Hundreds of cancer-causing chemicals are building up in the bodies of Americans, according the first inventory of carcinogens measured in people.
Up to 420 chemicals known or likely to cause cancer have been detected in blood, urine, hair, and other human samples, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization, found when it reviewed more than 1,000 biomonitoring studies and other research by government agencies and scientists in the United States and around the world.
Biomonitoring studies measure the burden of chemicals present in the human body.
The World Health Organization and many scientists believe nearly one in five cancers are caused by chemicals and other environmental exposures – in the workplace and in consumer products, food, water, and air.
The Halifax Project, a group of more than 300 scientists from around the world, is investigating ways in which combinations of toxic chemicals in the environment may cause cancer. While most cancer research focuses on treatment, the Halifax Project and EWG’s Rethinking Cancer initiative are looking at prevention by reducing people’s contact with cancer-causing chemicals.
“The presence of a toxic chemical in our bodies does not necessarily mean it will cause harm, but this report details the astounding number of carcinogens we are exposed to in almost every part of life that are building up in our systems,” said Curt DellaValle, a senior scientist for the EWG and author of the report. “At any given time some people may harbor dozens or hundreds of cancer-causing chemicals. This troubling truth underscores the need for greater awareness of our everyday exposure to chemicals and how to avoid them.”
The EWG estimates that a small number of the chemicals inventoried in the report were measured at levels high enough to pose significant cancer risks in most Americans – risks that generally exceed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency safety standards. But those estimates are only for individual chemicals and don’t account for combined exposures to multiple chemicals.
A new law to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act falls short of giving the EPA the resources and authority to quickly restrict or ban chemicals known to cause cancer, DellaValle said. And the only item related to prevention in the Moonshot Initiative for “curing cancer,” announced by President Obama in his state of the union address this year, is for screening and vaccination.
It’s not clear how, or if, the new chemical law will protect Americans from the hundreds of industrial chemicals that cause cancer, DellaValle said.
“Many of the carcinogens this study documents in people find their way into our bodies through food, air, water, and consumer products every day,” said EWG President Ken Cook. “Dozens of them show up in human umbilical cord blood – which means Americans are exposed to carcinogens before they’ve left the womb.”
The focus should be on preventing cancer by preventing human exposure to these chemicals, Cook said.
The EWG called for the cancer “Moonshot Initiative” to include federal funding for investigating the environmental causes of cancer and the development of prevention initiatives.
The EWG publishes health guides and online consumer tools to help people avoid toxic cancer-causing chemicals in their daily lives.