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July 21, 2015
We measure what we value. In July 2015, doctors reported that brain tumours in Calgary spiked by 30% between 2012 and 2013. Is this happening across Canada? Is this the beginning of a tsunami of tumours from cell phones, from another carcinogen, or a statistical anomaly? It would be good to know.
About half of cancers can be traced to factors such as tobacco, diet and lack of exercise. What about the other half, including the increasing number of young, fit, healthy-living Canadians getting cancer?
Cancer rates vary widely between and even within provinces. Piecing together fine-grained data on cancer occurrences (incidence) and community details lends clues to cancer causes and prevention, but only a few isolated Canadian studies illustrate these possibilities.
In Ontario, the Sarnia Aamjiwnaang First Nation lives in the polluted shadow of Canada’s largest “chemical valley,” with more than 110,000 tonnes of air pollution emitted annually. Cancer rates among men living in Sarnia are 34% higher than the provincial average, with 50% more lung-cancer and 500% more mesothelioma, from asbestos.
In Southern Ontario, exposures to hormone-disrupting plastics and pesticides in manufacturing and farming have also been linked to higher rates of breast cancer, particularly among women with a multiple-year history in both occupations.
In New Brunswick, air pollution rather than smoking was found to be a primary cause of lung cancer in St. John. In Sydney, the country’s highest cancer rates were addressed with stabilization of pollutants in the Tar Ponds.
In Alberta’s industrial heartland, cancers of the blood are more common among those exposed to petrochemical refining emissions. Downstream, where bitumen emissions pollute the water and fish have tumours, aboriginal populations are reported to have high incidence of liver and other cancers.
Arsenic residues from gold mining contribute to a cancer hotspot in Yellowknife.
In 2014, British Columbia continued to experience Canada’s lowest cancer rates, although historical fine-grained federal data indicated higher incidence pockets associated with remote mines. Newfoundland rocketed from lower incidence in 2001 to higher ranks in 2014, possibly due to petrochemical industries replacing fisheries as leading employers.
Cancer is Canada’s leading cause of death, with cases projected to increase 40% by 2030, over-burdening the health care system. To learn about and act on what causes cancer, we need to know about who gets it, where and why. In a few studies, extraordinary efforts have been made by researchers to mesh rates of cancer types, and other health indicators, with exposures.
With routinely collected data much more could be done, examining industries, jobs, pollution, food availability, walkability of communities, use of wireless devices, poverty, housing, activity levels and so on.
Unfortunately the federal government is not collecting the necessary data to address environmentally-linked diseases. We monitor what we value. When will reducing cancer become as important as chicks?