The report from the President’s Cancer Panel made headlines when it was released last week, mainly for calling attention to environmental risks associated with cancer and for calling out the government’s inadequacies in dealing with these risks.  Not surprisingly, it was contested, not only by industries alluded to in the report as culprits of the risks, but also by the American Cancer Society.  On the other side, proponents of organic agriculture heralded it as an endorsement from the highest level of government.

Controversy aside, the report represents a remarkable change in the way government-appointed health officials are willing to address issues of the public well-being.  The tea industry should take note, because we trade a product that is subject to some of the report’s recommendations.  Following are a few observations on aspects of the report that I think deserve your attention.

First, in case you missed it, a little background: The President’s Cancer Panel consists of two people appointed by President George W. Bush – Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., a medical doctor who teaches in the College of Medicine at Howard University, and Dr. Margaret L. Kripke, a professor in the Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas.  The panel is charged with producing a yearly report on the country’s progress for the National Cancer Institute in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

It is difficult to summarize the 240-page report, but the cover letter to President Obama captures the essence of the findings: that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated” and that the country should do more to “remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity and devastate American lives.”

The tea industry has an ongoing obsession with scientific studies, particularly those that demonstrate tea’s potential health benefits.  That is why this passage on research from the report caught my eye:

Research on environmental causes of cancer has been limited by low priority and inadequate funding.  As a result, the cadre of environmental oncologists is relatively small, and both the consequences of cumulative lifetime exposure to known carcinogens and the interaction of specific environmental contaminants remain largely unstudied.

The implied advice is to direct more resources toward research into environmental causes of cancer.  A question to ask is whether this shift could affect the large number of resources now directed to studies of the preventive effects of antioxidants.

The section of the report titled “Environmental Exposure Measurement, Methodologic Assessment and Classification Issues” further calls on the scientific community to provide regulatory agencies with better means for measuring the harmful effects of environmental risks, not just alone, but in combination.  It adds that current methods “fail to accurately represent the nature of human exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.”

This opens the door to a larger conversation about the applicability of research to real human situations.  As the Los Angeles Times noted in its coverage of the report, “one of the major things to come out of this report will be an improvement of consumer awareness.”

What would the possible effects be on the tea industry of a public that is more conversant in the language of scientific study?  Consider the relatively high number of bisphenol (BPA)-free products being introduced at this year’s World Tea Expo.  Is that not at least partially the result of the public’s awareness of the body of research available on BPA?  What’s next?

Then there’s the report’s section on “Regulation of Environmental Contaminants.”  The panel describes relevant U.S. regulations as “weak” and “ineffective” due to insufficient resources, poor enforcement, excess complexity and “undue industry influence.”

One obvious connection to the tea industry here is through regulation of pesticides, which is covered in detail in the section titled “Exposure to Contaminants from Agricultural Sources.”  Consider the following excerpt:

Pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides) approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contain nearly 900 active ingredients, many of which are toxic.  Many of the solvents, fillers, and chemicals listed as inert ingredients on pesticide labels also are toxic, but are not required to be tested for their potential to cause chronic diseases such as cancer.  In addition to pesticides, agricultural fertilizers and veterinary pharmaceuticals are major contributors to water pollution, both directly and as a result of chemical processes that form toxic by-products when these substances enter the water supply.  Farmers and their families, including migrant workers, are at highest risk from agricultural exposures.  Because agricultural chemicals often are applied as mixtures, it has been difficult to clearly distinguish cancer risks associated with individual agents.

With a government-appointed panel making such pointed public remarks about current agricultural practices, it behooves the tea industry to open a dialog about its own practices.  As public awareness of contaminants and their effects grows, tea businesspeople increasingly look to their industry leaders and thinkers for accurate information they can use to educate consumers.  Who will provide that information?

Overall, I believe the report is one indication of a potential paradigm shift.  Among the people I know, none would be shocked to learn that we’re “bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures” (as the panel’s letter to the president states).  What seems new to me is the willingness of government to call industry to the carpet for its share of responsibility in the problem.

If and when the tea industry gets called, how will we respond?

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