they reach 70.

Does this have anything to do with environmental law? Yes, quite a bit. When people get hurt or sick in our society, they often look around for someone to blame. The search for a litigation defendant is commonplace. It arises in this context as in other areas of law. The difference here is, the limits to our knowledge about cancer restrict our ability to sue other people for causing it.

One of the features of industrial society is the creation of environmental contamination. We make pollution. To heat our homes and travel in cars, we use petroleum; to manufacture products, we generate solid and hazardous wastes; to dry-clean our clothes, we use dangerous chemicals. We soil our environment in order to enjoy the benefits of modern industrial society.

Reasonable people can debate whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, but we have to realize that it exists. Poking our heads in the sand is dangerous, especially when the sand is full of toxic chemicals.

There are over 700 Superfund sites in New York State and half of them are on Long Island. There are also thousands of oil-spills known to have occurred in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. There is contamination throughout our environment. We breathe in pollutants; we ingest pollutants; we touch pollutants. Whether we are aware of it or not, our bodies are exposed to pollutants every day in multiple ways. We only start to worry about it when we or someone we care about gets sick.

Why doesn't the average citizen know more about contamination and the risks it poses? Because it doesn't serve anyone's interest to inform them about it – and it creates problems that the two interested parties would rather avoid. The companies that pollute do not want the public to know about what they do, for obvious reason. It surprises people to learn that our government also doesn't want the public to focus on environmental contamination. When the public learns anything about pollution in their drinking water, their air or their homes, they immediately panic and pressure government officials. That response is not welcomed by people who work in government. Government officials prefer a calm, ignorant public to an informed, agitated one.

Anyone who practices environmental law has seen this. When someone reports an oil-spill near their home, the government seems more concerned about preventing public panic than cleaning up the mess. Reassurances are given, even in the absence of information. "Your drinking water is safe," people are told. "The air is fine," people are told. Rarely are samples taken and tested, and even when they are, the results are almost never given to the public. Again, people can disagree on whether this is good or bad, but it happens routinely.

Despite efforts to keep a lid on information, people do see the consequences of pollution in increased occurrence of cancer. From that, it is not hard to deduce that there are some causes of it out there.

This observation used to be made anecdotally. Now, it is being shown statistically. New studies are documenting a greater incidence of cancer in parts of Long Island than is normal.

A major, important study was conducted last year and was published in August. The study confirmed the existence of cancer clusters on Long Island. A "cluster" is more cancer in an area than is normal, to the degree that it cannot be attributed to random chance. Something is causing cancer to residents in a cluster.

The study examined the occurrence of cancer in Nassau, Suffolk and Queens. Nine areas were found to have greatly elevated rates of cancer. The study created geographical maps showing where the clusters are.

The study compared these findings to the presence of known contaminants in the areas. The study found a strong correlation between high levels of airborne contamination and increased lung cancer rates. Places with little air contamination had little lung cancer; places with more air contamination had more lung cancer victims.

The study also tried to correlate breast and colon cancer to environmental contamination but couldn't find a statistical relation. Some places had more breast and colon cancer than is normal, but couldn't be tied to any known contamination. This is likely due to incomplete knowledge about the presence of contamination in our neighborhoods.

This study is available for review and downloading on the Internet.

While we now know that there is more cancer in our neighborhoods than there should be, we do not know exactly what is causing it. Studies of statistical data have not been able to pinpoint the causes for the statistical abnormalities. And the truth is, that question is far more complicated than our current science can figure out. The biggest problem is that none of us live in a bubble where only one thing is affecting our health. We are affected every day by multiple forms of contamination, in varying degrees and our susceptibility to cancer differs among us. It is not scientifically possible today to isolate out a single cause of breast cancer and say, "Aha! This is what gave it to me!".

There is hope for the future, however. When we look back at the medicine of the ancient Egyptians, we think, "Gee, that's so primitive." In 50 years, Americans will look back at our ignorance about environmental contamination and say, "Wow, how could they have been so unaware?"

The fields of science that are working on this now, and will probably yield insight in the near future, are cellular biology, genetics and computing.

Where does this leave us with the law? Well, if you survey the cases involving claims of cancer and contamination, you'll see that the news is not good for cancer-victims.

The critical legal element in these cases is causation. The defense always contests it and usually successfully. To prove that a single factor caused cancer in someone is hard for numerous reasons. First, that factor wasn't the only thing a plaintiff was exposed to during his life. Did he smoke? Was he exposed to chemicals at work? Does he stick his hands in pans of chemicals in the photography darkroom in his basement? Has he eaten non-organic food? The list of possible causes is endless and trying to exclude other potential causes is like trying to prove a negative.

Another problem with these cases is expert testimony. It is hard to find a doctor who is knowledgeable about the science of this area and, even if you find one who is, that's often not enough. The scientific basis of expert testimony must itself be proven, and not merely an expert's belief or faith in his opinion. The current state of science on this topic is conflicted and there are studies going both ways.

We started out by observing that law follows the evolution of human knowledge. Before we can turn to the law for remedies, we need to advance our scientific understanding of how contamination causes cancer and other diseases. It is an extraordinarily complicated question. We are on the way to that knowledge, but we are not there yet.


Copyright © 2003 Ralph Hummel. Web design by Gravitate Design Studio.