It’s time for leaders to address ‘the Big C’ in Iowa

Randy Evans.

No problem is so big that we can’t run from it — or at least avoid thinking about it. That’s human nature.

There are many concerns that should command our attention but do not. Too often, we hope or assume a serious problem will go away or will spare us.

In the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, too many of us discount whatever the scientists tell us — as if the anonymous pundit on social media knows more than the people who have devoted their lives to studying a particular problem.

But there is something else I have come to realize, unfortunately. Government leaders in Iowa have shown little interest in understanding “the Big C” — the widespread presence of cancer in Iowa.

Fighting cancer should not be a partisan issue. But in Iowa, it certainly appears to be. Perhaps that is because of anxiety that cancer’s devastating toll may be tied to agriculture, especially to the herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and nitrates that are common today.

Consider two national rankings our state should not celebrate:

Iowa has the fastest-growing rate of new cancer cases in the United States, according to the Iowa Cancer Registry, a research initiative at the University of Iowa. And Iowa’s overall cancer rate is second only to Kentucky’s among the 50 states.

The statistics translate into 21,000 Iowans being diagnosed with new cases of cancer this year, the researchers reported recently, and 6,100 of our friends, neighbors and relatives dying from the disease.

Experts are not ready to point their finger at one reason to blame for these worrisome rankings.

The recent Iowa Cancer Registry report took note the state has the highest rate of binge alcohol drinking in the Midwest. Twenty-two percent of Iowa residents report having engaged in binge drinking, which is defined as consuming five or more drinks on one occasion for men and four or more drinks for women. Iowa’s binge-drinking rate exceeds the national rate of 17%.

But others who study cancer rates believe another potential link to the cancer numbers — farm chemicals — is being overlooked or downplayed.

James Merchant, the former dean of the University of Iowa College of Public Health, recently told The New Lede, an online news site, “Is alcohol responsible for the increase in cancer incidence here since 2014? I personally doubt that.”

Iowa’s per-capita consumption of alcohol ranks 24th nationally, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted Iowans do not appear to be drinking more heavily now than they did years ago.

Merchant, a retired professor of occupational and environmental health, told The New Lede, “What needs to be looked at are things that are probable or possible carcinogens that have increased beginning in about 1990, because of the well-recognized latency of environmental cancers. Those carcinogens associated with industrial agriculture are the ones that really need to be looked at very closely.”

Dr. Richard Deming, a well-known Des Moines oncologist, told an audience in Cedar Rapids last fall, “If you did an aerial map of Iowa, we are — river to river, and north to south — a bath of ag chemicals: herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, nitrates.”

He added: “We’re not yet at the point where we can say what every single chemical that ultimately gets into our water supply or onto our skin causes, but when you look at the amount of ag chemicals Iowans are exposed to compared to other states, I suspect that we’ll find that might also be one of the contributing factors.”

The Cedar Rapids Gazette is publishing a series of articles that delve into Iowa’s high cancer rates and the potential causes and solutions. Maps with the articles show the distribution of various types of cancer across the state. They are eye-opening and should motivate Iowans to demand their state government, especially the Legislature, do more to understand these case numbers and better protect Iowans.

David Cwiertny, director of the UI Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, told the Gazette, “At some point, we need to move from just talking about it and wanting to study it, to saying, ‘OK, we’ve probably got enough evidence that we’re uniquely vulnerable, and we should do something about it.’ “

He told The New Lede, “We shouldn’t be so foolish as to think that the unrivaled scale of production doesn’t come with very unique consequences or challenges for our state.”

No one expects UI researchers to find cures for cancer. But lawmakers could provide money for inexpensive water filters that can remove nitrates and other chemicals from drinking water in rural homes where people have no option but to rely on private wells.

Lawmakers could toughen penalties for fouling Iowa’s water supplies with manure and chemicals. Yes, agriculture is important in Iowa, but the health and safety of Iowans is important, too.

State Sen. Janice Weiner, an Iowa City Democrat, told The New Lede, “We have a serious problem in Iowa. We owe it to Iowans not to whitewash anything — but to approach it scientifically and get to the bottom of this, wherever research and clinical tests lead us.”

Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a 43-year-old nonprofit education and advocacy organization that works for improved government transparency and citizen accountability. He can be reached at IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com.