Raise awareness of environmental health issues in order to better protect our children and future generations.

13 April 2016

Interview with Dominique Belpomme, Oncologist: "70% to 90% of Cancers Linked to the Environment"

View of Mt. Blanc from the heights of the city of Lyon.
Photo:  Konrad K./ Spia
Dominique Belpomme, cancérologue : “70% to 90% of Cancers Thought to be Linked to the Environment”
Interview by Weronika Zarachowicz, telerama.fr, 6 April 2016
(translated from French - see translator's note at end of article)

Cancer, obesity, allergies, behavioral disorders... The increase in these maladies is to a great extent  due to the degradation of our environment, warns the oncologist, Dominique Belpomme.  Staggering, frightening, however possibly reversible.

What is the share of environmental factors in the continued increase in cancer? What is the role of ecology in contemporary medicine? For over ten years, the oncologist Dominique Belpomme, former member of the "Cancer Committee" of public assistance, and now director of ECERI (European Cancer and Environment Research Institute) in Brussels, makes us aware of the links between health and environment. In his new book, published 6 April, How Diseases Are Born (Comment naissent les maladies, ed. Les liens qui libèrent), he broadens even more the scope of his research and calls for a profound change in our health system (and thinking!) . For now, he says, there is no doubt about the environmental causes of most modern diseases, be it cancer, obesity, allergies, behavioral disorders or emerging diseases such as electrohypersensitivity ...

A WHO report published in March estimated that 12.6 million deaths were due to air, water, and soil  pollution as well as chemical substances and climate change. Today, are we measuring the role of the environment in contemporary diseases?

WHO published a report attributing 10% of cancer mortality to air pollution. They are on the track of air pollution, as well as of nosocomial pollution (where microbial factors, developed in health facilities, are the origin of pathologies). But once again, WHO lags behind, as these generalities were known for over a decade. It is also necessary to specify details. 

How does this affect human beings, pathology by pathology? The responses reflect a new approach to medicine, supported by the new environmental paradigm. I first took cancer as a model [see the Paris Appeal, "historic Declaration on diseases due to chemical pollution", presented on 7 May 2004 at UNESCO and Curing or protecting against cancer, (Guérir du cancer ou s'en protéger), Dominique Belpomme, ed. Fayard, 2005, Ed] to explain that, contrary to the conventional view, the origin of cancers is not merely due to a change in risk factors related to lifestyle, aging, or even to medical progress through screening. It is a case of not seeing the forest for the trees!

If in the next twenty years, it is expected that there will be 22 million cancer cases a year, it is predominantly due to environmental degradation. Smoking is certainly a risk factor, but the real causes are carcinogenic substances found in tobacco tars and smoke. Our estimate has also been confirmed in the revue Nature: 70 to 90% of cancers are related to the environment. 

We are dealing with a pathology that involves three types of agents, physical, biological and chemical (including, in particular, pesticides):  a classification that we find for most diseases, including for Alzheimer's, which is not a disease of old age  contrary to what is said, but for which there is the same model as for cancer, with intervention of these different agents.

Yet the role of the environment remains very controversial, including cancer ...

The problem is that we rank 14th in the world of research and that we are virtually non-existent internationally, with due respect to my fellow oncologists who continue to deny the role of environmental pollution in the genesis of cancers, and therefore, the responsibility of society in this regard! We analyzed more than 3,000 scientific papers, only ten are French ...

 We face two levels of delay in France, starting with the medical and scientific bodies: our main institutional officials, notably at INSERM and the Institut de Veille Sanitaire, do not read international publications and thus remain frozen in the old paradigm. But the delay is accentuated by the fact that our policies are built on  their decisions, and their views, on the opinions and recommendations of these officials. Hence, preventive measures, which are limited to the fight against smoking and alcoholism - indeed essential - and against obesity through physical exercise, and finally, to better screening.  From cancer plan to cancer plan, a better future is predicted, while far from receding, the scourge persists and even grows. In fact, virtually nothing is done about the harmful effect of pesticides and endocrine disruptors, air pollution from fine particles emitted by diesel, or the potentially carcinogenic effects of electromagnetic fields.

Why ?

The reasons for this delay, which concerns not just France, have nothing to do with science.  Recognition of a causal link comes back to questioning the very functioning of our society and the existence of financial or economic interests that are adverse to the preservation of health and the Hippocratic tradition. This is challenging a number of human activities since pollution is mainly due to polluting industries. Hence, lobbies which are still resisting decisions that should be taken.

But awareness is advancing. The French Medical Board, the Academy of Sciences, particularly under the action of its permanent secretary, Jean-François Bach, are moving forward. Convincing the scientific community is the first necessary step before policies follow. Look at Pasteur! It took twenty years for his famous germ theory (it is the microbes that create infections) to be heard by the medical corps and policy. Today we have the pathophysiological explanation of these diseases, mainly due to epigenetic revolution, but we do not have twenty years ahead of us.

What is this revolution?

Until now, diseases were conceived as a result of genetic abnormalities, DNA representing a kind of book of life, where everything is registered, including pathologies. With epigenetics, as defined by the English biologist Conrad Waddington in 1939, we realize that gene expression, that is to say, how proteins are synthesized, will be modified by environmental factors ( chemical, physical or microbial) processes in which cells create inflammatory factors. And it is a paradigm shift.

