Is There a Relationship Between Cancer and the Environment? / / by Marieta Garcia-Bajo

There are inexplicably high rates of esophageal cancer reported in some parts of the world, e.g. East Africa, which has baffled the medical sciences for some time. Scientists from the British Geological Survey and the International Agency for Research on Cancer are working together to see if there are any relationships between those affected by this type of cancer and the environment in which they live. Marieta Garcia-Bajo explains...

In May, I visited the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) - the specialised cancer prevention research agency of the World Health Organization (WHO) - based in the picturesque city of Lyon, France. During my week-long stay, I worked with IARC Postdoc Dan Middleton, a former BGS BUFI student and current Visiting Research Associate at the BGS Centre for Environmental Geochemistry. Our multidisciplinary collaboration shows how geosciences and cancer research converge in a way I would never have predicted.

As part of the Official Development Assistance (ODA) Environmental Geochemistry and Health project, I have been working with Dan to map around 400 cancer registries. These registries hold detailed statistical information about cancer cases worldwide. Currently, the spatial coverage of these registries is only available through descriptive text and some reference maps in the published CI5 volumes.

The Cancer Incidence volumes

Our work involves creating a GIS database with the spatial extent of each one of these 400 cancer registries.

By the end of the week, we had successfully finalised a draft compilation of all the registries extent in our GIS and now hope to use this database to investigate, in the first instance, the relationship between esophageal cancer and the ground. Possible environmental elements for investigation include soil and water chemistry, altitude and geology.

Map image of the spatial extent of the 400 registries

We hope that these efforts might yield new clues as to what causes such inexplicably high rates of this cancer in some parts of the world, for example East Africa. Furthermore, this proof of concept could pave the way for similar study designs for other cancer types. This project is a truly unique collaboration that aims to bring together expertise in geosciences and epidemiology to create resources for investigations into the causes of cancer – many of which remain elusive.

The visit also gave us the opportunity to host a joint seminar on the uses of GIS with a specific emphasis on applications for environmental health and epidemiology. The seminar was so well attended that people had to stand at the back of the room with capacity of around 80 people. It was great to see such enthusiasm for how GIS could be put to work to solve problems outside our normal geosciences remit. I hope to return to Lyon in the not-too-distant future as the project progresses. Watch this space…

Marieta and Dan at the IARC