Environment linked to focus on cancer in new Michigan study
By CAMERYN CASS
Capital News Service
LANSING — A new study from the University of Michigan aims to understand how environmental exposures in Michigan contribute to cancer.
The Michigan Environmental Research and Cancer Study, or MI-CAREis largely driven by Michigan’s history of toxic environmental exposures and environmental injustice, said Sara Snyder, director of the project.
The researchers are recruiting 100,000 Michiganders between the ages of 25 and 44 who are cancer-free. This is a statewide survey, but they will focus the listing on what they have identified as six major hotspots of environmental injustice: Metro Detroit, Saginaw, Lansing, Kalamazoo. , Grand Rapids and Flint, Snyder said.
Environmental injustice refers to people who belong to discriminated groups and who are disproportionately exposed to contaminants and other health risks.
June 1 marked the soft launch of the test of the website used to recruit candidates. People are signing up every day, but the full study launch is slated for this fall.
“Nothing like this has been done in the state of Michigan before, which is almost shocking if you know the levels of environmental injustice that have taken place,” said Lilah Khoja, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan on MI-CARES. crew.
“There isn’t a community in Michigan that hasn’t been touched in some way by environmental injustice,” she said.
It goes back decades: PBB contamination dairy products in the 1970s, the Flint water crisis, industrial pollution in Detroit and now PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, nicknamed “forever chemical” because they do not break down in the environment, Snyder said.
The project, funded by the National Cancer Institute and the University of Michigan, will follow participants through annual questionnaires for at least six years, Snyder said.
They will be asked about their work and residential background, race, ethnicity, major health and life events and general lifestyle to assess participants’ health and previous exposures to industrial chemicals or other contaminants, Snyder said.
Beyond cancer, the investigations could also shed light on how chemical exposures in the environment cause heart disease, asthma or even Alzheimer’s disease, said Dana Dolinoy, lead researcher. biomarker assessments for MI-CARES.
These surveys have proven their worth. For example, cancer rates are significantly higher in Flint compared to the rest of Genesee County and the state after lead contaminated the city’s water supply.
“My cousin, my aunt, my friend all died of cancer,” said Arthur Woodson, a Flint resident and community activist. “People are dying in large numbers here from cancer.”
These anecdotal reports can be bolstered by strong data produced by Genesee County Health Department health studies proving high levels of cancer in the area.
A study recently published in Open JAMA Network found that 1 in 5 Flint residents had suspected major depression and another in 4 had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“They fixed the water, but they didn’t fix the people,” Woodson said.
A big goal of MI-CARES is to give people access to data that will help them advocate for cleaner environments and healthier lives, Khoja said.
“You can’t argue for change if you don’t have the numbers to show that’s why it needs to change,” she said.
Cancer-focused studies like this one, whether related to smoking, lack of physical activity or poor diet, played a role in a 29% drop in cancer death rates between 1991 and 2017, according to the American Cancer Society.
Data from MI-CARES will help improve the health of Michiganders while informing policies aimed at reducing environmental injustices and harmful exposures, Snyder said.
Researchers looked at what was happening in the state and focused the study on the most important of 80,000 chemicals in the environment: exposure to metals, like lead, chemicals in personal care products personnel, air pollution and PFAS, Dolinoy said.
Michigan has the highest known PFAS levels of any state.
To measure certain contaminants like lead, participants in the six environmental injustice hotspots will send in blood and saliva. These measurements, called intermediate biomarkers, show whether past environmental exposure has altered the epigenome — the instruction book telling genes how to behave — to make them more susceptible to cancer and other diseases, Dolinoy said.
The study focuses on a younger population so researchers can recognize any illnesses before they manifest, Dolinoy said.
“It gives us time to step in and treat individuals, because when the disease is already on board, it’s really hard to reverse it,” she said.
There is some evidence, however, that relatively easier things like lifestyle and diet changes could reverse changes to this epigenetic instruction book, especially early in life, Dolinoy said.
The hope is to inspire political intervention with the findings of MI-CARES, forcing industry and other institutions responsible for poisoning the environment to change. This is a challenge that the health survey hopes to meet.
“It’s very difficult to translate any of this science in a way that will directly change the economics of a company,” Dolinoy said. “But studies like MI-CARES can provide the weight of evidence that shows our environment can contribute negatively to disease state.”
To apply for the survey, go to https://micares.health and click “Join the movement!” Applicants must be between the ages of 25 and 44 and free of cancer.
Cameryn Cass reports for Great Lakes Echo.