“We can’t sit back” – Amid climbing cancer rates, Iowa health officials eye farm chemicals

Faced with a startlingly high cancer rate in the key US farm state of Iowa, public health leaders are taking the politically precarious step of acknowledging that preventing disease necessitates cutting exposure to potentially cancer-causing chemicals, including those used in agriculture.

In a departure from other state cancer prevention programs, which rarely address environmental risk factors for cancer other than radon, a known cause of lung cancer, Iowa is working to better understand and make the case for limiting exposure to pesticides, commercial fertilizer, and animal manure used and generated by Iowa agriculture, among other environmental contaminants.

“These broader array of environmental risk factors are absolutely there for cancer. But they’re not paid attention to in state cancer control plans,” said Molly Jacobs, an epidemiologist at the University of Massachusetts, who is working with Iowa health authorities. “It’s quite unique that Iowa has addressed this as a priority in their plan. I applaud Iowa for taking on this task of thinking much broader and bigger, and changing this paradigm.”

The work to address environmental factors to reduce cancer cases began earlier this year and is being undertaken by the Iowa Cancer Consortium. It’s a 21-year-old, 650-member coalition of public health professionals, researchers, and health providers focused on controlling cancer. The consortium is led by Dr. Mary Charlton, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa College of Public Health who also is research director of the Iowa Cancer Registry, which collects cancer data on Iowa citizens.

The consortium has launched an Environmental Task Force and a five-year plan for cutting public exposure to “environmental carcinogens.”

Farmers, agricultural executives, and state lawmakers have spent decades resisting any changes in farm practices that reduce the use of chemicals and nutrients, saying the inputs are needed to ensure ample food production.

But public health advocates say evidence tying the farm pollutants to disease is too strong to deny.

“We can’t sit back and say, ‘Wow. Somebody may not like this.’” said Kamyar Enshayan, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa. “Knowing what we do know, it’s just prudent that we support practices and systems that require significantly less fertilizer and pesticides.”