EarthTalk: Cancer's environmental triggers
Dear EarthTalk: I know that some of us are genetically predisposed to get cancer, but what are some ways we can avoid known environmental triggers for it? -- B. Northrup, Westport, Mass.
Cancer remains the scourge of the American health care system, given that four out of every 10 of us will be diagnosed with one form or another during our lifetime.
Some of us are genetically predisposed toward certain types of cancers, but there is much we can do to avoid exposure to carcinogens in our environment.
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit working to protect public health and the environment, a key first step in warding off cancer is lifestyle change -- "stopping smoking, reducing drinking, losing weight, exercising and eating right." The American Cancer Society reports that smoking and poor nutrition each account for about one-third of the 575,000 U.S. cancer deaths each year.
But smoking and obesity are obvious and other cancer triggers aren't so easily pinpointed. In 2010 the President's Cancer Panel reported that environmental toxins play a significant and under-recognized role in many cancers, causing "grievous harm" to untold numbers of Americans. And EWG reported that U.S. children are born "pre-polluted" with up to 200 carcinogenic substances already in their bloodstreams.
Given this shocking fact, it may seem futile to try to reduce our bodies' chemical burden, but it could be a matter of life and death. EWG lists several ways anyone can cut their cancer risk. First up is to filter our tap water, which can include arsenic, chromium and harmful chemicals. Simple carbon filters or pitchers can reduce contaminants, while more costly reverse osmosis filters can filter out arsenic or chromium.
The foods we choose also play a role in whether or not we get cancer. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables is healthy, but not if they are laden with pesticides. Going organic when possible is the best way to reduce pesticide exposure. And when organic foods aren't available, stick with produce least likely to contain pesticides (check out EWG's "Clean 15" list of conventional crops containing little if any pesticide residue). EWG also suggests cutting down on high-fat meats and dairy products: "Long-lasting cancer-causing pollutants like dioxins and PCBs accumulate in the food chain and concentrate in animal fat."
Eliminating stain- and grease-proofing chemicals (Teflon, Scotchgard, etc.) is another way to cut cancer risks.
"To avoid them," EWG said, "skip greasy packaged foods and say no to optional stain treatments in the home." And steer clear of BPA, a synthetic estrogen found in some plastic water bottles, canned infant formula and canned foods. "To avoid it, eat fewer canned foods, breast feed your baby or use powdered formula, and choose water bottles free of BPA," reported EWG. Personal care products and cosmetics can also contain carcinogens. EWG's "Skin Deep" cosmetics database flags particularly worrisome products and green-lights others that are healthy.
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Another cancer prevention tip is to seal wooden outdoor decks and playsets -- those made before 2005 likely contain lumber "pressure-treated" with carcinogenic arsenic in order to stave off insect infestations. Of course, avoiding too much sun exposure -- and wearing high-SPF sunscreen -- when using those decks and playsets is another important way to hedge one's bets against cancer.
Dear EarthTalk: What would you say are the most important steps we need to take as a nation to counter the impacts of climate change? -- Ned Parkinson, Chino, Calif.
Americans care more about the environment than ever before and the overwhelming majority of us acknowledge that climate change is real and human-induced. But still we continue to consume many more resources per capita than any other nation and refuse to take strong policy action to stave off global warming -- even though we have the power to do so.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved in a top down manner -- via legislation mandating reductions in fossil fuel emissions -- or in a bottom-up fashion with individuals and businesses doing their part by driving and flying less, conserving more and embracing greener forms of energy. Environmental leaders would like to see Americans take both paths to cut greenhouse gas emissions as fast as possible.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading green group, has proposed a five-step plan for Americans to follow to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by mid-century. Step One is to cut global warming pollution via "strong legislation that caps carbon emissions and makes polluters pay for the global warming gases they produce." Step Two involves investing more in green jobs and clean energy. Producing more fuel efficient cars constitutes Step Three. Creating green homes and buildings is Step Four. Step Five: Build more sustainable communities and transportation networks.
Individuals need to play a role, too, by altering our behaviors to reduce our individual carbon footprints. NRDC has several suggestions along these lines as well. Walking, biking or using public transit instead of driving is one. If you must drive, make sure for best gas mileage that your car is tuned and your tires are properly inflated. If in need of a new car, look into a hybrid or electric that consumes less or no gasoline.
On the home front, weatherization can go a long way to lower heating and air conditioning needs, thus saving significant amounts of energy. Also, upgrading old appliances to more energy efficient models and switching out old lightbulbs with new compact fluorescents (CFL) or LEDs will keep carbon footprints down. If your utility has a green energy option -- with power from wind, solar or other renewables -- choose it, even if it costs more than the coal-based electricity. And for things you can't change there are carbon offsets you can buy that support renewable energy projects that will offset your carbon emissions.
But perhaps the most important tool we have as individuals for battling global warming is our voice. "Send a message to your elected officials, letting them know that you will hold them accountable for what they do -- or fail to do -- about global warming," said NRDC. On the group's website you can customize a letter to President Obama urging him to finalize a carbon pollution standard for new power plants, and direct the Environmental Protection Agency to set tough new standards for existing plants.
Environmentalists are optimistic that President Obama will take strong action to fight global warming during his second term. But even if he convinces Congress to pass binding legislation limiting carbon outputs, each of us will continue to play an important role through how we lead our own day-to-day lives.
Contacts: NRDC, www.nrdc.org
EarthTalk is by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of E -- The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.