A toxic environment for research

New US research showing cancer rates nearly 9% higher than the average in areas with polluted air, water, soil or other factors confirms the importance of a healthy environment to healthy humans. 

Gaining a clearer understanding of the health costs of environmental degradation would therefore seem like a good idea – a matter of significance not just to researchers but policy makers and legislators grappling with the burgeoning cost of health care as well as endemic budget deficits.

Yet ironically this study, credited with being the first of its kind in the US, assessing the impact of cumulative environmental exposures on cancer incidence in populations, may also be the last.

Dr Jyotsna S. Jagai, of the University of Illinois, Chicago, and colleagues derived their results by mapping county-level information from the Environmental Quality Index maintained by the US Environmental Protection Agency, against cancer statistics from the National Cancer Institute.

Access to such geospatial information would be extremely curtailed by a Republican-sponsored bill ostensibly intended to protect local zoning decisions from federal government interference.

Under the bill proposed by Representative Paul Gosar, of Arizona, and Senator Mike Lee, of Utah, no federal funding could be used to “design, build, maintain, utilise or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing”.

Such a prohibition would jeopardise the future of research projects such as that by Jagai and her colleagues, argues an editorial accompanying the results, published in the journal Cancer.

The study, using county-level environmental measures and cancer rates, is an excellent example of the value of geospatial data in cancer control research, the editorial says: “These data are fundamental to documenting which communities are most vulnerable in terms of high cancer rates, and which geographically determined factors may be driving community-level disparities.”

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there is even a bill, sponsored by Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, to “terminate the EPA”, the agency that collected the environmental data used in the study. While that bill seems unlikely to pass, the Trump administration remains hostile to much of the agency’s work.

The editorial notes the obvious consequences that a neutered EPA would have on science researchers’ ability to investigate the factors that contribute to disease in vulnerable communities: “These data are essential to cancer control and the public’s health.”

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