Biden’s war on cancer should begin with banning chemicals

The next phase of the Cancer Moonshot, initiated by President Joe Biden in 2022, aims to cut the cancer death rate in half within 25 years.

There’s a lot worth celebrating in this new plan, including the fact that it is more committed to cancer prevention than previous versions that overemphasized early detection. Those tests are important, but they are tools for treating people who already have cancer, not a way of keeping them from getting cancer in the first place.


The new plan also supports the use of vaccines that can help prevent cancer and recognizes the role of environmental risk factors. This shift deserves to be applauded — it demonstrates an important acknowledgment of untapped potential to stop cancer before it begins.

But there’s a clear path to cancer prevention that the plan hardly mentions: reducing the amount of cancer-causing chemicals that are present in nearly every facet of our everyday lives.

Dozens of unregulated or under-regulated carcinogens in tap water, including hexavalent chromium (made famous by Erin Brockovich), nitrate and chloroform cause an estimated 100,000 lifetime cancer cases nationwide. Carcinogens in our food include glyphosate, PFAS, titanium dioxide and many additives that are banned in other parts of the world, but are still allowed in products sold in the United States.

Our homes, offices, daycares and schools are built using carcinogens like formaldehyde, polybrominated diphenyl ethers and polyvinyl chloride. Many affordable shampoos, lotions, makeup and household cleaning products available to Americans contain chemicals that raise our cancer risk. This list may seem overwhelming, but it represents a tiny fraction of the myriad carcinogens we encounter every day.

Many people assume the chemicals in our consumer products are strictly regulated, but the truth is that less than 1% have been tested for safety. Among those that have been tested, those found to be harmful are generally still on our shelves: More than 100 manufactured chemicals have been found to cause cancer in humans, but in the last 50 years, only five chemicals have been removed from U.S. markets because they’re harmful.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. Safer alternatives to these chemicals exist, and numerous nonprofits have spent decades advocating around this issue and have put forth comprehensive policy briefs.

Our existing chemical regulations — or lack thereof — represent a vast, untapped potential for cancer prevention, and Biden could effectively mobilize the numerous federal agencies needed to address the scale of this crisis.

Biden’s plan will be a powerful tool when it comes to treating Americans who already have the disease. But it will only be truly revolutionary if it also includes specific, concrete plans to protect us from the chemicals giving us cancer in the first place.

Kristina Marusic is an award-winning journalist at Environmental Health Sciences who covers environmental health and justice at and She is the author of The New War on Cancer: The Unlikely Heroes Revolutionizing Prevention.