Iowa Cancer Rate—environment or lifestyle?
Why is Iowa the only state with an increasing cancer rate? Compared to other states, we have more cases of almost every cancer except lung. Other than Kentucky, we are the most cancer-riddled state in the union. I’m not an epidemiologist. I don’t have an answer. But I want to consider our situation. Someone has to.
What have we got that other states don’t have?
Is it the pesticides? There is a connection between cancer and pesticide exposure, known about for years. Pesticides are associated with higher risk of childhood cancer. The nationwide glyphosate herbicide use map is here. Most pesticide usage is in the form of herbicides. There’s a Strong link between some insecticides and aggressive prostate cancer. But not a link with prostate cancer and herbicides. You can click on this map and see the insecticide usage in Iowa get higher and higher, until the study was stopped. In case you don’t want to follow the link, the most intense region of use is NW Iowa.
Cancer is associated with animal agriculture wastes and confinement operations; possibly nitrates play a role. Here is a study correlating it. Nitrate consumption, for example in food such as corn dogs has been associated with an increased cancer risk, although exposure on the skin is not.
Where is Iowa cancer increasing the fastest? Along the Mississippi. Over in Illinois, which has a lower cancer rate than Iowa, some river counties also have high cancer rates. Not like here in Iowa, though. What do we have that they don’t?
Where are the CAFOs? You know, those animal feeding operations. Most are in NW Iowa, near Palo Alto County and vicinity. Iowa’s most cancerous county, the one with the highest cancer rate is Palo Alto Countywhich has several lakes and a grotto. Illinois’s most cancerous county, Pike County, is home to the most CAFOs in the state.
Where is the most cancer?
Illinois has around 2,00 CAFOs. Iowa, 9,000. North Carolina has around 7,000. Studies of people who live near CAFOs in Iowa and North Carolina showed an increase in lymphohematopoietic cancers (lymphoma, myeloma, and leukemia). This was distinct for people working with the animals. Leukemia rose for those working specifically with cattle. Air toxins were the suspected agents. A study from Duke University linked numerous health problems to living near CAFOs. Here is North Carolina’s cancer profile. Here are their CAFO sites. There’s some overlap but officials there suspect it is due to coal ash.
Coal ash certainly carries carcinogens such as mercury, cadmium, and arsenic. Until recently, Pella had a coal burning plant and Marion County has a higher cancer rate than neighboring counties, despite having fewer CAFOs. Coal mining is linked to numerous health problems. Here is a map of Iowa’s known coal mines. (Many have been rehabilitated.) It doesn’t match with the highest cancer counties in Iowa but I have to agree with the North Carolina speculation that coal ash a factor in a high cancer rate. But let’s get back to CAFOs.
The American Association for Public Health has called for a ban of CAFOs, citing nitrates seeping into drinking water as a major concern. Iowa is number one in poop production in the US. Thousands of cancer cases in Iowa have been linked to nitrates from animal poop. Iowa has above average toxic air pollution as well.
You can’t talk about Iowa and cancer without thinking about radon, associated with lung cancer, but not thyroid cancer (see maps and data for radon and thyroid cancer here.) Here is the first of a multi-blog story about getting radon out of my basement. Radon is a problem in Iowa but other states such as South Dakota and Nebraska have higher levels. (see map).
Arsenic is a known carcinogen and Iowa is laden with arsenic. Where is the arsenic? NE Iowa has greatest concentrations. The correlation between arsenic in drinking water and prostate cancer (which is high in Iowa) has been established. But not all states with arsenic in ground water have high cancer rates (California for example).
Is it obesity? Iowa ranks 11th in the nation for adult obesity. Get this–pesticide exposure is associated with obesity. Yes, insecticides might be making us fat. They might even be giving us brain damage. (This could explain a few things.) The most obese counties are in general along the Mississippi. Cancer rates are rising here.
Iowa isn’t the drunkest state, but it is number two in binge drinking. This could be due to the many colleges here. Alcohol use is linked with cancer, particularly breast cancer. Breast cancer is linked to pesticides, especially pesticide exposure during childhood and prenatally. You’d think all those life-is-sacred people would care more about this. Iowa’s breast cancer rate is higher than average. It is one of Iowa’s top cancers. If you aren’t sick of maps by now, here’s a map to prove it. Alcohol use combined with pesticide exposure could definitely be a factor in our breast cancer rate.
How about smoking? Iowa is not in the top ten states for smokers but above average. About 10% of smokers get lung cancer and about half of all smokers will get some sort of cancer. It’s a factor in our high cancer rate but not one that defines us over other states.
Age? Yes, our population is older and age is a risk factor for cancer. We rank 16th for percentage of residents over 65. We aren’t distinctively old.
Radioactive fallout swept over Iowa in the 1950s. This would be a factor, especially for thyroid cancer. It took until 1982 for traces of the fallout to disappear. This factor Would show up in Idaho more than Iowa. You can use this calculator to determine your elevated risk of thyroid cancer from fallout here.
Lower cancer rates are associated with a high amount of Public lands. Iowa has almost no public lands—only 2.8%. This is just an observation. With so much land privately owned, our environment is beholding to the landowners to protect it and us.
Are we Iowans too lazy to exercise? Iowa Cancer Registry Director Dr. Mary Charlton says our high cancer rate complicated but points to a lifestyle problem. Yet Iowa isn’t one of the top ten most sedentary states.
We also aren’t among the poorest states, but, unlike most, our poverty rate hasn’t decreased in recent years.This is an indication of a state government which doesn’t care to make lives better for the average citizen. And sadly, rural Iowans don’t always get the recommended cancer care.
I haven’t discussed diet yet but rest assured, Illinois eats more hotdogs than Iowans. Iowans are in the top of the states for candy consumption, coming in at number eleven. Sugar isn’t linked to cancer though. There have been few and inconclusive studies linking fast food to cancer. Iowa is #15 for fast food consumption. Pella recently was “blessed” with another fast-food restaurant, and you should see the lines at the drive up window, and the nutrient content of the food!
The bottom line is that on many levels, Iowa doesn’t look like a particularly healthy state. We have nitrates, pesticides, arsenic, fallout, radon, smoking, coal mines, obesity, and too much hog waste. Sometimes the answer is “all of the above.” I’m going to go a step further and say we’ve been trained not to worry about our health. Studies of the dangers of agricultural chemicals are not taken seriously. Any attempt to keep pollutants out of the air and water is accompanied by screams from elected officials. We quickly gave up on COVID mitigation measures. We even had office holders refuse to wear masks despite their efficacy. As for CAFOs, we’re number one and like ethanol, we’re pretty much stuck with it.
Iowa has a cancer problem and few care. We just don’t care. The story about our cancer rates hasn’t gotten much traction. Has it been in the Register? Are your friends talking about it? Have our politicians stopped bashing WOTUS and rolling it back? No. They are bitching and moaning about not being able to build on wetlands—which could remove toxins–or fighting for their rights to pour toxins into ditches that will eventually drain to the Mississippi.
And yes, our politicians want to censor information about HPV vaccines, which will prevent cancer.
We vote for these clowns and believe them. Maybe it’s a lifestyle problem after all.