President’s Panel Offers Ways to Avoid Environmental Cancers

by Melodie on May 19, 2010

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A flurry of media reports recently focused on a paper released by the President’s Cancer Panel, “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk.” The panel’s strongly-worded warnings call on the U.S. government, industry and us as individuals to take note of the myriad preventable dangers within our environment and take action to reduce them.

The cancer panel consists of medical experts who report directly to the U.S. president on the topic. For this particular report, the panel interviewed 45 experts in academia, government, industry, environmental and cancer advocacy communities and the public. Their over-arching concern was that the “true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.” For example, nearly 80,000 chemicals are available in the United States, many of which are used in Americans’ daily lives. Yet only a few hundred of these have been tested for safety.

Other developed countries have banned many of the substances currently approved for use in the United States as research cast suspicion on them. But in the U.S., the accepted approach has been reactionary rather than precautionary. “That is, instead of taking preventive action when uncertainty exists about the potential harm a chemical or other environmental contaminant may cause, a hazard must be incontrovertibly demonstrated before action to ameliorate it is initiated,” said the report. The public bears the burden in proving that a specific chemical, device or practice is a health hazard.

In addition to chemicals, the cancer panel also examined the risks of exposure to substances generated by our modern lifestyles and military, medical, agricultural, industrial and natural sources. The report recommends increased research, public education, policy development and government oversight to protect the public from cancer-causing substances.

This report reinforces what health and environmental advocates have been saying for years, ever since Rachel Carson issued the first widespread warning about the dangers of DDT and other synthetic chemical pesticides nearly 50 years ago in her book, “Silent Spring.” Yet for 10 more years, DDT remained on the market. During that time, it affected me directly and perhaps you too. As a child, my head was sprinkled periodically with DDT powder to kill lice during school outbreaks. 

Many other chemicals deemed “safe” continued in wide use. In the 1970s and 1980s, my grandmother sprayed her house with Dursban to rid it of cats’ fleas; it wasn’t banned for household use until 2000. In the 1990s, my and thousands of other babies drank from BPA-containing bottles, and you can still buy products with BPA today. Now, having previously considered it safe, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration is opening a new review of triclosan, the antibacterial chemical that is in hundreds of every-day products from cutting boards to liquid hand soap to sneakers’ footbeds. Yet the review will take at least a year, while products containing it continue to be sold. Despite warnings, it has taken years to address the health risks of these and many more substances.

We cannot wait on government and industry to act to reduce our exposure to hazardous substances. The President’s Cancer Panel recognized this reality and included recommendations for individuals to decrease their exposure:

1. Remove shoes before entering the home to avoid tracking in contaminants.
2. Wash work clothes separately from other clothing.
3. Filter home tap or well water for drinking; this is preferable to commercial bottled water.
4. Store and carry water in stainless steel, glass or BPA- and phthalate-free containers.
5. Microwave food in ceramic or glass containers, not plastic.
6. Choose food grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers, and wash conventionally grown produce before eating.
7. Eat free-range meats when possible, and minimize consumption of processed, charred or well-done meats.
8. Consult sources such as the Household Products Database to make informed decisions about products to buy and use.
9. Properly dispose of pharmaceuticals, household chemicals, and other hazardous materials.
10. Choose products made with non-toxic substances or environmentally friendly chemicals.
11. Reduce or cease landscaping pesticide and fertilizer use.
12. Turn off lights and electrical devices when not in use to reduce exposure to by-products.
13. Drive a fuel-efficient car; walk, bike or use public transportation when possible.
14. Reduce or eliminate exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke.
15. Wear a headset when using a cell phone, text instead of calling, and keep calls on cell phones brief.
16. Periodically check home radon levels.
17. Discuss with health-care providers whether medical tests involving radiation exposure are necessary.
18. Create a record of all imaging or nuclear medicine tests received and estimated radiation received for each test.
19. Wear protective clothing and sunscreens when outdoors and avoid exposure when sun is most intense.
20. Become an active voice in your community, and with policy makers, manufacturers and trade groups.

These recommendations may seem daunting. I’d encourage you to choose one or two to start putting into practice. As you learn more about protecting your body and take actions to do so, you’ll find the motivation and desire to continue to protect your health from environmental threats – one step at a time.

What one step will you begin today to protect your health from environmental cancer risks?

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Laurie May 19, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Have you read recent news articles on new evidence that high pesticide levels are strongly associated with dramatically increased risks of ADHD in children? Interesting that I haven’t seen anything about the President’s Cancer Panel in the media.

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