Cancer in Canada is now projected to afflict one in every 2.2 men and one in every 2.6 women in their lifetime. In the 1930s, those numbers were less that one in 10. What’s happening? Why are we now seeing what many are calling a “cancer epidemic”? 

Some would suggest we are simply an aging population and cancer is a disease of the old. Not true. Recent statistics show that the net incidence rate of cancer has increased 25 per cent for males and 20 per cent for females from 1974 to 2005 — after correcting for the effects of aging.

Children are increasingly the victims. Researchers in Britain have shown that certain childhood cancers such as leukemia and brain cancer have increased by more than a third since the 1950s.

In Canada, hundreds of millions of dollars are raised and spent for cancer research and treatment. The elephant in the room, however, is the contribution of environmental toxins and whether many of the cancers striking Canadians can be avoided rather than simply managed.

The World Health Organization estimates that fully 25 per cent of cancers worldwide are caused by occupational and environmental factors other than smoking. You don’t have to look far for some potential chemical culprits.

There are more than 85,000 chemicals that are currently licensed for use in North America. Less than half have ever been tested for human health risk and even fewer for potential environmental impacts.

The U.S. Centers For Disease Control recently turned their attention toward pollution detection — not in the environment, but within the human body. Their study in 2002 found the presence of 81 different toxic chemicals, including PCBs, benzene and other carcinogens in their sampling of 2,500 people tested.

It is somewhat of a no-brainer that reducing exposure to known carcinogens will reduce the risk of developing cancer. Surprisingly, this simple logic seems to have been lost on our federal government. Many chemicals that are scientifically demonstrated carcinogens or otherwise toxic are freely used here without any legal obligation to identify them on the label. Some of these same chemicals are entirely banned elsewhere. A trip to your local supermarket reveals a small sample of these hidden poisons:

Mothballs contain either naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene, both of which are carcinogenic. A recent U.S. study linked mothball use to an increased incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Polycarbonate plastics used in food-grade plastic containers such as water bottles can leach Bisphenol A, an estrogen-mimicking chemical linked to a variety of disorders, including hormone-related birth defects, learning disabilities, prostate cancer and neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Several leading perfumes, nail polishes and other cosmetic products sold in Canada contain the endocrine-disrupting phthalates DBP and DEHP — both banned for use in cosmetic products in European Union countries.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs are common chemical fire retardants found in everything from foam mattresses to computer parts. They have similar properties to the now outlawed PCBs and are known neurotoxins and hormone disrupters. The most dangerous forms are now banned in the EU, though they remain legal here in Canada.

Many leading brands of household laundry detergent contain trisodium nitrilotriacetate, another suspected carcinogen as well as an environmental pollutant.

Chemicals that endanger human life also go down the drain and impact the environment. A gruesome example involved a dead orca that washed up south of Vancouver in 2000 that was so contaminated with persistent chemicals that Ottawa considered shipping the carcass to the Swan Hills toxic waste facility for incineration.

Like orcas, we are perched at the top of the food chain and are becoming the unwitting receptacles of many of the chemicals designed to make our lives more convenient.

Ballooning cancer rates are simply not worth whiter clothes or fewer moths.

Cancer must be fought on many fronts. Research and treatment are undeniably important but so is environmental cancer prevention. It is therefore shocking that our government is not moving faster to ban known and suspected carcinogens, and requiring mandatory “right to know” labeling so that Canadians can better protect themselves and their families.

Anything less is quite simply putting the interests of the chemical industry ahead of human life.

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