I think Rachel Carson would have been pleased with the most recent report and recommendations from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) that was released last week. This report reviewed the evidence on the environmental causes of breast cancer. It emphasized that we must pay attention to certain environmental exposures which may be contributing to the causes breast cancer. According to the Silent Spring Institute, “in the context of U.S. breast cancer institutions focused on mammography and treatment, the recommendation for chemicals testing is a significant positive step for prevention.”
Who was Rachel?
Rachel Carsonwas a courageous scientist who helped to spark the modern environmental
movement when she published “The Silent Spring” in 1962. By bringing attention to birds that had become silent due to indiscriminate pesticide exposure, her report sounded alarms. Unfortunately, Rachel died of metastatic breast cancer just two years after testifying before Congress.
Since that time, there has been an explosion of chemicals introduced to most Americans with very little oversight and testing. According to the CDC, most Americans have over 200 different chemicals in their urine or blood. We have very few studies to evaluate the long-term effects from these chemicals.
This most recent IOM report concluded that women have many opportunities to reduce their risk of contracting cancer from environmental factors. It identified some known risk factors for breast cancer such as estrogen-progestin hormone therapy, smoking, alcohol and radiation. It also emphasized that increasing physical activity and reducing excessive weight gain after menopause can reduce breast cancer risk.
With regard to evaluating the effects of chemical exposure in our environment, the IOM acknowledged that evidence from human studies is often not attainable. However, we can’t wait for evidence that may be a long time in coming – or that we may never have – to take action. This is where we need to employ common sense.
The “Precautionary Principle” advocates for common sense. This principle states that evidence of harm (rather than definitive proof of harm) should prompt policy action. We can’t wait until we have conclusive evidence in human studies that we may never have. We can begin to enact changes about the choices we make every day in our work places, our homes and in our everyday lives that could have a profound effect on our health. Ask yourself- what’s the harm?
Beyond the IOM’s Report- Reducing Environmental Exposure
Beyond the IOM’s recommendations, The Silent Spring also offers this one page guide to approach environmental exposures. It could be very easy to drive yourself crazy trying to avoid every potential carcinogen. My best advice is to stick to a few guiding principles and keep it simple.
Here are 4 areas to consider when thinking about reducing your exposure to environmental toxins:
Dry Cleaning. There are many chemicals used in dry cleaning, but the most famous one that has been around the longest is PERC. According to the EPA, laboratory studies show that PERC causes kidney and liver damage, as well as cancer in animals exposed repeatedly by inhalation. Repeated exposure to large amounts of PERC in the air may likewise cause cancer in humans.
A good option is to limit the amount of clothing that you have that requires dry cleaning.
Wet wash as many of your clothes a s possible and buy clothing that doesn’t have to be dry cleaned. If you do have to dry clean, try to use a toxic free dry cleaner such as Blue Sky.
If you do use a traditional dry cleaner, try unwrapping your dry cleaned clothes when you get home and airing them out. If you take the plastic bag off inside your house, the PERC just goes into the air where it can last up to a week. So, it’s better to air out dry cleaning in an open garage or outside.
BPA is synthetic estrogen and is in many plastics containers like water bottles and baby bottles. Purchasing BPA-free water bottles and using glass containers for food storage are simple changes that doesn’t cost a lot, but can reduce BPA exposure. Other suggestions to reduce BPA exposure include:
- Don’t microwave polycarbonate plastic food containers. Polycarbonate is strong and durable, but over time it may break down from overuse at high temperatures.
- Plastic containers have recycle codes on the bottom. Some, but not all, plastics that are marked with recycle codes 3 or 7 may be made with BPA. Avoid recyclables with these codes.
- Reduce your use of canned foods – most cans are lined with BPA
- Where possible, opt for glass, porcelain or stainless steel containers, particularly for hot food or liquids.
Cosmetics and personal care products. As a general rule, choose cosmetics without phthalates and parabens that can mimic estrogen and are classified as endocrine disruptors. This is a difficult task for often these chemicals are not labeled. Consult the Environmental Working Group (EWG) website to get more information about products.
Foods. Buying organic products is typically more expensive than conventional products; but there are some guiding principles that can help to make your choices easier.
Dairy and meat concentrate harmful compounds – so buying organic, hormone free is critical.
Studies have proven that 80% of pesticide residue can be eliminated by choosing organic produce. To minimize your exposure, consider consuming this list of organic produce:
- Vegetables: Bell peppers, spinach, celery, potatoes, lettuce, spinach, green beans and winter squash.
- Fruits: Apples, cherries, grapes, nectarine, peaches, pears, raspberries and strawberries.
EWG provides a list of the dirty dozen and the clean 15.
Ahead of Her Time
Rachel Carson was clearly a woman ahead of her time. Ninety percent of breast cancers do not have a genetic component , which makes a compelling argument to continue looking for environmental contributors. While it’s easy to get frustrated with the speed of progress around breast cancer prevention, this IOM report is a step in the right direction. There is still much work to be done, but I think if Rachel were here today, she would be pleased with the direction we are headed.
What environmental toxins are you removing from your life? I want to hear from you.