Are Americans “bombarded with…dangerous exposures” to cancer-causing toxins, as a scary report from the President’s Cancer Panel contends? Of more than 80,000 chemicals on the US market--some found in products used by millions of people in daily life—only a few hundred have ever been tested for safety, warns the report, released in May. Yet these largely unregulated chemicals, including some linked to cancer risk, are now so ubiquitous in our environment that 300 contaminants have been detected in the umbilical cord blood of newborns, leading the authors to warn that babies are born “pre-polluted.”Over a lifetime, 41 percent of Americans will develop cancer, and 21 percent will die from it. While the leading culprits include smoking, obesity, and sun exposure, a variety of common products—some of them quite surprising—can also be triggers, according to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Here’s a guide to seven known or probable carcinogens:
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- Coffee: There’s hot debate brewing about the health effects of coffee, since it lifts risk for some cancers and cuts risk for others. A 1991 IARC report linked drinking coffee to increased risk for bladder cancer, while a study released in May found that men who consumed six or more cups daily were 60 percent less likely to develop fatal prostate cancer. Quaffing two or more cups a day raises lung cancer risk by 14 percent, according to a 2010 review. Classification: Probable carcinogen.
- Flame retardant baby products: In the 1970s, the flame retardant Tris was removed from kids’ sleepwear as a suspected carcinogen. In May, a study found chlorinated Tris in more than one-third of the polyurethane foam baby products tested, including nursing pillows, car seats, baby carriers and high chairs. A program within the EPA not only has identified the chemical as a cancer hazard, but also reports that animal studies link it to developmental defects, anemia, liver failure and reproductive problems. Classification: Probable carcinogen.
- Talcum powder: Widely used to keep skin dry and prevent rashes, talcum powder may cause ovarian cancer if applied to the female genitals. Particles from sanitary napkins, diaphragms, condoms and talcum power applications could travel through the vagina, uterus and fallopian tubes to the ovaries. An analysis of data from 16 studies found a 30 percent rise in ovarian cancer risk among talcum users. A safe alternative is cornstarch powder, which is not linked to cancer. Classification: Possible carcinogen.
- Alcohol: Nearly 10 percent of cancers in men—and 3 percent in women—are sparked by drinking too much alcohol, German researchers reported in April. They calculate that in the eight European countries studied, about 54,500 cases of alcohol-related cancer, such as cancers of the upper digestive tract, colon, liver and breast (in women), would have been prevented in 2008 if women limited themselves to no more than one alcoholic drink a day and men to two drinks. Classification: Known carcinogen.
- Hormone replacement therapy: Used to relieve menopause symptoms and delivered as a pill, patch or vaginal ring, hormone replacement therapy may involve estrogen alone or a combination of estrogen and progesterone. The Women’s Health Initiative study reports that daily use raised women’s risk for breast cancer by five to six percent for each year HRT was taken. Estrogen-only HRT more quintuples risk for uterine cancer. Doctors advise women who use HRT to take it for the shortest possible time. Classification: Known carcinogen.
- Salted fish. Eating salted fish, a popular food in Asian countries, raises risk for cancers of the nose, stomach and colon. Studies also link consumption of highly salty foods, including fish, to increased threat of ovarian and prostate cancer. Also be wary of caviar: A 2010 study of 77,500 Japanese men and women found that those who ate salted fish roe the most frequently had the highest overall rate of cancer. Classification: Known carcinogen.
- Tanning beds: There’s no such thing as a “healthy tan.” Some tanning beds emit 10 to 15 times more UV radiation than the midday sun. A 2010 study found that young people who have ever used a tanning bed are 1.41 times more likely to get melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, and those who have used them 10 or more times have double the risk. Melanoma rates in young women have tripled over the past 30 years, largely due to use of tanning beds. Classification: Known carcinogen.