Can Everyday Things Cause Cancer?

Personal Health

There is something about the familiar that makes us assume it is safe. Rachel Carson observed this nearly 50 years ago in Silent Spring, when she exposed the dangers of toxins in the pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers being used to grow the food we eat. There is also something about pointing to the potential danger in familiar things that can make one come across as a kook -- paranoid, fringe, alarmist. Indeed, most of us are inclined to dismiss challenges to the familiar, especially if they are things on which we believe ourselves to be dependent, such as cell phones, cosmetics and plastic food containers. Being caught up in the moment has tremendous power to trick us in this way. That is why people throughout history have done astoundingly misguided things that, from a distance, we look back on and wonder: What were they thinking?

Yet the truth is that many of the everyday things now in our homes and workplaces are filled with chemicals that were not around as recently as the 1950s. When exposed to heat or simple wear and tear, some of these chemicals have ways of getting out of the things they are in and into us. And there are now growing suspicions about a connection between our exposure to chemicals and the rise in numerous diseases and other health-related issues. As Nicholas Kristoff recently put it in The New York Times: “Concern about toxins in the environment used to be a fringe view. But alarm has moved into the mainstream.”

The latest development is from the President’s Cancer Panel, which on May 6 released a 200-page report, entitled "Environmental Cancer Risks: What We Can Do Now" (for a summary by Reuters, go here). The report said: “With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.”

The result is “grievous harm,” indeed. In recent decades, an American woman’s risk of breast cancer and an American man’s risk of prostate cancer have risen significantly. Breast cancer rates among Gen X women, for example, are twice what they were for their mothers, as epidemiologist Devra Davis reports in The Secret History of the War on Cancer. Pancreatic cancer and bone marrow cancer, which used to affect only people in their 60s or older, is now occurring to people in their 30s and 40s. And the rates of several childhood cancers, including leukemia, kidney cancer, and brain cancer, have all grown.  In short, half a century ago, when Carson warned of the risks of toxins in the food we eat, one in four Americans was at risk of cancer. Today, that’s closer to one in two.  

At the same time, there has been an upswing in several developmental conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder. For example, once a rare occurrence, autism now affects about one in 100 children.  And while improved detection is a part of the reason, it is not the only reason, according to Dr. Catherine Rice of the CDC, who told reporters in 2009: “We know there are multiple complex genetic and environmental factors which result in multiple forms of autism, and we have much to learn about the causes.”

Medical professionals are increasingly in agreement that children are uniquely susceptible to the dangers associated with chemicals—because their bodies and brains are still developing, and they eat, drink and breathe more for their size than adults do, which means they could carry an even heavier form of what medical experts are already describing as a “quite a toxic burden.”  As the new President’s Cancer Panel report states, “[Children] are at special risk due to their smaller body mass and rapid physical development, both of which magnify their vulnerability to known or suspected carcinogens, including radiation. Numerous environmental contaminants can [even] cross the placental barrier; to a disturbing extent, babies are born 'pre-polluted.'”

A 2009 CDC study found that American adults today have an estimated 212 environmental chemicals in their body. Some of these chemicals are the kinds we can see and smell, especially driving through places like Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Birmingham, Cincinnati and Detroit, which are among the most polluted cities in America. But perhaps the most disturbing are those we cannot see, smell or taste: those that come simply in the form of products intended to provide us with conveniences, entertainment, cleanliness, and comfort -- the most ordinary of things.

Three chemicals the CDC reported to be “widespread” in us are flame retardants (used in fabrics, upholstery, foam mattresses, computers, and TVs); a plastic strengthener, known as bisphenol A, or BPA (used in baby bottles, sippy cups, juice bottles, other food and beverage containers, CDs, and DVDs); and perfluorinate chemicals (used in non-stick coatings in cookware, stain resistant carpets, and microwave popcorn bags.)  They also found evidence of pesticides, arsenic, perchlorate (used in rocket fuel), acrylamide (used in permanent press fabrics) and triclosan (used in soaps, deodorant, toothpastes, cleaning supplies, kitchen utensils, bedding, and socks.)

There is no clear consensus that these and other common chemicals can be definitively linked to the rise in breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, and numerous childhood cancers, as well as autism and other disorders. Toxicity depends upon many things, including the dose to which one is exposed and each individual’s susceptibility. But, clearly, the tide of opinion is changing. Several hundred chemicals have been identified as suspect.  And we know that while we have long been told that exposure to a chemical in small doses is not harmful to humans, the rules surely must be different when we are exposed to small doses of hundreds of chemicals over a lifetime.

In the end, at least this much is clear: In the guise of abundant convenience and material comforts, we are exposing ourselves and, more so, our children to a vast chemical brew based on a grand information vacuum. Contrary to what many people assume, after all, products that contain chemicals do not have to be proven safe before being released on the market in the United States; and chemical companies don’t even have to submit toxicity data unless government officials find the chemical poses a health risk, which they largely can’t do without access to toxicity data.

Other countries have begun to take a different approach. For example, instead of waiting for unassailable proof that a chemical harms humans before banning it, the European Union has adopted the precautionary principle. This states that if a chemical is suspected of causing harm to people or the environment, the burden of proof lies -- not with regulators deprived of inside information but -- with manufacturers to prove it is safe before millions of people can be exposed to it. As some have suggested, it’s a new version of the old idea fit for our times: First, do no harm.

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