President's Cancer Panel: Eat Organic, Avoid Plastics

A landmark report says the government has been grossly underestimating the effect of environmental toxins on our cancer risk.

May 6, 2010

Eating food grown without pesticides and toxic chemicals is an important cancer-preventing strategy, says a government report.

Finally, the U.S. government's talking prevention. Real prevention. Not a scan to detect a disease already growing in your body, but rather, the idea of reducing exposure to environmental toxins—like chemicals used in farming and in plastics—to reduce the risk of cancer. The newly released Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk, What We Can Do Now report from the President's Cancer Panel urges the public to eat foods grown without chemical pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, and antibiotics, while suggesting practical advice such as not heating plastic in the microwave and not using water bottles that may contain BPA, or bisphenol A, a chemical linked to cancer, reproductive problems, and heart disease.


It's likely industrial foodmakers, plastic makers, and biotech companies aren't happy about the report. In fact, there were rumors flying just last week that the food industry threatened to block legislation that would ban BPA from food packaging. But with this report, for the first time in a long time, observers say it feels like human health may come before corporate interests. "This is an enormously important document from a highly credible source. For the past 30 years, there has been systematic effort in the U.S. to downplay the importance of environmental factors in carcinogenesis," says internationally recognized public and preventive health expert Phil Landrigan, MD, professor and chair of the department of community and preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "There has been disproportionate emphasis on lifestyle factors and on cancer screening, and not enough attention paid to discovering and controlling environmental exposures."

THE DETAILS: The landmark report, issued by LaSalle Leffall, Jr., MD, an oncologist and professor of surgery at Howard University, and Margaret L. Kripke, MD, an immunologist at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston (both of these doctors were appointed by former President George W. Bush, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof points out), states that the U.S. government has grossly underestimated the number of cancers caused by environmental toxins. "This is a groundbreaking report—and it’s about time," says Diana Zuckerman, PhD, president of the National Research Center for Women & Families and "It’s time to focus as much effort on preventing cancer as we do on trying to find a cure."

The report also discussed the effect of exposure on unborn children, who are "pre-polluted" with hundreds of chemicals before they even leave the womb. Many scientists say exposure to harmful chemicals during this period can set a child up for lifelong hormone disruption and other health problems. In a letter to President Obama, the panel stated, "The American people—even before they are born—are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures. The Panel urges you most strongly to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives."

The report points out that research on environmental causes of cancer has been "a low priority" and had "inadequate funding," resulting in not enough scientists devoted to finding ways to prevent cancer by reducing toxic exposures in our daily lives. "We are surrounded by uncertainty—thousands of chemicals that are in our air, in our kids' toys, in our lawn-care products, on the fresh fruit we eat—that have never been tested for safety," says Zuckerman. "And the report points out that technology can hurt our health us as well as help us, as recent warnings about the radiation from CT scans have shown."

As it stands, only a tiny fraction of the 80,000 chemicals used today are regulated and tested for safety in humans.

WHAT IT MEANS: Eating organic food is named as a strategy to reduce cancer risk. Though the "O" word itself is scarce, the authors referenced organic food in everything but name. "Exposure to pesticides can be decreased by choosing, to the extent possible, food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers… Similarly, exposure to antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxic runoff from livestock feed lots can be minimized by eating free-range meat raised without these medications," the report states. Food produced without antibiotics, hormones, or toxic agrichemicals is, by definition, organic. "Organic production and processing is the only system that uses certification and inspection to verify that these chemicals are not used on the farm all the way to our dinner tables," says Christine Bushway, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, a business association for the organic industry in North America. Certified organic farms are inspected at least once a year and subject to surprise visits to make sure the harmful chemicals and drugs referred to in the President's Cancer Panel report are not being used.

Rodale has been telling you all this since we launched; we're glad the government is catching on. To recap, here are some strategies mentioned in the report that you can use to lower your cancer risk:

• Eat organic whole foods. If you're in the grocery store and don't know your grower personally, choosing the USDA-certified seal ensures your food is grown without the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and human sewage sludge that is often contaminated with heavy metals and pharmaceutical drugs. Organic dairy and meat are raised without the antibiotic and hormone use that are prevalent in the factory-farm conditions that supply most of the food in this country. These types of operations are linked to a rise in sometimes fatal MRSA infections and virulent E. coli outbreaks. (Runoff from the lots can get into irrigation water used on produce crops.)

• Don't heat plastic…ever. Heating plastic in the microwave or dishwasher causes it to break down and leach chemicals into our food and drink. Some of these chemicals are tied to cancer, sexual development problems, and infertility. Start phasing out your plastics and instead use ceramic, glass, and stainless steel food and water containers and bottles.

• Phase out phthalates. Phthalates, plastic-softening chemicals, are used in a huge variety of everyday consumer products, from artificial fragrances in candles to hairspray, and in vinyl products like flooring and even rubber duck toys. When used in personal-care products, phthalates are often hidden in the "fragrance" or "parfum" concoction mentioned in the ingredients list. Avoid fragranced products and products made from soft plastics when you can, especially vinyl and PVC. See our healthy home series for more suggestions.

• Take off your shoes when you come home, and have the rest of your family do likewise. It's a smart habit that will keep you from tracking in pesticides and other chemicals from outdoors.

• Reduce your exposure to radiation from unneeded medical tests. A report released in 2008 found that exposure to radiation from medical testing has increased by seven times since the 1980s.

• Filter your tap water. See our story about filters for advice on choosing the right filter for your needs.

None of use can live in a bubble or create an environment completely free of questionable chemicals. But we can change the way we think about the chemicals we come into contact with every day and let that guide our decisions. "Don’t think of our environment only as our air and water," says Zuckerman. "Think of it in terms of our kitchen cabinets, our baby’s toys, the microwavable containers that contain our instant meals, the box our pizza comes in." All—yes, even the pizza box—have chemicals. "I’m glad that the oil doesn’t soak through the pizza box, but not if it means the chemicals from the box get into the pizza that we eat," says Zuckerman.

Among other things, the report recommends a precautionary approach in which the burden of proving a chemical's safety is shifted to its manufacturers, before it's approved for use. "We have to test chemicals before we allow them to surround us, not wait until it’s too late. That will probably mean living with fewer chemicals, and hopefully it will mean living longer and healthier lives," Zuckerman adds.

Zuckerman warns that there will be a lot of critics of this report. "Some will be nonprofit organizations that receive lots of money from companies that sell the products that may be harming us," she says. "So, keep that in mind as you hear people debate this report." But a robust debate is better than the status quo, she adds. "There are a lot of unanswered questions, but it’s time to take those questions seriously instead of pretending that cancer is caused only by genes and other things we can’t control."