Today, scientists are virtually certain that there is heredity without genes, that is to say, an epigenetic inheritance: the abnormalities of gene expression induced by environmental factors are passed from generation to generation. Hence the concept, "transgenerational diseases" is particularly well established in the case of endocrine disruptors and can, for a number of them, manifest to the fourth generation!

You address in your book the issue of electromagnetic sensitivity, which is not officially recognized as a disease and is also controversial. One has the impression of participating in a war between pro and anti-wave ...

The essence of scientific research is to question, to doubt. The problem is that the current situation does not allow methodical scientific doubt. We are in a polemical debate, fueled by operators who create confusion in order to defend their economic and financial territory, with the help of some scientists in their pay. This type of debate should take place precisely in our scientific institutions! But at the Academy of Medicine, Professor André Aurengo who deals with these issues has never seen a patient in his life, while I have the world's largest series of EHS subjects seen in consultation, more than 1,500 cases analyzed clinically with biological tests ...

In the Middle Ages, lepers were isolated. Today we confine the patients of emerging pathologies to a form of social ghetto without recognizing them or coming to their rescue, which is ethically contrary to the Hippocratic message and morally unworthy of our societies!

And today, the debate on electromagnetic fields can only be carried out at the international level, because France is absent from research in this area;  no French team is capable of aligning the published scientific data. We are forced to seek European researchers, including in Sweden, Austria and Germany, or North American.

Yet in the United States, the operators are also very powerful!

Certainly, but there is a power of scientific research that does not exist in France, with internationally recognized revues to publish the work, and more scientists. It remains a fight of David against Goliath, given the importance of economic interests. And there is of course the formatting of consumers, especially young people, who use sensitive technologies without regulation. So it bears repeating: using a mobile phone more than twenty minutes a day before the age of 20 increases the risk five-fold of having a brain tumor on the side of the skull where the device is used ; there is also the risk of becoming electrosensitive.

Including using headsets, as recommended?

The speaker is the best solution because headsets can act as an antenna if one allows the wire to dangle in front of one - the wire must clinch. But make no mistake, it is not a question of removing the mobile phone.  That would be impossible. We need regulations to prohibit, for example, unauthorized installations of antennas near primary schools or hospitals.  The Abeille legislation concerning protective measures vis-à-vis electromagnetic fields, is moving in that direction.

You recommend not living in large cities or in industrial areas. But over 30% of the world population lives in large cities of over one million inhabitants. The feeling is of being trapped ...

The problem is there. Numerous teams are working on the link between change in our environment and pathologies, such as those of Ana Soto and Carlos Sonnenheim in Boston, in the field of endocrine disruptors, and those of epidemiologists Richard Clapp, also in Boston, and Lennart Hardell in Sweden, in pesticides and electromagnetic fields. But despite cries of alarm, policies are slow to develop. Look at the work of the biologist Barbara Demeneix at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, on the links between the ultra-rapid increase in the frequency of neurobehavioral disorders (including autism, hyperactivity, attention disorders ...) and exposure to certain diffuse chemical pollutions. And it is only the emerging tip of erosion of cognitive abilities of new generations, as a result of exposure to heavy metals, synthetic chemicals (Losing our minds. How Environmental Pollution Impairs Human Intelligence and Mental Health, ed.Oxford University Press, the French translation is forthcoming). This is not gray literature as they say. For now, no one cares, but there will one day be a price to pay.

So what do we do ? There is first, individual attitude: when a ship is sinking, try to get out as best one can, and children first! Anyone can change a number of behaviors, lifestyles. Whenever possible, eat organic, ensure that your teen-aged child does not sleep with their cell phone under the pillow, or never uses their mobile phone in the car or train because the intensity of the electromagnetic field is multiplied ...

But what about health policy?

The fight continues to convince the medical and scientific bodies, and policy. We have even less choice that the scientific data are essential.  Read the programs of candidates for the upcoming presidential elections, none speaks of health! The issue remains totally hidden ... And yet, it is a policy of environmental prevention that must be put in place.

You define yourself as an environmentalist doctor?

My master is still Hippocrates, who was the first environmentalist doctor, with his famous treatise on water, air and places, which recognizes that diseases depend on the environment in which people live. The second figure whom I worship is Pasteur, who was a chemist, but who contributed to medicine more than any doctor.  For him, unlike Claude Bernard whom I also admire, diseases come from the external environment since they are caused by the pathogens in it, and also depend on the terrain, that is to say, resilience of the organism once it is contaminated. Bruno Latour has also beautifully evoked the environmentalism of Pasteur by questioning the role of medical ecology "what mysterious ecology connects the fate of infectious diseases to that of industrial societies and what biology could be cultivated enough to use the laws of that ecology? "[In the preface of a book by René Dubos, Louis Pasteur, Free Lance of Science, ed.Discovery 1995, Ed]. [Translator's note:  we could not find an English translation of this quote, « quelle mystérieuse écologie relie le destin des maladies infectieuses à celui des sociétés industrielles et quelle biologie serait assez cultivée pour tirer les lois de cette écologie-là ? »]

Should not this ecology become the foundation of medicine? I have four consultations in environmental medicine per week, with a book filled with a whole year of appointments for patients awaiting a clinical examination. I am convinced that this new discipline, environmental medicine, a predictive and preventive medicine (unlike contemporary medicine, which treats pathological effects, i.e. when cell damage is already detectable) that I practice and teach, and has supporters in the United States and Germany, will expand.

Translator's note (Editor of "Towards Better Health"): from Google translation, where mostly grammatical errors have been corrected.

Original article in French:

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