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According to the Environmental Working Group, scientists are rethinking how chemicals may contribute to cancer. (Photo: Penn State/flickr/cc)

Landmark Study Shows Our Bodies are Rife with Cancer-Causing Chemicals

First-of-its-kind analysis details 'the astounding number of carcinogens we are exposed to in almost every part of life that are building up in our systems'

Deirdre Fulton

The first inventory of its kind has found that hundreds of cancer-causing chemicals are building up in the bodies of Americans.

The analysis from Environmental Working Group (EWG), based on more than 1,000 biomonitoring studies—which measure the burden of certain chemicals present in the human body—and other research by government agencies and independent scientists, found that up to 420 chemicals known or likely to cause cancer have been detected in blood, urine, hair, and other human samples.

"The presence of a toxic chemical in our bodies does not necessarily mean it will cause harm, but this report details the astounding number of carcinogens we are exposed to in almost every part of life that are building up in our systems," said Curt DellaValle, author of the report and a senior scientist at EWG.

According to the report, Pollution in People, carcinogens detected in biomonitoring studies come from diverse sources, including:

  • Industrial chemicals
  • Commercial products including flame retardants in furniture and other items; dry cleaning chemicals; styrene in plastics; nonstick, waterproof and grease-resistant chemicals in cookware, clothing and food wrappers; other chemicals in paints and hair coloring; and flavoring and fragrance ingredients
  • Pesticides
  • Heavy metals
  • Byproducts of combustion, heating and disinfection
  • Solvents

"Many of the carcinogens this study documents in people find their way into our bodies through food, air, water, and consumer products every day," added EWG president Ken Cook. "Dozens of them show up in human umbilical cord blood—which means Americans are exposed to carcinogens before they've left the womb."

EWG, which is known for its health guides and online consumer tools to help people avoid toxic cancer-causing chemicals in their daily lives, said the findings underscored the need for greater public awareness of our everyday exposure as well as urgent action on the part of elected officials.

In a press statement, the nonprofit group noted that the inventory "comes at an auspicious moment for the issue of cancer and chemicals," citing last week's passage of a bill updating the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) as well as President Barack Obama's recent announcement establishing the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative, a $1 billion program led by Vice President Joe Biden, "to eliminate cancer as we know it."

But as EWG's senior vice president for government affairs, Scott Faber, said of the TSCA at the time:

The law that Congress now sends to President Barack Obama’s desk will give EPA the direction and resources to review and regulate, at most, a few hundred chemicals over the next decade — out of thousands used in the market. The new bill will do nothing to require the FDA to review and regulate the chemicals routinely used in food and cosmetics. While pesticide residues on produce have been reviewed, thousands of other pesticides have escaped meaningful government oversight. The net result is that consumers will continue to be exposed to a witches’ brew of unregulated chemicals that have been linked to serious health problems, including cancer.

Furthermore, the group points out, "the only concrete agenda related to prevention in the Moonshot Initiative is for screening and vaccination. As demonstrated by the success of anti-smoking efforts, which have cut the rate of lung cancer by more than 25 percent in the last 25 years, to prevent and defeat cancer it is necessary to understand the environmental causes."

EWG is calling for the Moonshot Initiative to include federal funding for investigation of the environmental causes of cancer and the development of prevention initiatives.


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