Ever wonder why you buy those organic foods that cost more? It’s always a bit of sticker shock when you see the organic and conventional side by side. The organic strawberries may taste better, but this economy means we have to pinch every penny. As my husband says, an apple is an apple, so why pay more for one when you can get the other cheaper? It’s not going to do anything to me – at least not today.
Turns out you might want to re-think those – and lots of other – choices you make every day. The President’s Cancer Panel issued a 240-page report in May, 2010, called “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now”. This year’s report is the first time the panel has emphasized the environmental causes of cancer. It warns of “grievous harm” from chemicals and other hazards, and “a growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures to cancer.” Children are especially vulnerable.
The report is based on testimony from a series of meetings held between September 08 and January 09 which included 45 invited experts from academia, government, industry, the environmental and cancer advocacy communities, and the public. The report urged President Obama to “use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.” Because industrial chemicals are so ubiquitous and exposure to these potential environmental carcinogens so widespread, “the Panel was particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated,”
The report said previous estimates that environmental pollutants and occupational exposures cause 6% of all cancers are low and “woefully out of date.” In fact, the National Institutes of Health estimates that environmental factors contribute to 75-80% of all cancers: from tobacco smoke, ultraviolet light, radiation, obesity and certain viruses and sexually-transmitted diseases – in addition to environmental carcinogens. One excerpt reads, “With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market. … many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are. … largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.”
The President’s Panel report clearly states that much work has to be done to better characterize environmental determinants of cancer—including better research methods, standardized measurements, and more realistic models that can help estimate the cumulative risks associated with multiple environmental toxins. But scientists have been scrambling for decades for scarce funding – and the work was given a low priority. The fundamental problem is that research into environmental causes of cancer has little potential for yielding profits—at least in the short-term. In fact, it is more likely to cost industry through stronger regulation and removal of products from the market, litigation and the added expense of developing new products based on “green chemistry.” So it’s not a stretch to understand why the government and the pharmaceutical industry would rather spend billions of dollars promoting screening and developing profitable new cancer drugs. Peter Montague, a long-time environmental advocate puts it this way: “To be blunt about it, there’s no money in prevention, and once you’ve got cancer you’ll pay anything to try to stay alive.”
Environmental toxins are rarely considered in health policy initiatives (except for tobacco and sunlight), despite the findings that people who live in polluted areas and work with toxic substances (most often the poor and minorities) have higher rates of cancer incidence. The Cancer Panel pointed out “Cancer Alley“, the stretch along the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, as an example. Louisiana ranked second in the nation for on-site toxic releases, and many studies exist which demonstrate the cancer rate is above the average for the rest of the United States. In one small Louisiana town in Cancer Alley, 3 cases of rhabdomyosarcoma were reported in a 14 month period. Rhabdomyosarcoma is an extremely rare and devastating childhood cancer, with a national average of one child in a million. Five years ago a group of residents of Mossville, Louisiana, filed a human rights complaint against the US government, alleging it was not protecting their right to live in a healthy environment. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights agreed this year to hear their complaint.
In a consensus statement, the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, an international partnership of some 3,000 individuals and organizations, says that the net result of this inadequate funding is a body of research that is in danger of being irrelevant:
“The methods that have been used to attribute cancer risk to environmental exposures are outdated and flawed, and should no longer be used to determine policy or set research priorities.”
So it’s not just organic foods that we should be concerned about, but the whole phalanx of products which are made using harmful chemistry, and the manufacturers that don’t capture emissions or treat their waste products, thereby polluting our entire ecosystem. That’s why O Ecotextiles has made a commitment to sell only fabrics which are safe for both you and the Earth.
I found it interesting that there is a new branch of science that is also studying how these environmental factors can influence us. Called epigenetics, it is the study of changes in gene activity that don’t involve changes to the genetic code but still get passed down to at least one successive generation. These patterns of gene expression are governed by the cellular material — the epigenome — that sits on top of the genome, just outside it (hence the prefix epi-, which means above). It is these epigenetic “marks” that tell your genes to switch on or off, to speak loudly or whisper. It is through epigenetic marks that environmental factors like diet, stress and prenatal nutrition can make an imprint on genes that is passed from one generation to the next.
One could think of the genome as a book of blueprints, laying out a number of options in the form of genes. The epigenome is like the contractor who goes through the book, deciding which options to include in a house. Two different contractors can build radically different houses from the same book of blueprints, in the same way that two organisms with identical DNA can look very different.
This field of study, some believe, might hold the key to understanding how environmental toxins cause serious, and often life-threatening diseases, such as obesity, diabetes and cancer. For quite some time scientists have been trying to determine how exposure to environmental toxins can result in serious disease years or even decades later. Epigenetics may provide the mechanism. An exposure to an environmental toxin at one point in a person’s life (and most critically during gestation) can trigger the epigenome to turn on or turn off a key gene. Years later, because of that epigenetic change, a disease may appear.
“We can no longer argue whether genes or environment has a greater impact on our health and development, because both are inextricably linked,” said Randy Jirtle, Ph.D., a genetics researcher in Duke’s Department of Radiation Oncology. “Each nutrient, each interaction, each experience can manifest itself through biochemical changes that ultimately dictate gene expression, whether at birth or 40 years down the road.”
Exposures to pesticides, toxins and synthetic compounds can give rise to a host of diseases – such as cancer and asthma — whose prevalence has soared in recent decades, says H. Kim Lyerly, M.D., director of the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center. Pesticides encountered in utero might be dormant in the fetus, only to cause cancer ten, 20 or 50 years later, he said.
Even the lowest detectable limits of a chemical can have dire effects on a living organism, added William Schlesinger, Ph.D., Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke. Atrizine is a prime example. Less than one part per billion of this widely used corn herbicide de-masculinizes developing frogs or causes dual male-female genitalia. Yet often the Environmental Protection Agency’s instrumentation doesn’t record such minute levels of chemical exposure, he said.
What does the Cancer Panel suggest we do in the meantime? Here is their list, with a few of additions of our own:
- Remove your shoes before entering your home to avoid tracking in toxic chemicals such as pesticides.
- Filter tap water.
- Use stainless steel, glass or BPA-free plastic water bottles.
- Microwave in ceramic or glass instead of plastic containers.
- Become aware of what you’re eating: minimize consumption of food grown with pesticides, and meat raised with antibiotics and growth hormone.
- Minimize consumption of processed, charred or well-done meats, which contain carcinogenic heterocyclic amines and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.
- Reduce radiation from X-rays and other medical sources.
- Be aware of the products you use, especially those that come in contact with your skin, such as: lotions, cosmetics, wipes, sheets, clothing, hair dyes. Check ingredient labels, look for third party certifications where appropriate.
- And finally: use sunscreen, stop smoking and lose weight if necessary.