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CBC MARKETPLACE: HEALTH CANCER
Consumer tips: Carcinogens to watch for
Broadcast: March 5, 2006


One of the most important things you can do is pay close attention to what you're exposing yourself to when you bring products into your home.

While the Canadian cancer conundrum may seem desperate, there are some steps we as consumers can take to limit our personal exposure to possible and known human carcinogens.

One of the most important things you can do is pay close attention to what you're exposing yourself to when you bring products into your home.

That's something activist Mae Burrows, executive director of the Labour Environmental Alliance Society, has been fighting to make easier for all consumers.

For nearly two years, Burrows has been working on a committee with government and product makers to negotiate for warning labels about carcinogens on products.


Mae Burrows and the Labour Environmental Alliance Society publish a list called the CancerSmart Consumer Guide.

"What we're saying to industry is that we know you can reformulate your products without these carcinogens in it," she says. "Just do it. Get ahead of the wave. You can make changes and you can still make a buck."

In the meantime, Burrows would like companies to at least inform consumers when their products contain a possible human carcinogen.

Her campaign has met some hefty resistance. For one thing, companies argue that including such information might just confuse people unless a carcinogen's risk is absolutely proven.

Companies take the attitude that a chemical is innocent until proven guilty, says Burrows. But that's simply not good enough for her:

"You get cancer by being exposed to this whole range of chemicals, often at critical periods of your development, and over a long period of time.

WHAT IS A CARCINOGEN?
A carcinogen is a chemical known or believed to cause cancer in humans. The number of proven carcinogens is comparatively small, but many more chemicals are suspected to be carcinogenic.

"When people start to understand that, we'll start banning carcinogens and they should be banned in every product. There's no excuse for them."

Burrows and the Labour Environmental Alliance Society have published a list they call the CancerSmart Consumer Guide. It tracks products that contain potentially cancer-causing ingredients.

"We write the product name," says Burrows. "We write if it has a carcinogen in it, what that carcinogen is, according to what source and then what are the alternatives."

CARCINOGENS TO WATCH FOR

In the garden

Ingredient Primary use Source Alternatives
Amitrole Weed killer International Agency for Research on Cancer and California's Proposition 65 Try pouring boiling water on weeds growing on hard surfaces. Also try soap-based herbicides and weed oils.
Captan Fungicide U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California's Proposition 65 Try fungicidal soaps, borax or garlic.
Chlorothalonil Fungicide U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Try fungicidal soaps, borax or garlic.

Dicofol

Mite killer

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Try insecticide soaps, oils or sulphur.

Naphthalene

Moth killer

California's Proposition 65

Store your clothing in airtight garment bags or boxes.

Paradichlorobenzene

Moth killer

International Agency for Research on Cancer and California's Proposition 65

Store your clothing in airtight garment bags or boxes.

Phenoxy herbicides

Weed killer

International Agency for Research on Cancer

Pull weeds manually, or look for alternative weed control products that don't contain this ingredient.

Tetrachlorvinphos

Tick/flea control

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

For ticks, try using insecticide soaps for ticks. For fleas, consult your veterinarian for a topical insect growth regulator (which is usually applied seasonally).

Trifluralin

Weed killer

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Pull weeds manually, or look for alternative weed control products that don't contain this ingredient.

In cleaning products:

Ingredient Primary use Source Alternatives

Silica

Found in some abrasive cleaners, brass cleaners

California's Proposition 65

Look for products that don't contain this ingredient.

Trisodium nitrilotriacetate (NTA)

Found in laundry detergents

International Agency for Research on Cancer (as a possible human carcinogen)

Look for products that don't contain this ingredient.

See Marketplace's story Household Cleaners: A Toxic Brew for more on toxins found in cleaning products.

In food and drink:

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (World Health Organization) classifies alcoholic beverages as carcinogenic to humans. For more on the potential negative impact of drinking, see Marketplace's story, Spin the Bottle.

As for food, from 1994 – 1998, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency tested samples of a variety of meat, produce and dairy products for the presence of pesticides. The results were released to the public in 2002 and showed significant amounts of contamination from dozens of pesticides including carcinogens such as captan, chlorothalonil and benomyl.

While such contaminants are largely invisible to consumers, there are some choices you can make at the supermarket to lower your exposure to contaminants.

