Panel Sounds Alarm on Environmental Cancer Risks

The risk of getting cancer is often linked to our genetics and choices like smoking, but Thursday a presidential panel said it's time to take a hard look at the environment for potentially cancer-causing chemicals in our daily lives, like the water we drink and the household products we use.

Like many Americans, Gail McDonnell worries environmental factors like cell phones may one day cause cancer in her children, reports CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook.

"They see - and I'm as guilty as anyone - all we moms on the phone, on the blackberry, and they start to mimic it," says McDonnell.

Thursday's report says more research should address fears like hers. The authors say environmental causes of cancer have been grossly underestimated.

"We think environmental factors are causing cancer," says Dr. Lasalle Leffall of the President's cancer panel.

The presidential panel notes more than 80,000 chemicals are used in the United States and only a few hundred have been tested for safety.

"Most Americans all across the United States have close to 200 synthetic chemicals in their body," says Dr. Philip Landrigan from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

The report says so far there is no conclusive evidence that some chemicals found in everyday products cause cancer. However, it recommends certain lifestyle changes. For example, even with no proof cell phones cause brain cancer, the group advises limiting their use or wearing a headset.

Other recommendations include:

  • Avoid microwaving with plastic containers; use ceramic or glass instead;

  • Filter home tap water to remove possible toxins;

  • Check home levels of Radon, a naturally occurring gas that causes an estimated 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year.
  • "Maybe the research at the end of the day will tell us there's nothing to worry about," says McDonnell. "But in the interim I want to be proactive."

    The report's authors are not trying to scare people. Their point is that even though the impact of things like chemicals and cell phone waves are hard to evaluate, we've got to evaluate them.

    • Jonathan LaPook

      Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook