Cancer and Chemicals

Cancer. There is scarcely one of us that have not been touched in someway by this dreadful disease. In Canada, it is now projected to afflict one in every 2.2 men and one in every 2.6 women in their lifetime. In the 1930’s, those numbers were less that one in ten. What’s happening? Why are we now seeing what many are calling a “cancer epidemic”?

Some would suggest that we are simply an aging population and cancer is a disease of the old. Not true. Recent statistics show that the net incidence rate of cancer has increased 25% for males 20% for females from 1974 to 2005 - after correcting for the effects of aging.

Children are increasingly the victims. Researchers in the UK have shown that certain childhood cancers such as leukemia and brain cancer have increased by over one third since the 1950’s.

In Canada, hundreds of millions of dollars are raised and spent for cancer research and treatment. It has become a shared Canadian value to run, wear ribbons, and donate money - all towards mitigating cancer.

The elephant in the room however is the contribution of environmental toxins, and whether many of the cancers striking Canadians can be avoided rather than simply managed.

The World Health Organization estimates that fully one quarter of cancers worldwide are caused by occupational and environmental factors other than smoking. You don’t have to look far for some potential chemical culprits.

There are over 85,000 chemicals that are currently licenced for use in North America. Less than half have ever been tested for human health risk, and even fewer for potential environmental impacts.

The US Centers For Disease Control and Prevention recently turned their attention towards pollution detection – not in the environment, but within the human body. Their study in 2002 found the presence of 81 different toxic chemicals, including PCBs, benzene and other carcinogens in their sampling of 2500 people tested.

It is somewhat of a no-brainer that reducing exposure to known carcinogens will reduce the risk of developing cancer. Surprisingly, this simple logic seems to have been lost on our federal government.

Many chemicals that are scientifically demonstrated carcinogens or otherwise toxic are freely used in Canada here without any legal obligation to even identify them on the label. Some of these same chemicals are entirely banned elsewhere. A trip to your local supermarket reveals a small sample of these hidden poisons:

- Mothballs contain either naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene, both of which are carcinogenic. A recent U.S. study linked mothball use to an increased incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

- Polycarbonate plastics used in food-grade plastic containers such as water bottles can leach Bisphenol A, an estrogen-mimicking chemical linked to a variety of disorders including hormone-related birth defects, learning disabilities, prostate cancer and neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

- Several leading perfumes, nail polishes and other cosmetic products sold in Canada contain the endocrine-disrupting phthalates DBP and DEHP, both of which have been banned for use in cosmetic products in European Union countries.

- Polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs are very commonly chemical fire retardants found in everything from foam mattresses to computer parts. They have similar properties to the now outlawed PCBs, and are known neurotoxins and hormone disrupters. The most dangerous forms are now banned in the European Union, though they remain completely legal here in Canada.

- Many leading brands of household laundry detergent contain trisodium nitrilotriacetate, another suspected carcinogen as well as an environmental pollutant.

Besides being a human tragedy, cancer and other chemical related disorders are also an enormous burden to our public health care system. It is estimated that cancer alone costs the country over $14 billion each year in treatment costs and lost productivity.

Chemicals that endanger human life also go down the drain and impact the environment. A somewhat gruesome example involved a dead orca that washed up south of Vancouver in 2000 that was so contaminated with persistent chemicals that the federal government considered shipping the carcass to the Swan Hills toxic waste facility for incineration.

Like orcas, we are perched at the top of the food chain and are becoming the unwitting receptacles of many of the chemicals designed to make our lives more convenient. Ballooning cancers rates are simply not worth whiter clothes or fewer moths.

Cancer must be fought on many fronts. Research and treatment are undeniably important but so is environmental cancer prevention. It is therefore shocking that our government is not moving faster to ban known and suspected carcinogens, and requiring mandatory “right to know” labeling so that Canadians can better protect themselves and their families.

Anything less is quite simply putting the interests of the chemical industry ahead of human life.

Mitchell Anderson is a board member of the Labour Environmental Allinace Society (www.leas.ca). This piece was published in the Toronto Star in June 2005.

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