It’s no secret that many of the everyday conveniences we take for granted contain chemicals linked to cancer: Household products ranging from plastic containers to shampoo and soap have been implicated. And that’s not even including contaminants in drinking water or pesticide exposure from simply walking through your local park.
Yet somehow, despite the mounting research showing that Americans are being exposed to suspected or known carcinogens from numerous sources throughout the day, no one has ever done a study to determine just how many of these chemicals can be detected in the average human body. Until now.
A new study from the Environmental Working Group has exhaustively reviewed the existing scientific literature and found that Americans may have up to 420 different carcinogenic chemicals present in their bodies in amounts that exceed EPA safety standards. This held true across a diverse array of populations. Research has even measured carcinogens in human umbilical cord blood, showing that infants are exposed to them before they’ve ever left the womb.
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What’s truly frightening about this research is that it’s not looking at people who might be exposed to these chemicals through occupational exposure — instead, it examined the presence of these chemicals in average people, whose only exposure to these chemicals was through normal, everyday life. In some cases, these chemicals were present in household products, but in others, the exposure likely came from the water, soil or air itself, making it essentially unavoidable.
Before you panic, it’s important to realize that this doesn’t mean that cancer is inevitable for everyone exposed to these carcinogens. While it raises the risk of cancer development, for many of these substances, that risk is often still marginal — perhaps as low as 1 in 10,000, in the case of acrylamide or low doses of arsenic.
However, scientists still don’t entirely understand what happens when the body is overloaded with multiple carcinogens that may multiply one another’s effects, and this could be especially pronounced in someone who has been exposed to hundreds of dangerous chemicals.
So what can you do to protect yourself? While you can make an effort to shop for safe cosmetics, avoid plastics where possible (even those without BPA), eat organic and cut red meat and fried foods from your diet, the truth is that isn’t enough. Not when our food, water and air is often filled with other carcinogens.
What the researchers from EWG recommend is a change to federal laws, with much stricter regulations on suspected and known carcinogens. The authors of the study point out that the EPA and FDA simply don’t have the ability to ban or limit carcinogens in many everyday products, and in many cases don’t have the resources to research the safety of potential carcinogens to begin with.
If there’s one thing this study underscores, it’s this: Billions of dollars go to cancer research each and every year. However, unless we do more to study the root environmental causes and limit our exposure to these toxic chemicals, we are never going to make real progress on reducing the number of people who develop cancer in the first place.