Every October, we’re awash in a sea of pink ribbons reminding us to schedule preventive mammograms. But, a group of researchers and advocates in Massachusetts say women’s cancer prevention starts not with early detection, but with the choices we make as consumers and home managers affecting environmental and indoor pollutant exposures.
When it comes to environmental factors and health, it’s often radio silence or claims of “not enough evidence.” While we take charge in most other aspects of our lives, it’s hard to sort through the information and the deluge of marketing claims made by green merchandising, and we are simply overwhelmed.
Silent Spring Institute in Newton, MA is a toxicology research organization and an important policy informant on water quality and pollutants that are suspected to promote breast cancer risk. Their scientists focus on a specific class of chemicals called endocrine disruptors linked to women’s cancers, asthma, and infertility. They recommend a precautionary and informed approach when shopping for home and personal products, especially when choosing products applied to the skin or used frequently in the home.
When over 50 consumer products were tested for hormone disruptors, the highest levels of phthalates, DEHP, DEP, BBP, used to soften plastics and regarded as relatively strong hormone disruptors, were found in vinyl household items, such as pillow protectors and shower curtains.
Sunscreens and fragranced products — including air fresheners, dryer sheets, and perfume — had the largest number of suspect chemicals and some of the highest concentrations. Parabens are another class of additives frequently found in moisturizers, shampoo, toothpaste, cosmetics, and personal lubricants. Their chemical make-up has the ability to mimic hormones such as estrogen, known to play a role in breast cancer development, and many cosmetic and pharmaceutical manufacturers have begun to offer paraben-free cosmetic and personal care products.
We don’t have to throw up our hands in the face of this challenge. Arming yourself with a little knowledge and getting into the habit of scanning product labels for some key words or choosing green products can help reduce exposures. “We see substantial evidence of links between environmental pollutants and breast cancer, enormous knowledge gaps that we can fill immediately, and opportunities for better science,” said Julia Brody, Executive Director of Silent Spring. “If we take steps to protect ourselves and our children from chemicals that cause cancer, we will also see benefits for numerous other health endpoints, including diabetes, obesity, neurological disease, and infertility.”
In Europe, regulation of chemicals that are linked to potential health risk requires more manufacturer participation than current US statutes. A precautionary stance shifts the burden of proof from the general public to the initiator of that public health or environmental risk.
Phthalates, for example, are linked to concerns about children’s growth and development as well as reproduction and have been banned in children’s products in the EU since 2005 and regulated in the US since August 2008. Such policies have helped to bring attention to how consumption habits may be affecting health and have highlighted the need for each of us to become informed as lead household purchasers before we shop our supermarkets and drug stores.
To learn more and pick up some very practical tips for reducing your exposure to hormone disruptor chemicals, you can access a new, easy to navigate on-line resource, Too Close to Home. There is urgent need for improved methods of scientific testing to understand which chemicals should be targeted and how they promote breast cancer and other hormone-linked diseases. You can learn more about Silent Spring’s research initiatives and support environmental health advocacy at www.silentspring.org.
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