Science Does Not Support
the Popular Image
of Cancer Clusters

(From a webpage at American Council of Science & Health)

New York, New York—March 2001: While years of news reports and Hollywood productions have led the public to believe that industrial pollution in the environment is causing local "cancer clusters," areas where cancer cases are thought to be more prevalent, there is no evidence of a link between so-called "clusters" and exposure to trace environmental chemicals.

These are among the conclusions of a new report, Cancer Clusters: Findings Vs. Feelings, which cites many scientifically documented instances in which chemical exposure has caused cancer in humans but notes that these have generally been occupational exposures rather than purely environmental. Contamination in the air or water supply causing cancer to develop in residents of a neighborhood, popularly thought to be a common occurrence, has rarely been documented through scientific investigation. The report was prepared by scientists at the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH).

Scientists have been able to identify cancer clusters linked to specific occupational exposures (workers in a factory developing a particular type of cancer from one of the chemicals they handle every day) or clusters linked to particular medications or behaviors such as smoking and sunbathing. But science does not support the popular image of traces of chemical contamination elevating the cancer risk of the residents of a particular area.

In addition to distinguishing between scientific and public perceptions, Cancer Clusters examines two potential clusters in Toms River, New Jersey and Long Island, New York that contain many elements typical of cancer cluster investigations and have received considerable media attention.

The report concludes, "Based on the data available today, there is no firm evidence that traces of industrial pollution diffused in the environment are causing cancer clusters. For now, however, there is a substantial gap between scientific findings on this issue and public perceptions."

Dr. Gilbert Ross, M.D., medical director of the American Council on Science and Health, comments on the report, "The common perception is that chemicals in the environment are responsible for increased cancer rates in populations exposed to pollution." He continues, "In actual fact, there is no scientific evidence to support environmental pollution as a cause of cancer; indeed, another misconception is that cancer rates are going up, and this is false. Scientists should be pursuing the real causes of cancer that can be modified, such as cigarette smoking and excess exposure to the sun."

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