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CancerSmart Consumer Guide
Guide Helps Consumers Track Toxins at Home
By Gail Johnson
Illustration: Lori Joy Smith
Georgia Straight 12-Aug-2004
Every time someone lights a cigarette, dozens of carcinogens get released into the air--substances like hydrogen cyanide and ammonia and formaldehyde. If the word carcinogens has a nasty ring to it, that's for good reason: they're known to cause cancer. Besides in Marlboros, toxic ingredients also exist in dozens of day-to-day household products, everything from laundry detergent to oven cleaner to pet-flea control. And toxins are also present in the food we eat, in the form of residue from pesticides used on fruits and vegetables like apples, peaches, snow peas, and spinach. Problem is, most consumers don't have a clue.
Just as not smoking can reduce the risk of lung cancer, not using harmful chemicals to clean your countertops could help decrease the chance of acquiring other forms of the disease. According to the Vancouver-based Labour Environmental Alliance Society, the link between human health and the environment is commonly overlooked. To help people better understand what's in the products they buy--and help them find safer options--the organization recently published the CancerSmart Consumer Guide.
The easy-to-read booklet goes into comprehensive detail about a vast array of chemicals, such as 2-butoxyethanol--a suspected cardiovascular, developmental, endocrine, liver, kidney, and reproductive toxicant found in products like Fantastic Lemon Scent Cleaner and Tilex Total Bathroom Multipurpose Cleaner--and ethoxylated nonylphenol, a suspected endocrine toxicant, which is in Purex Liquid Laundry Detergent and VIP Regular Detergent.
"People really do want to know what's in common products, and they have a right to know," Mae Burrows, LEAS's executive director, said in a phone interview. "People generally have a vague sense of the chemicals in pesticides. But when they look at this book, they're shocked to find out that there are known human carcinogens in all these other products."
In Canada, Burrows explained, manufacturers do not have to label carcinogens on their products. In some states, like California, and in the European Union, however, such labelling is mandatory. Furthermore, in Europe, if manufacturers are unsure whether or not certain ingredients are harmful to human health, they are required to do tests to find out.
"We have no rights as consumers in Canada--in this age of information--to know what's in a product," Burrows said. "There are 70,000 chemicals on the market that haven't been tested for their effect on human health. They are innocent till proven guilty."
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, about five percent of cancers can be directly linked to environmental contaminants. That's about 6,400 cases across the country each year.
Among the organizations that test substances for detrimental health effects are the International Agency for Research on Cancer (a division of the World Health Organization), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. LEAS draws its information from these and other groups to form its list of harmful chemicals. (The 24-page guide, $10, is available by contacting LEAS [www.leas.ca/] at 604-669-1921 , firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Take ingredients in some cleaning products. According to Scorecard.org--a Web site that's operated by the New York?based Environmental Defense and that provides information on more than 11,000 chemicals--silica is a known carcinogen and is suspected of being toxic to the gastrointestinal tract, liver, kidney, and respiratory system. The CancerSmart Consumer Guide lists silica as an ingredient in Ajax Cleaner With Bleach, Comet Powder With Chlorinol, and Twinkle Copper and Brass Cleaner. Then there's trisodium nitrilotriacetate, a known carcinogen, found in All, Sunlight, and Wisk laundry detergents.
The CancerSmart Consumer Guide includes dozens of other products, from paint thinners to fungicides, as well as their active ingredients and what type of "toxic classes" they fall under: endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, or reproductive toxins. According to the booklet, Hartz 2-in-1 Flea and Tick Powder for Dogs and Cats contains the carcinogen tetrachlorvinphos, which can also be toxic to the kidneys and skin. As an alternative, the guide suggests insecticidal soaps. Xylene--often found in paints, some adhesives, and graffiti and scuff removers--is, according to Scorecard.org., suspected of being a developmental toxicant, which means it could have adverse effects on growing children. It's also potentially harmful to people's cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, immunological, neurological, and reproductive systems.
There's also the hazardous effect on the environment to consider. All these products end up flushed away and carried via groundwater into rivers. There they can have devastating impacts on animals, birds, and fish.
Many people might not expect to find such toxic compounds in the food they eat.
The CancerSmart Consumer Guide refers to the CFIA, which screened hundreds of food samples for contaminants between 1994 and 1998. According to the guide, some fruits and vegetables were contaminated with residues from 10 or more different pesticides.
Fresh grapes, for example, were found to have residue from such substances as: carbaryl, a suspected carcinogen and endocrine toxicant; chlorpropham, which can cause nosebleeds and inflammation of the stomach and intestinal lining; dichloran, which is suspected of causing heart, blood, liver, and skin damage; and phosmet, which can lead to eye and skin irritation, dizziness, and sweating. The list goes on.
LEAS's guide lists the 15 most contaminated fruits and vegetables--including grapes, lettuce, apples, and cherries--and the 15 least likely to be contaminated, like asparagus, avocado, beets, corn, and eggplant. FoodWatch, a program of Toronto-based Environmental Defence Canada, takes information from the CFIA for its Toxic Tracker, which enables people to click on a various foods and learn what chemicals they have been known to carry.
The guide urges people to use safe cleaning products, lobby regulatory bodies to reduce the number of contaminants in our food supply, and support local, organic farming. As for the scrubbing part, there are always the methods grandma used: vinegar to kill mould and germs, and borax to clean the toilet.