Cancer Smart For Consumers

Dozens of household products and pesticides on retail shelves across Canada contain carcinogens, endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and reproductive toxins. Yet most consumers have little idea what they’re being exposed to.

That could change this year with the release of the CancerSmart Consumer Guide, published in March by the Labour Environmental Alliance Society (LEAS) and just hitting distribution networks now. 

The first of its kind in Canada, the 24-page guide identifies carcinogens, reproductive toxinsand Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) in many household cleaning and home maintenance products, consumer pesticides and food. It offers easily-available alternatives that enable consumers to reduce their risk of exposure and to make safer, healthier product choices.  

“Every year Canadians are exposed to numerous carcinogenic chemicals in the food they eat and the products they use — and they don’t know they’re being exposed because the ingredients are not identified or explained,” said LEAS executive director Mae Burrows. “This guide provides that information and provides practical solutions that help reduce their cancer risk and help the environment too.” 

Still, it’s much more than a shopping guide — it offers quick facts on cancer and cancer prevention, information on pesticide contamination of food, and recommendations for public policy changes, including ingredient disclosure on consumer product labeling.

“The key message here is that, except for genetic cancer, most cancers are caused by exposure to carcinogens, whether it be carcinogens in tobacco smoke, UV sunlight or chemicals. We need to be paying a lot more attention to cancer prevention through reducing exposure to the carcinogens that are around us all the time in everyday products,” said researcher Sean Griffin, the co-author and editor of the Guide. 

Among the carcinogens that often show up in household cleaning products is trisodium nitrilotriactete, a common ingredient in some laundry detergents that is listed under California’s Proposition 65 as “a chemical known to cause cancer.” The carcinogens atrazine, amitrol, captan, chlorothalonil and maneb are among the carcinogenic ingredients sold in pesticides across retail counters. The reproductive toxin toluene and the carcinogen methylene chloride often show up in paint strippers and other home maintenance products. Griffin said the Guide also focusses on endocrine disrupters, including phenols in cleaning products and pesticide active ingredients such as carbaryl and dicofol, not only because of the growing link between EDCs and cancer, but also because EDCs demonstrate the close link between human health and the environment. 

Just as the Guide was published, the Canadian Cancer Society released figures showing that the incidence of cancer is expected to rise 60 per cent over the next two decades. Canadian cancer statistics are age-standardized, so the increase is not related simply to an aging population. 

“The World Health Organization estimates that at least 25 per cent of cancers worldwide are caused by exposure to environmental carcinogens, such as pesticides and chemicals,” said Larry Stoffman, chair of the National Environmental and Occupational Exposures Committee of the Canadian Strategy for Cancer Control and a LEAS director. “The information that’s in this Guide can help reduce that exposure and lower the cancer risk.” 

The CancerSmart Consumer Guide grew out of another, ongoing project of LEAS called “Cleaners, Toxins and the Ecosystem.” LEAS researchers work with health and safety committees in a number of worksites and industries to identify toxic cleaning products and replace them with safer, environmentally-preferable alternatives.

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[From WS May/June 2004]

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