Dr Manolis Kogevinas talks to us about his work in the environment and cancer research and how he isn’t out to scare people.

How often have you opened the paper and read a headline which has shocked you or made you change something in your life?

How about, mobile phones give you brain cancer, deoderants can cause breast cancer, diet coke, etc…

Dr Manolis Kogevinas, co-director and researcher at the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL) in Barcelona studies the effects the environment have in causing serious illnesses like cancer.

“There are quite a few research centres funded by the Catalan government and this is one of them (CREAL). So we are basically funded by public money and we do all our research by competitive funding from the European Union, from Spain, from the United States – we apply for grants and that is how we do the research.”

The facility has around 120 researchers working on issues such as air pollution and water contamination with programmes in child health, respiratory diseases and cancer. They publish there findings as all research centres do.

“I think it is a good thing that people are informed, I am okay with that, but you cannot always control information; Some years ago some of our research that showed that some chemical contaminants in water produced bladder cancer, which is a very common cancer. A very big newspaper put on their first page, ‘Chemicals in the water of Barcelona cause cancer.’ And, it is true, but it is discussable how you want to present these things and this caused a lot of panic and people immediately went to the shop to buy bottled water! These things happen and it is a matter of having a good system of informing people and you cannot always control it. It is not our work to cause panic but it is our work to inform.”

Barcelona has a population of around 4 million and they have only just got its pollution levels under the accepted limits by the European Union. CREAL look at peoples exposures to different environmental factors.

“The general population have very low exposures; this is the typical difference, the small population having high exposures versus everybody having low exposure. A small risk applying to everybody may produce lots of disease even though individually the risk is very very very low. If you have 4 million people living in Barcelona with low levels of air pollution, it is not like 200 people working in an aluminium production factory. A small risk multiplied by 4 million as opposed to a high risk multiplied by 200.”

Dr Kogevinas and his team have started to expand their research outwith, working outwith industrialised countries and going to places such as Africa.

“Many of the problems are global; there are many serious problems in the newly developed countries and the non developed and low income countries also. There are huge problems in East Bengal, Bangladesh, some parts of Chile, Argentina, Mongolia and Taiwan of arsenic contamination of water. It is a very sad story.”

So, there are clear studies that air pollution and water contamination can cause different types of cancers, but what myths are true and what aren’t?

“Cancer is a very common disease; it produces 20% of all deaths in our population. Both your parents could have cancer, but it doesn’t mean you will get it. It could be an environmental issue more than genes or you could live in a family who don’t eat fruit, or are very fat or don’t do exercise.

Cancer is not necessarily on the rise, it is not one disease. There are big factors, smoking is a big factor, but it is also a social factor. Lung cancer is for example going down in men because they have started stopping smoking, but in many countries it goes up in woman. There are big things that are better, we control smoking more in our countries, and occupational factors can be controlled because the more dirty industries, we send them away.

And, it is not yet clear if mobile phones can give you brain cancer and we don’t have very good experimental evidence. There is one animal experiment that found it. If you always talk in your right ear and get a tumour on your left side, then it is probably not because of your mobile phone – research shows the exposure only penetrates 2-3 cm.”

But, as Dr Kogevinas pointed out – his job as a researcher isn’t to scare people, only to inform.


Profile: Dr Manolis Kogevinas

Dr Manolis Kogevinas is a co-director and researcher at the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Barcelona. He is also a professor at the National School of Public Health in Athens. He graduated from the Medical School in Athens and then went to the University of London to do a PhD in Epidemiology. After university he worked at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organisation (WHO) for five years before moving and settling in Barcelona. He has published more than 250 scientific papers in peer reviewed journals and his research is focussed mainly around how the environment can affect our genetics.

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