Last week, Fran Drescher responded to my Huffington Post article on cancer trends, and today I posted a reply on the Independent Women’s Forum Inkwell blog. In a nutshell, I praise Drescher for her work promoting early detection and a healthy lifestyle that includes both a good diet and exercise, but her focus on chemicals as a significant cancer cause is problematic.
Her basic argument on the Huffington Post was as follows: Most cancers are caused by “environmental factors” and since trace chemicals are present in the human body we should take action to eliminate or reduce them if for no other reason than to simply err on the safe side.
It’s true that “environmental factors” are the cause of most cancers, but researchers define these factors as anything but genetics. As I noted in my article and elsewhere, environmental factors include tobacco, dietary choices, infections, natural radiation, and reproductive behavior among other things. Trace chemicals in consumer products are not a demonstrated cancer source.
What about the fact that chemicals are found in the human body? In its Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains: “The presence of an environmental chemical in people’s blood or urine does not mean that it will cause effects or disease.” The real question is: Is exposure from consumer products ever really high enough to raise concerns about cancer?
“These everyday exposures are usually too small to cause health problems,” says the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in its booklet titled “Chemicals, Cancer and You.” In fact, as humans increased our use of manmade chemicals, cancer rates have declined—the reverse of what you’d expect if they posed significant risks.
Finally, the idea that we should eliminate certain products “to be on the safe side” ignores the fact that these chemicals have benefits. When we arbitrarily eliminate them — either by regulation or simply bad publicity — we lose those benefits and potentially create more risks. For example, bans on the pesticide DDT — rather than policies to manage risks — have contributed to millions of deaths every year. Similar policies to ban chemicals used to make plastics and resins — including medical devices, blood bags, water bottles, and sanitary food packaging — may create additional risks for society, including some that are deadly.
So to erring on the “safe” side, I’d rather we focused on science, risk assessment, and ultimately consumer choice. Read my full response on the Inkwell.