Friday, February 16, 2007

Are Our Cosmetics Giving Us Cancer?


An environmental oncologist argues that myriad tiny amounts of cancer-causing agents in our environment—and even in our shampoo—can make us sick...

Our chances of getting cancer reflect the full gamut of carcinogens we're exposed to each day—in air, water and food pollution and in cancerous ingredients or contaminants in household cleaners, clothing, furniture and the dozens of personal-care products many of us use daily.

Of the many cancer risks we face, shampoos and bubble baths should not be among them. The risks of para-dioxane in American baby soaps, for instance, could be completely eliminated through simple manufacturing changes—as they are in Europe. To remove such carcinogens, however, would require intervention by the federal government, but the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act allows the industry to police itself. Europe has banned the use of para-dioxane in all personal-care products and recently initiated a recall of any contaminated products.

There’s a problem with the way the United States and other countries look at toxicity in commercial agents. Regulators nowadays often won’t take action until enough people have already complained of harm. This makes little sense. Scientists can seldom discern how the myriad substances, both good and bad, that we encounter in our lives precisely affect our health. We need to be smarter about using experimental evidence to predict and therefore prevent harm from happening.

A few decades ago, people accepted the fact that cigarette smoking was harmful, even though no scientist could explain precisely how this happened in any particular cancer patient. If we had insisted in having perfect proof of how smoking damaged the lungs before acting to discourage this unhealthy practice, we would still be questioning what to do.

By the same token, we now have to get used to the idea that scientists are unlikely to be able to say with certainty that a trace chemical in shampoo accounts for a specific disease in a given child. But if we're to reduce our cancer risk, we need to lower our exposures to those agents that can be avoided and find safer substitutes for those that can’t. Read more.