By Heather Millar
Every day, we live in a soup of manufactured chemicals, and only a few of them have been tested for safety. Even some chemicals known to be carcinogenic somehow end up in consumer products.
I don’t want to be alarmist, but I just can’t help asking: How can this be? =
Of course, not all chemicals are bad. Some chemicals have made our lives more convenient, and our bodies more healthy. But that’s not always the case.
So shouldn’t we at least be sure that the things we put on our bodies, or use to cook our food, or to deliver baby formula, don’t contain chemicals known to cause cancer?
Just consider a few of the tidbits in recent news:
At the end of April, ABC News reported a move in Congress to require better labeling of substances used in cosmetic and beauty products. Apparently, the report said, the average woman uses 12 beauty products containing 120 chemicals daily. For men, it’s eight products and 80 chemicals.
Most of these chemicals have not been tested to see whether they cause cancer, but some have: Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, shows up in some shampoo formulations, and in the popular Brazilian blow-out process. Parabens, which can disrupt hormone cycles, are used in many deodorants. Mercury, another known carcinogen, is an ingredient in some skin lightening creams. Europe has banned 1,200 such chemicals, ABC reported; the US has banned only 10. Only 10? How can this be?
If you want to know more, check out the nonprofit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which actually maintains that the federal bill ABC covered may make things worse, not better. The Environmental Working Group maintains a database of 69,000 products and ranks their toxicity based on scientific studies.
Then, a couple days after the ABC story, Nicholas Kristof, of The New York Times, wrote a column about “endocrine disrupters.” These are chemicals that affect the “endocrine system” that governs hormones. Hormones tell our cells when to produce certain proteins and where to do so. When that system gets knocked out of kilter, it may lead to cellular chaos. This chaos may lead to reproductive problems, deformities, even cancer. Since 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency has supported the Endocrine Disrupter Research Initiative. One of that effort’s goals is to determine whether these chemicals cause cancer.
Reported increases of breast, testicular, and prostate cancer may be linked to endocrine disrupters, but we still don’t know for sure. Yet these chemicals, Kristoff writes, are found in canned food, food packaging, plastic, and in the heat-sensitive receipts that scroll out of gas pumps and ATMs.
Test your urine or your breast milk, and you’ll surely find endocrine disruptors there. A friend of mine, Florence Williams, did just that for The New York Times Magazine in 2005, and has recently written a book, Breasts, detailing how breasts mirror our industrial lives, how toxins find their way into this most personal of body parts. Again, how can this be?
Not long after Florence’s book came out, I got a press release from the Environmental Working Group saying that PFOA, a chemical used in non-stick coatings, can be found in the bodies of 99 percent of Americans. PFOA, sometimes called C-8, has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer in humans.
Again, I ask: How can this be?
Yes, things are complicated. Cancer and environmental chemistry are dizzyingly complex. No, we don’t have all the evidence. But shouldn’t we—patients and relatives of patients, doctors, and politicians—be asking questions a little more enthusiastically?
Cancer is a tragedy. It’s even more of a tragedy if we’re causing cases of cancer for the trivial convenience of an ATM receipt, a Brazilian blowout, a packaged lunch, or an omelet that doesn’t stick.