In a new study, the most comprehensive of its kind to date, the watchdog Environmental Working Group reports that as many as 420 known or suspected cancer-causing chemicals have been found in human hair, blood, urine and tissue. The report states there are more than 1,400 chemicals and chemical groups that are known carcinogens to which humans are exposed daily via food, air, water and increasingly, consumer products.
Repeated exposure means a build-up of not only individual chemicals, but of chemical compounds that could make them even more toxic. Scientists are increasingly focused on which combinations of chemicals are the most carcinogenic, according to EWG.
Most of the approximately 80,000 chemicals on the market today (64,000 according to the New York Times) have not been tested for safety to humans, animals or the environment, under existing law. About 80 percent of them are polymers and plastics, namely polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene terephthalate, polystyrene and polycarbonate. Health and science authorities estimate approximately one in five cases of cancer are caused by chemicals and environmental exposure.
In the wake of the report, an online panel discussion by be Waste Wise June 15 addressed "Health Impacts of Plastic Pollution." Speaking of the prevalence of chemicals in the environment, moderator Lisa Kaas Boyle declared, "Capitalism comes with no protections. We are exporting (industrial chemicals) all over the world; what are we doing?" Boyle, an environmental attorney and Plastic Pollution Coalition co-founder, coauthored important legislation, including the 2015 federal ban on microbeads. She asked the panel, "Should corporations have the burden of proof?"
Panelist Stacy Malkin of U.S. Right To Know points out what she calls "the insanity of our materials economy" that "incentivizes ever-increasing profits" and encourages "new ways to sell us stuff we don't need, regardless of impacts to health and the environment." She points to "insane" plastic microbeads as an example of a product marketed by corporations to consumers that is a known carcinogen. "It's crazy," she says with incredulity.
Panelist Arlene Blum, PhD, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, discussed the six classes of chemicals most associated with cancer risk and in hormonal, neurological, and reproductive impairments, including flame retardants, bisphenols and phthalates. On the organization's website is information about reducing exposure to these worst offenders.
According to the EWG report, scientists and physicians are looking more closely and critically now at chemicals' culpability in cancer development. "It is not enough to simply consider the effects of individual chemicals on the body," the report states. "The combined effects of the many chemicals we are exposed to in real-life circumstances must also be taken into account."
The report is part of an EWG initiative titled "Rethinking Cancer." It goes on to state:
As we fight for stronger chemical laws we should also be aware of the sources of carcinogens in our environment, food and consumers products. Reducing exposures to carcinogens, whether through regulation or personal choices, can have important health benefits.
SIGN OF CANCER: A hermit crab stakes out a plastic shell, above. Photo: Northways via Foter.