Confusion centers on chemicals and cancer

Experts disagree on how worried people should be about exposure

May 27, 2010|By Kelly Brewington, The Baltimore Sun

After Kate Canada had her first child three years ago, phthalates was the chemical that health-conscious moms like her went out of their way to avoid. So she tossed the plastic toys and replaced them with wooden ones.

When she had a second daughter this year, BPA became the substance to fear. So she bought new baby bottles and got vigilant about stocking her pantry with all things BPA-free.

Then, a few weeks ago, she heard about an annual report from the President's Cancer Panel that, for the first time, painted a dire picture about potential cancer risks from a legion of environmental hazards. At that point, she threw up her hands.

"Parents shouldn't have to be chemists and shouldn't have to worry about every little thing," said Canada, 34, of Rodgers Forge. "It just seems to be never-ending. It's like, what's next?"

The panel's 240-page report urging more research and stronger regulations to protect the public from environmental chemicals that could cause cancer validated the work of scientists and environmental advocates who have long pressed for such safeguards. The three-member panel noted that people should limit their exposure to potential problem items such as pesticides, medical X-rays, plastic food containers and industrial chemicals. But with everything from drinking water to canned goods suspected as a threat, how should people try to limit these exposures? Or should they even bother?

Not everyone agrees that chemicals in the environment pose an urgent cancer threat. The American Cancer Society took issue with the panel's statement that environmental exposures have been "grossly underestimated," saying that the report is "unbalanced" in its implication that pollutants are a major cause of cancer. The organization feared the panel dismissed the notion that many more cancers are caused by lifestyle choices such as smoking and obesity. Cancer epidemiologists tend to agree.

"I do think we need to pay attention to environmental exposures, but compared to the very defined cancer risk factors, environmental exposures are pretty minor," said Dr. Kevin Cullen, director of the University of Maryland's Greenebaum Cancer Center. "The mistake would be to have people panic and make major changes around their lives and ignore other issues such as obesity and smoking."

Consider that smoking accounts for about 30 percent of cancer deaths, while environmental exposure might account for as little as 5 percent, he said.

But Dr. Lynn Goldman, a professor of environmental sciences at the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, says people can and should focus on major causes of cancer, as well as limit their exposures to toxic substances.

"We should look for all the ways that we can prevent cancer. To me that's the most reasonable way to go," she said. "Many health professionals underestimate the capacity that people have to have more than one idea in their brain at once. I think people are very smart. They can know that smoking causes cancer and that other things also cause cancer at the same time. I think they can handle that."

For instance, there are known carcinogens that people can avoid, she said, including radon that can seep into a home from the foundation and radiation exposure. A radon test can tell you whether your home has unsafe amounts of the gas and avoiding unnecessary medical X-rays can reduce radiation risk.

There are others: Benzene, present in gasoline and arsenic and found in some drinking water, has been linked to cancer.

But even some known carcinogens are on the market, and the public has little knowledge how to steer clear of them, Goldman said. Formaldehyde, for instance, is listed as a carcinogen according to the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer. It's used to bind fragments in making certain plywoods. But when someone buys a piece of wood, it's unlikely a label will tell the buyer if there's formaldehyde in it, and no law mandates that a company do so, Goldman said.

Consumer advocacy groups are pushing Congress to pass the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010, overhauling the Toxic Substances Control Act passed 34 years ago. The cancer panel's report notes that just hundreds of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use nationwide have been tested for safety and that many are known carcinogens on the market with no regulation.

The current laws are so ineffective that just five chemicals are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, said Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, who advises that people drink filtered water, avoid flame retardants in furniture and electronics, and eat organic produce to avoid exposure to pesticides.

While the panel's findings stressed that more research is needed to better understand the link between toxic chemicals and cancer, it also called for stronger laws and better oversight over chemicals, most of which are assumed benign.

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