In its CancerSmart Consumer Guide, Mae Burrow's Labour Environmental Alliance Society lists the 15 most likely contaminated and the 15 least likely contaminated fruits and vegetables, based on data from the CFIA's 1994-1998 tests:

15 MOST CONTAMINATED

Apples

Celery

Cherries

Grapes

Grapefruit

Lettuce (leaf)

Lettuce (head)

Nectarines

Oranges

Peaches

Pears

Potatoes

Snow peas

Spinach

Strawberries


15 LEAST CONTAMINATED

Artichokes

Asparagus

Avocados

Beets

Corn

Cranberries

Eggplant

Endive

Leeks

Onions

Papaya

Parsnips

Pineapple

Squash

Zucchini

Burrows' group also recommends that consumers inform themselves about the following carcinogens that have been gaining attention in recent food research:

Ingredient Information

Acrylamide

See Marketplace's story on acrylamide for more.

Produced when certain foods (particularly high-starch foods such as french fries or potato chips) are cooked at temperatures over 120 degrees Celsius.

Nitrosamines

Chemical compounds formed by the reaction of amines and amino acids with nitrite (used as a preservative in cured meats).

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) PCBs bio-accumulate in the fat of humans and animals, including fish.

 

In personal products (cosmetics, hair care, etc.)

Note: Currently, manufacturers are not required to list ingredients on personal care products in Canada. That is scheduled to change in November 2006, when new labelling regulations take effect.

Ingredient Primary use Source  

Benzyl violet

Used as a colouring agent in many cosmetic products, including nail polish.

California's Proposition 65

Can also appear on labels as "Violet 2" or "Violet 6B."

Coal tars

Found in many dark permanent hair dyes.

California's Proposition 65

 
Cocamide diethanolamine Found in shampoos, lotions and creams as a softener and product thickener. California's Proposition 65 (suspected carcinogen) Can also appear as "Cocamide DEA."
Formaldehyde Used in some cosmetics as a preservative and in some nail hardeners. International Agency for Research on Cancer and California's Proposition 65 Also watch for "Quaternium-15" and diazolidinyl urea, which can be "formaldehyde-releasing" ingredients.

See Marketplace's story Cosmetics and the cancer connection for more.

Further reading:

Pollution Watch lists chemicals tracked by Environment Canada's National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) and documents their health effects, including those that are carcinogenic.

The Guide to Less Toxic Products was developed by the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia to provide information about potential health risks of commonly used products, and provide suggestions for alternatives.

Scorecard provides detailed information on more than 11,200 chemicals, including recognized and suspected carcinogens.

Known and Suspected Carcinogens is a list compiled by the Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory at Oxford University.

Known and Probable Carcinogens from the American Cancer Society.

Occupational Carcinogen List from the U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

Carcinogens Lists compiled by the Brookhaven National Laboratory (U.S. Department of Energy).

NEXT: Key cancer questions in the ongoing chase for answers

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CBC News: Marketplace
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CHASING THE CANCER ANSWER: Introduction IS CANCER IN OUR BLOOD? What Wendy's blood tests reveal THE CANCER BLAME GAME: How blaming the patient is easier than prevention CASHING IN ON CANCER: The big business of cancer drugs and treatmentsCONSUMER TIPS: Carcinogens to watch for KEY CANCER QUESTIONS: The ongoing chase for answers CREDITS MORE FROM CBC: CANCER CANCER RESEARCH: THE CANADIAN QUEST FOR A CURE MORE MARKETPLACE: COSMETICS AND THE CANCER CONNECTION CAN CELLPHONE USE LEAD TO CANCER? SOME ACRYLAMIDE WITH YOUR FRIES? HOUSEHOLD CLEANERS: A TOXIC BREW MARKETPLACE ARCHIVES: YOUR HEALTHORDER TAPES
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EXTERNAL LINKS:

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Canadian Cancer Society

Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation

Breast Cancer Society of Canada

Canadian Prostate Cancer Network

Cancer Surveillance On-Line from Health Canada

Environment Canada's National Pollutant Release Inventory

UK Working Group on the Primary Prevention of Breast Cancer - London cancer information activist Diana Ward works with this group

International Agency for Research on Cancer - World Health Organization

Cancer-Gate: How to Win The Losing Cancer War - Dr. Sam Epstein's book

Labour Environmental Alliance Society - Mae Burrows is the executive director. The group is the publisher of the CancerSmart Consumer Guide

The Guide to Less Toxic Products - developed by the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia

Canadian Partnership for Children's Health and Environment - aims to protect kids from toxic contaminants

Consumer Chemicals and Containers Regulations - part of Canada's Hazardous Products Act

Canada's Chemical Producers' Association: Health and Safety Issues

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