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Readers weigh in on what may be causing a rise in cancer among younger people

According to a study by the US Geological Survey, nearly half of the tap water in the United States is contaminated with "forever chemicals" that are considered dangerous to human health. Per and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, or PFAS, are chemicals that linger in the body and are linked to health issues like cancer, obesity, liver damage, decreased fertility, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, and hormone suppression.Justin Sullivan/Getty

I was surprised that the July 23 “Young, fit, and sick” (Page A1) article about cancer striking more and more younger people didn’t mention plastics as a possible contributing factor.

Plastic production grew from none before 1950 to 50 million tons in 1970 to over 350 million tons in 2015. Therefore younger people have been exposed to plastics more than their forebears were.

Plastics from food packaging (such as plastic water bottles) leach into our food products. Less than 10 percent of plastics get recycled, so much of our plastic waste winds up in landfills (or as litter), breaking into microplastics that get into our water and eventually into the ocean.


Microplastics have been found in human breast milk, and due to the sheer quantity of microplastics in the ocean, it would be difficult to find any marine animal without plastic particles in its gut or tissues.

Plastics (styrene) are recognized as carcinogenic by the US National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency recognizes styrene as a health threat to humans.

Along with climate change, plastic pollution is a major menace to our health and safety.

Jim Whalen


A factor that the experts featured in the article “Young, fit, and sick” don’t consider is our exposure to the life-altering substances hidden in our water, air, soil, food, and in common products. Cancer patient Chris Gosline was right. “There’s something going on out there, some variable.”

We all, but especially our children, have been the hit-and-run victims of toxic chemicals such as the ubiquitous class of chemicals known as PFAS. PFAS are linked to increased risk of cancers, reduced immunity, infertility, altered metabolism, increased risk of obesity, and reduced vaccine effectiveness. Many of PFAS’ toxic effects were identified in the 1950s by the manufacturers’ own research.


And PFAS join the thousands of other unregulated or minimally regulated chemicals that threaten infants and children with an unhealthy start and an uncertain future.

In 1962, Rachel Carson warned us to stop the most dangerous type of contact — the “minute exposures, repeated over and over throughout the years.” Today, a bill in the Massachusetts Legislature, the Toxic-Free Kids Act, would require businesses to disclose the toxic chemicals in and eliminate PFAS from children’s products. It would reduce one source of toxic exposures linked to increased rates of cancers in children and young adults.

Ellie Goldberg


The article “Young, fit, and sick” shines a much-needed spotlight on a worrisome trend. Although changes in diet and lifestyle factors could be to blame, we know that widespread exposures to harmful chemicals in the environment are important contributing factors in the development of cancer.

For instance, a recent study by Silent Spring Institute and University of California Berkeley showed that people are exposed to thousands of tons of toxic chemicals from consumer products inside their homes and workplaces every year. Common products like shampoos, body lotions, cleaners, mothballs, and paint removers contain toxic volatile organic compounds — chemicals that escape as gases, accumulate in indoor air, and cause a variety of health problems including cancer.

We also know that roughly 45 percent of the nation’s tap water is contaminated with cancer-causing PFAS chemicals. These same chemicals are also widely used in everyday items including food packaging, clothing, and furnishings. If we really want to address rising incidence rates of cancer, we need to focus on reducing harmful exposures by choosing safer products and supporting policies that keep carcinogens out of products in the first place — those things are actionable.


Kristin Knox


The writer is a staff scientist at Silent Spring Institute, a nonprofit research organization focused on environmental health and breast cancer prevention.

I have only one question for the doctors interviewed: Why is there no mention of the proliferation of chemicals, hugely amplified since their parents’ day.

Research has shown that, since the early 1950s, there has been a 50-fold increase in chemicals. They might have been out there, but my socially connected family in the 1940s, ’50s, and even ‘60s knew no one with cancer.

Doctors are puzzled, I understand. But I suspect they’re not looking at the bigger picture. How can we ignore what we have done to the earth — especially, as it concerns humans, to our food supply — from its seed production to its planting and growing, and its harvesting, marketing, packaging, and transporting.

It just might be a no-brainer.

Lisa Millimet

Camden, Maine

Of the many possible explanations considered in Felice Freyer’s report on the recent increase in cancer diagnoses before age 50, a fundamental one is missing. With quotes from cancer experts, the report suggests causative changes in the usual cancer suspects, including risky behaviors, diet, lifestyle choices, predisposing health conditions, environmental exposures, and genetic predispositions.


However, it does not consider an increase in the effectiveness of cancer detection, caused by increases and improvements in cancer screening, as well as in health monitoring in general. There is an irony in this omission because the legend of the figure presented in the report states, “2020 data omitted because pandemic restrictions lowered screening and diagnosis.” In the same way, increased rates of “screening and diagnosis” in persons younger than 50 during the period of study could also contribute significantly to the observed increase in cancer rates, without much of anything else going on.

Dr. James L. Sherley


The writer is president and CEO of Asymmetrex LLC.