By Cameryn Cass
A new University of Michigan study aims to understand how environmental exposure contributes to cancer.
The Michigan Cancer and Environmental Research Study, or MI-CARES, is largely motivated by Michigan’s history of toxic environmental exposure and environmental injustice, said Sara Snyder, the project leader.
Researchers are recruiting 100,000 ethnically diverse, cancer-free Michiganders ages 25 to 44. It’s a statewide survey, but they will focus on enrollment, which they have identified as six major environmental injustice hotspots: the Detroit metro area, Saginaw, Lansing, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Flint, Snyder said.
Environmental injustice refers to people belonging to discriminated groups who are disproportionately exposed to pollutants and other health hazards.
June 1st marked the soft launch to test the website used to recruit candidates. People are enrolling every day, but full study launch is planned for sometime this fall.
“Nothing like this has ever been done in the state of Michigan, which is almost shocking when you know the scale of environmental injustice,” said Lilah Khoja, a graduate student at the University of Michigan of MI-CARES’ team.
“There is not a community in Michigan that is not affected in some way by environmental injustice,” she said.
It goes back decades: the PBB contamination of dairy products in the 1970s, the Flint water crisis, industrial pollution in Detroit, and now PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyls, nicknamed “Forever Chemicals” because they don’t settle in the environment dismantle, said Snyder.
The project, funded by the National Cancer Institute and the University of Michigan, will track participants for at least six years through annual questionnaires, Snyder said.
They’ll be asked about employment and housing histories, race, ethnicity, major health and life events, and general lifestyle to assess participants’ health and past exposures to industrial chemicals or other pollutants, Snyder said.
Beyond cancer, the surveys could also shed light on how exposure to chemicals in the environment causes heart disease, asthma or even Alzheimer’s disease, said Dana Dolinoy, principal investigator of the biomarker assessments for MI-CARES.
Such surveys have proven their worth. For example, cancer rates in Flint are significantly higher compared to the rest of Genesee County and the state after lead contaminated the city’s water supply.
“My cousin, my aunt, my boyfriend all died of cancer,” said Arthur Woodson, a Flint resident and community activist. “People are dying of cancer here in large numbers.”
Such anecdotal reports can be corroborated by hard data emerging from Genesee County Health Department health studies showing increased cancer rates in the area.
A recent study published in the JAMA Network Open found that 1 in 5 Flint residents have presumed major depression and another 1 in 4 have presumed 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 a cleaner environment and healthier lives, Khoja said.
“You can’t advocate for change unless you have the numbers to show that’s why they need to change,” she said.
Cancer-centric studies like these, whether linked to smoking, physical inactivity, or poor diet, contributed to a 29% reduction in cancer mortality between 1991 and 2017, according to the American Cancer Society.
MI-CARES data will help improve the health of Michiganians while informing policymakers to reduce environmental injustices and harmful exposures, Snyder said.
The researchers looked at what was happening in the state and narrowed the study’s focus to the most important of the 80,000 chemicals in the environment: exposure to metals like lead, noise, chemicals in personal care products, air pollution and PFAS, Dolinoy said.
Michigan has the highest known PFAS levels of any state.
To measure some pollutants like lead, participants from 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 that tells genes how to behave — to make them more susceptible to cancer and other diseases, Dolinoy said.
The study is focusing on a younger population so researchers can spot diseases before they manifest themselves, Dolinoy said.
“This gives us time to step in and treat individuals because when the disease is already on board it’s really difficult to reverse,” she said.
However, there is evidence that relatively simple things like lifestyle and dietary changes could reverse changes to this epigenetic textbook, particularly at a young age, Dolinoy said.
The hope is to use MI-CARES findings to spur policy interventions and force change on industry and other institutions responsible for polluting the environment. The health survey aims to meet this challenge.
“It’s very difficult to translate some of this scientific knowledge in a way that directly changes a company’s economics,” Dolinoy said. “But studies like MI-CARES can provide a wealth of evidence showing that our environment can negatively contribute to disease status.”
To apply to take the survey, visit https://micares.health and click Join the Movement! Applicants must be between the ages of 25 and 44 and cancer free.