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Researchers Urge Cancer Treatment Centers to Stop Fueling Climate Change

the Caribbean coastline of Grand Cayman being battered by a hurricane

Climate change can make extreme weather events such as hurricanes and wildfires more frequent and unpredictable, and can result in more severe consequences. It can also affect both cancer risk and survival, as these weather events can expose people to carcinogens and make it hard or impossible for people to get cancer care.   

Take, for example, two recent events. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey flooded chemical plants and oil refineries in Houston, resulting in the release of cancer-causing substances like into the nearby environment. Dioxin is a byproduct of certain industrial practices, such as the making of some herbicides and bleaching paper. That contamination may last more than 50 years.

Another example is wildfires like the ones in California, which have grown larger and more frequent thanks to climate change. Wildfires release vast amounts of pollution into the air – “particulate matter” – that is known to cause cancer, traveling great distances and harming air quality for months.

In a recent commentary in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, two American Cancer Society researchers and one from Boston Children’s hospital noted these developments and suggested that everyone who cares about eliminating cancer can take action to combat climate change and reduce their use of fossil fuels, which can help prevent cancer and improve cancer outcomes. The researchers also suggested that cancer treatment centers make disaster preparedness plans a bigger priority. CA is the flagship publication of the American Cancer Society (ACS).

How Weather Events from Climate Change Affect Cancer Care

Extreme weather events threaten the labs and clinics dedicated to cancer care and can disrupt transportation, communication, and power systems. Those outages can make it hard for patients to get to care and for healthcare centers to deliver it. Both can worsen a cancer patient’s prognosis.

In fact, one study showed that people with locally advanced non-small cell lung cancer were more likely to die if their radiation therapy was interrupted by hurricanes.

To improve disaster response planning, the study authors recommended that accreditation requirements for cancer care programs include compliance with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Emergency Preparedness Rule.

“Every action cancer centers take to be prepared for natural disasters and to reduce climate change can help limit the devastating effects extreme weather events can have on cancer patients and help limit everyone’s exposure to cancer risk factors,”  said Leticia Nogueira, PhD, MPH, an ACS senior principal scientist in health services research.

How Cancer Centers Can Fight Global Warming

“All cancer care providers and others involved in the fight against cancer have compelling reasons to be actively engaged in the development of new climate policies and safeguarding existing laws, such as the Clean Air Act,” said Nogueira.

The study’s researchers also urged cancer treatment facilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and carcinogenic air pollution by:

  • Reducing effects of cancer care on the environment. This may involve improving the energy efficiency of buildings and operating rooms, optimizing the ventilation in operating rooms, and acquiring more energy-efficient CT and MRI machines.
  • Serving food that offers double health benefits. Cancer centers can support food services that emphasize plant-based foods over animal-based ones. That decision may improve the health of the centers’ staff, patients, and visitors, while at the same time improving health of the environment because plant-based foods tend to cause fewer adverse environmental effects. Centers can also seek and select food vendors who use low-carbon footprint options to make food, ship it, and handle waste.
  • Decreasing transportation required for cancer care. Cancer centers can rely more on telehealth for some visits and identify strategies that minimize the number of visits required for radiation or other treatments. Another way to improve the health of the environment and cancer centers’ staff and visitors is for cancer providers to encourage everyone who’s able to shift from driving to taking public transportation, walking, or cycling to cancer centers. 

The authors noted that some may believe it’s beyond the scope of the nation’s cancer treatment centers to take such actions. But the continued reliance on fossil fuels pushes cancer centers further from their goal to eradicate cancer. 

To learn more about climate change and cancer, listen to this podcast.