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Not long ago, tobacco smoke was everywhere, our understanding of the dangers of smoking was limited, and smoking was even encouraged. Today, thanks to tobacco prevention and control programs, lung cancer incidence rates have gone down as a result of fewer people smoking.  We can further lower rates of  these and other cancers by reducing our exposure to toxic chemicals in our daily lives and by reducing the cumulative impact of multiple exposures over our lifetime. 

Hazardous chemicals are ubiquitous in our homes, schools, workplaces, and in the air, water, food, and the products we use every day. Many of us assume that environmental and chemical safety laws exist to protect us from these harmful substances. Unfortunately, that is not the case. There are thousands of chemicals on the market, the vast majority of which have never been tested for safety.1Gross L., Birnbaum L.S. (2017). Regulating toxic chemicals for public and environmental health. PLoS Biol, 15(12), e2004814. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2004814 Many of them are carcinogens or have been linked with cancer.

Chemicals and Cancer

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has identified hundreds of chemicals that contribute to cancer, and the list is growing.

For breast cancer alone, more than 200 chemicals have been associated with mammary gland tumors in animal studies2Brody, J. G., Moysich, K. B., Humblet, O., Attfield, K. R., Beehler, G. P., & Rudel, R. A. (2007). Environmental pollutants and breast cancer: epidemiologic studies. Cancer, 109(12 Suppl), 2667–2711. https://doi.org/10.1002/cncr.22655 and about half of these are chemicals that women are routinely exposed to in their everyday lives.3Rudel, R. A., Ackerman, J. M., Attfield, K. R., & Brody, J. G. (2014). New Exposure Biomarkers as Tools for Breast Cancer Epidemiology, Biomonitoring, and Prevention: A Systematic Approach Based on Animal Evidence. Environmental health perspectives, 122(9), 881-895. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1307455

Air pollutants has been shown to increase the risk of lung, bladder, liver, breast and other tumor types.4Vermeulen, R., Silverman, D. T., Garshick, E., Vlaanderen, J., Portengen, L., & Steenland, K. (2014). Exposure-response estimates for diesel engine exhaust and lung cancer mortality based on data from three occupational cohorts. Environmental health perspectives, 122(2), 172–177. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1306880.5IARC. (2015). Outdoor air pollution. In IARC monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans 109. Lyon: International Agency for Research on Cancer.6Boothe, V. L., Boehmer, T. K., Wendel, A. M., & Yip, F. Y. (2014). Residential traffic exposure and childhood leukemia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. American journal of preventive medicine, 46(4), 413–422.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2013.11.004.7NTP (National Toxicology Program). (2021). Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons: 15 Listings. In Report on Carcinogens, Fifteenth Edition. Research Triangle Park, NC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service. https://doi.org/10.22427/NTP-OTHER-1003

Chemicals, including the now-familiar PFAS used in a variety of products, including non-stick cookware, stain-resistant, waterproof fabrics, and food packaging have been associated with testicular and kidney cancers.8C8 Science Panel. (2020). C8 Probable Link Reports. http://www.c8sciencepanel.org/prob_link.html9Barry, V., Winquist, A., & Steenland, K. (2013). Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) exposures and incident cancers among adults living near a chemical plant. Environmental health perspectives, 121(11-12), 1313–1318. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1306615

Organic solvents such as benzene are potent carcinogens, causing leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.10Lynge, E., Anttila, A., & Hemminki, K. (1997). Organic solvents and cancer. Cancer causes & control : CCC, 8(3), 406–419. https://doi.org/10.1023/a:101846140612011IARC. (2018). Benzene. In IARC Monographs 120. Lyon: International Agency for Research on Cancer. https://monographs.iarc.who.int/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/mono100F-24.pdf

The use of pesticides in agriculture, on playing fields at school, and at home in the yard, has been associated with an increased risk of childhood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma.12Turner, M. C., Wigle, D. T., & Krewski, D. (2010). Residential pesticides and childhood leukemia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Environmental health perspectives, 118(1), 33–41. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.090096613Chen, M., Chang, C. H., Tao, L., & Lu, C. (2015). Residential Exposure to Pesticide During Childhood and Childhood Cancers: A Meta-Analysis. Pediatrics, 136(4), 719–729. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2015-0006

Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen, yet companies continue to use it in building materials, textile finishes, nail polishes, and even hair products.14Pierce, J. S., Abelmann, A., Spicer, L. J., Adams, R. E., Glynn, M. E., Neier, K., Finley, B. L., & Gaffney, S. H. (2011). Characterization of formaldehyde exposure resulting from the use of four professional hair straightening products. Journal of occupational and environmental hygiene, 8(11), 686–699. https://doi.org/10.1080/15459624.2011.62625915National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2014). Review of the Formaldehyde Assessment. In the National Toxicology Program 12th Report on Carcinogens. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/18948

Widely-used flame retardants in consumer products have been linked with cancer, as well as hormone disruption, and neurotoxicity.16Dodson, R. E., Perovich, L. J., Covaci, A., Van den Eede, N., Ionas, A. C., Dirtu, A. C.,  . . .  Rudel, R. A. (2012). After the PBDE Phase-Out: A Broad Suite of Flame Retardants in Repeat House Dust Samples from California. Environmental Science & Technology, 46(24), 13056-13066. https://doi.org/10.1021/es303879n17Eskenazi, B., Chevrier, J., Rauch, S. A., Kogut, K., Harley, K. G., Johnson, C., . . . Bradman, A. (2013). In Utero and Childhood Polybrominated Diphenyl Ether (PBDE) Exposures and Neurodevelopment in the CHAMACOS Study. Environmental health perspectives, 121(2), 257-262. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1205597.18Stapleton, H. M., Sharma, S., Getzinger, G., Ferguson, P. L., Gabriel, M., Webster, T. F., & Blum, A. (2012). Novel and High Volume Use Flame Retardants in US Couches Reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE Phase Out. Environmental Science & Technology, 46(24), 13432-13439. https://doi.org/10.1021/es303471d

While we work on a cure for cancer, we need to act on the knowledge we have now to protect ourselves, our families, and communities from dangerous chemicals. We need to invest in greener chemistry and technologies that can sustain us and the planet, and stop the use and production of chemicals that cause harm.


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