Summarizing a 240-page report(1) in a few paragraphs isn’t possible, but one thing is clear. We simply do not know enough about the health effects of the tens of thousands of chemicals in widespread use today. Here’s why:
- Over 80,000 synthetic chemicals are approved for use in the US. Examples include pesticides, fertilizers, plastics, paints, coatings, fire retardants, and even oil dispersants (Gulf oil spill, anyone?).
- Only a few hundred of these 80,000+ chemicals have been tested for safety.
- Many chemicals in use today are known and suspected carcinogens. Carcinogen means cancer causing.
- Despite this known toxicity, the majority of chemicals remain unregulated.
- Chemicals typically are studied for safety one at a time. This tells us nothing about the damage to health that may result from exposure to multiple chemicals at once.
- Further, single chemical testing doesn’t reflect reality. All of us are exposed to dozens, and even hundreds, of chemicals at a time.
- What little regulatory oversight that does exist for these chemicals uses the framework that chemicals are safe unless proven otherwise. This is one time when “innocent until proven guilty” is not a wise approach.
- Exposure to chemicals during pregnancy and childhood is particularly damaging to health.
- Sadly, more than 300 chemicals can be found in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies. We are all “pre-contaminated.”
Simple Steps, Big Payoff
So the cat is out of the bag. We are all exposed to thousands of potentially toxic chemicals from the day we are conceived to the day we die. There is some good news in this otherwise grim picture. According to the PCP report(1), several simple, but effective steps can significantly reduce our exposure to synthetic chemicals and other environmental hazards.
- If possible, eat foods grown without fertilizers, pesticides, and growth hormones the majority of the time.
- Store drinking water in stainless steel or bisphenol-A (BPA) free containers.
- Microwave foods only in ceramic or glass containers, not plastic. Do not put very hot foods into plastic containers.
- Choose foods, home and garden products, and toys in a way that minimizes your child’s exposure to potentially toxic substances.
- Filter your drinking water. Use bottled water only if tap water is known to be contaminated with substances or microbes that cannot be filtered out.
- Avoid secondhand tobacco smoke in the home, car, restaurants, bars, stores, and other public places.
- Avoid exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals and known or suspected carcinogens when trying to get pregnant and throughout pregnancy. This includes BPA, a known endocrine disruptor.
- Properly dispose of household chemicals, paints, cleaning supplies and other materials.
- Make informed decisions about products you buy and use. Check out the Household Products Database, a service of the National Institutes of Health, and the Environmental Working Group’s Health and Toxics Database. These resources offer a wealth of information to help you make healthier choices in your every day life.
- If a job exposes you to chemicals, remove shoes before entering your house. Wash your work clothes separately from the family’s regular laundry to minimize kids’ exposure.
- Check radon levels in the home. Radon is a naturally occurring, colorless, odorless gas that can accumulate in confined spaces, such as basements. Exposure to radon is the leading cause of lung cancer-related deaths in non-smokers.
- Make sure your health care provider keeps accurate records of medical tests that may result in harmful exposures, such as radiation from x-rays or scans. If these records aren’t being kept, keep them yourself. With this information, you can make better decisions about the benefits and risks of medical tests.
- Wear a headset when using a cell phone, text instead of calling, and keep calls brief.
- Avoid ultraviolet light by using sunscreen and proper sun-protective clothing. Never use tanning beds.
Despite what seems like a slam dunk on environmental hazards and cancer, this report is not without controversy. Michael Thun, MD, a respected physician and epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society points out that there is no doubt that environmental pollution is of profound importance to human health and the health of the planet. But he fears that the report may minimize the focus on other known, modifiable causes of cancer that currently offer the best opportunity for cancer prevention.(2)
The scientific evidence most solidly supports the major causes of cancer as being tobacco use, obesity, alcohol, infections, hormones, and sunlight. According to Thun, the report implies that pollutants are the major cause of cancer, but this is far from a settled issue.(2)
Go the extra mile
The best approach is to hedge your bets in all areas of cancer prevention. It makes sense to take the precautions (detailed above) presented by the PCP. But it also makes a whole lot of sense to tackle the things we can control in our daily lives.
There is no doubt that obesity is a leading cause of cancer and other chronic diseases in this country. Make your body a priority and make sure you’re not among the two-thirds of Americans who are overweight and obese. Exercising regularly is another known cancer prevention technique, so lace up those sneakers and get moving. Always avoid tobacco in any form.
And don’t forget about food. Simply put, the right foods can be used to your advantage to “cancer-proof” your lifestyle. Plant foods are your ticket to detoxifying from a toxic lifestyle. By plant foods we meant the vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, peas, nuts and seeds that we’ve discussed so frequently in these newsletters. From the anti-cancer antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, to the nutrients known to aid with detoxification, plant foods are a must.
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