Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that environmental factors could be playing a role in the increasing number of prostate cancer cases in the U.S. and elsewhere? -- Joshua Gordon, New York, NY
Prostate cancer is a growing problem for men in the U.S. as well as in other developed nations around the world. Some 40,000 American men lose their battle with prostate cancer every year—the only cancer more deadly for U.S. men is skin cancer. Age is the primary “risk factor” for developing prostate cancer. One out of every six American men over the age of 40 will develop prostate cancer, while four out of five over 80 years old will get it. Of course, genes also play a big role. The American Cancer Society reports that a man’s prostate cancer risk doubles if his father or brother has suffered from the disease. Researchers believe a genetic predisposition accounts for as many as 10 percent of all cases of the disease in the U.S.
Beyond age and genetics, though, environmental factors do likely play a role. WebMD reports, for instance, that prostate cancer occurs about 60 percent more often in African American men than in white American men, and when diagnosed is more likely to be advanced. But interestingly enough, prostate cancer rates for African men living in their native countries are much lower. When native Africans immigrate to the U.S., however, prostate cancer rates increase sharply. According to WebMD, the reason for these differences are not fully understood, but an environmental connection—possibly related to high-fat diets, less exposure to the sun, exposure to heavy metals, infectious agents, or smoking—might be to blame. Some new research suggests that a switch to a diet high in fat could be a significant contributing factor in these cases. “The disease is much more common in countries where meat and dairy products are dietary staples,” adds WebMD.
"Prostate cancer occurs about 60 percent
The take-away for men concerned about prostate health is to eat healthier. Several studies suggest that a diet high in lycopene (an antioxidant found in high levels in tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon and some other fruits and veggies) could lower an individual’s risk of developing prostate cancer significantly.
Researchers have also found links between other environmental factors and prostate cancer. Dr. Matthew Schmitz, a prostate cancer specialist at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital and the prostate cancer “guide” at About.com, reports that exposure to high levels of cadmium (a naturally occurring element used in industrial processes and present in cigarette smoke) as well as dioxins (chemicals widely used in herbicides and other applications) have been linked to increased prostate cancer risk. Other researchers have noticed that men who take calcium supplements and multi-vitamins regularly may be at higher risk. Schmitz says that more research is needed to learn how risky such exposures really are.
For those who do get prostate cancer, some promising new treatments will be undergoing clinical trials soon. Dr. Marianne Sadar of the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver, Canada, has used an experimental drug adapted from sea sponges to shrink cancer tumors in mice. It will be a year before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration permits trials of the new drug on humans, but prostate patients and their doctors are holding out hope that this and other new treatments can obviate the need for many surgeries.
Dear EarthTalk: Given the environmental and economic benefits, why doesn’t the U.S. have a federal law mandating recycling nationwide? -- N. Koslowsky, Pompano Beach, FL
|"Just a few decades ago, Americans recycled less than
10 percent of their solid waste. Today, Americans
recycle some 32 percent of the 350 million tons of
refuse they generate annually. Some 42 states now
have their own recycling or waste diversion goals, and
18 are trying to divert upwards of half their waste via
recycling or composting." Credit this image to "Tom
Magliery, courtesy Flickr."
The U.S. government has historically relied on state and local governments to handle waste management in all of its forms, including recycling. Although there have been a few attempts to push legislation through Congress to mandate minimum national recycling rates, none have made it out of committee hearings. Federal lawmakers are loathe to take waste management regulatory powers away from individual states which have vastly different needs from one another. For instance, less populous western states with lots of extra land for siting landfills might not be as inclined to push for higher recycling rates as those crowded eastern states with less room to store their trash.
According to Chaz Miller, Director of State Programs at the National Solid Wastes Management Association, America’s very first federal solid waste law, 1965’s Solid Waste Disposal Act—itself an amendment to the original Clean Air Act—didn’t even mention recycling. “Eleven years later, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which remains the cornerstone of federal solid waste and recycling legislation,” reports Miller. RCRA abolished open dumps and required the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create guidelines for solid waste disposal and regulations for hazardous waste management, but had little to say about recycling except to call for an increase in federal purchases of products made with recycled content. The EPA also published manuals and workshops on implementing curbside recycling programs, although funding for such programs dried up by 1981.
Nevertheless, the seed had taken root. Pioneering programs in Massachusetts and elsewhere led to the development of curbside recycling programs in more than 600 municipalities throughout the U.S.—mostly in the Northeast and on the West Coast—by the mid-1980s. In addition, 10 states introduced “bottle bill” laws to encourage recycling of beer and soft drink containers. Two states, Rhode Island and New Jersey, both being small, densely populated and short on landfill space, implemented comprehensive approaches to recycling. They began requiring local jurisdictions to pick-up residents’ and businesses’ paper, metal and glass, and helped towns and cities set-up systems for pick-up, sorting and materials recovery. Most of the 8,600-plus municipal recycling programs in existence today are modeled on these early efforts.
Just a few decades ago, Americans recycled less than 10 percent of their solid waste. Multi-material and curbside collection programs were non-existent, paper was only collected sporadically when a local scout troop or similar group organized a paper drive, and family-owned scrap dealers would occasionally buy paper and metal scrap based on limited market demand for additional raw materials.
Today, the EPA estimates that Americans recycle some 32 percent of the 350 million tons of refuse they generate annually. While it still has no federal platform for doing so, the EPA, through its Resource Conservation Challenge program, is pushing for Americans to up that rate. Forty-two states now have their own recycling or waste diversion goals, and 18 are trying to divert upwards of half their waste via recycling or composting.