One out of every two Canadians will get a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. It is widely known that a healthy lifestyle can prevent many cancers. Quit smoking? Check. Drink responsibly? Check. Eat healthy food and get some exercise every day? Check. Better safe than sorry! But is it true that half of cancers are preventable? How can we, as a society, limit exposure to the cancer-causing substances we encounter every day? To try and provide answers to these questions, ATTITUDE teamed up with the Environmental Working Group and the Stroll Family Cancer Prevention Centre (McGill University) in a unique public forum back in 2018. Let's go back to this conference which is still very much topical.
A unique event: the first public forum on cancer prevention
The event was the first of its kind to bring together Public Health representatives, non-profit organizations and a consumer goods company to discuss cancer prevention. Their common mission: reducing cancer-related risk factors and the general public’s daily exposure to contaminants.
From left to right: Michael Pollak (Stroll Family Cancer Prevention Centre), Ken Cook (Environmental Working Group) and Hans Drouin (ATTITUDE) during the Cancer Prevention Public Forum. Photo: Rhoda Lim - Cancer Prevention Centre.
The participants were: Ken Cook, President and Co-founder, Environmental Working Group (EWG). Mr. Cook lobbies for environmental and public health on behalf of EWG, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. Dr. Michael Pollak, Director, Stroll Family Cancer Prevention Centre (McGill University). Dr. Pollak conducts research on cancer risk and prevention at the Stroll Family Cancer Prevention Centre, known for its clinical research and academic work in cancer prevention. Dr. Hans Drouin, Vice President and Director of Research & Development, ATTITUDE. Dr. Hans Drouin, PhD in Biotechnology and Chemical Engineering, focuses on developing ATTITUDE products that exceed government standards for consumer safety. Moderator: Steven Guilbeault, Co-founder and Senior Director, Équiterre. Steven Guilbeault, from Équiterre, a Canadian non-governmental organization, is an environmental activist who lobbies for education and the promotion of equitable ecological solutions.
Highlights of lecture given by Ken Cook: "Rethinking Cancer and the Environment"
How many harmful chemicals are we talking about?
According to a 2016 EWG report, there are currently over 80,000 chemicals available for use in the U.S. market. Out of these, researchers have identified 1,400 as carcinogens. Humans are exposed daily to these chemicals: pesticides, solvents, personal care products and household cleaners. EWG researchers found 420 of these known carcinogens in human tissues. “Carcinogens cause cancer. They don’t cause it in everyone, they don’t cause it right away, and they don’t cause it always in predictable ways,” EWG’s Ken Cook said. “But we know there are chemical agents that contribute, directly or indirectly, to causing cancer. While scientists are looking into solving this problem, their conclusion across the board is that it is best to avoid some exposure to these substances.”
One pancake in a stack 4,000 miles high
The chemical industry argues that there are only trace amounts of dangerous chemicals in everyday products. They use the term “parts per billion” to describe the minuscule quantities that come into contact with consumers. Cook argues that even minute quantities can have a major impact—particularly on fetuses. To explain “parts per billion”, Cook uses the analogy of one single pancake in a stack 4,000 miles high. Biomonitoring studies show that a one part per billion doses of carcinogen can be detected in umbilical cord blood and can contribute to low birth weight, smaller head circumference and thyroid problems. “Some of us are more vulnerable than others,” adds Cook. “Don’t let anyone from the chemical industry or any other source tell you that something in the parts per billion range doesn’t matter and has no health effects, unless they have the studies to prove it. Since we don’t require those studies on a regular basis, we believe that exposure to chemicals combined with the vulnerability of some individuals can have adverse health effects.”
Expert panel discussion on cancer risks and prevention strategies
1. What is the current state of cancer-causing chemicals in everyday products?
ATTITUDE’s Hans Drouin pointed out that the main ingredients found in almost every brand of shampoo or household cleaner today are still made from industrial processes dating back to the 1930s, with a chemical substance we now know is carcinogenic. Research by organizations like EWG shows that small quantities of these ingredients remain in the various products we use every day.
2. Why are cancer-causing chemicals still present in everyday products, despite U.S. and Canadian's regulations?
Government legislation continues to tolerate the presence of carcinogenic contaminants, present in small concentrations, in thousands of everyday products. But because these are not deliberately added to products (they may be residues, impurities or substances generated during production), manufacturers are not legally required to list them as ingredients on product labels. Hans Drouin points out that Health Canada’s goal is to protect citizens. But as long as there is no data proving that these contaminants pose a risk, no specific action will be undertaken. Moreover, with cross-contamination among products, it is very difficult to obtain data certifying the exposure risk. In the absence of evidence, the ingredients of concern remain on the market. According to Mr. Cook, the U.S. system is dysfunctional with regards to this issue, which is why we need to revitalize civic action. One way to do that is to help people understand they can begin protecting themselves by getting involved through lobbying and government pressure.
3. Is it true half of cancers can be prevented?
Prevention means taking responsibility for our own lifestyle choices
We are not making precise estimates, explains Dr. Pollak. “But whether 30% or 50% of cancers could be prevented, it’s still a huge number and that’s what counts! We have to prevent every single preventable cancer!” he adds. No drug out there cures even 30% of all cancers. And since the various cancer treatments that do exist don’t always work, and are expensive, Dr. Pollak argues that adapting our lifestyles is really the most efficient approach to avoiding preventable cancers.
“You have to think about the risks of having cancer the same way you would think about the risks of having a car accident. Determining all the factors is highly complex but there are known risk factors: speeding, driving drunk, brake problems. The same goes for cancer. Unhealthy habits, exposure to harmful products, or certain genetic issues mean your risk is higher”, says Dr. Pollak.Similarly, according to Mr. Cook, people need to pay attention and keep questioning every aspect of their lifestyle and consumption habits. Just as consumers have become increasingly aware, over the past decades, of the harmful effects of alcohol and tobacco, they need to understand today the impact of the contaminants and pollutants they encounter on a daily basis if they hope to reduce the risk of getting cancer in their lifetime.
“We’ll never have enough science, risk assessments or analyses of the combinations of chemicals in our bodies when we’re born,” Cook concludes. “There will never be enough studies to thoroughly demonstrate what you should eliminate to prevent cancer. But we do know you can live a perfectly healthy modern life and avoid tens of thousands of exposures every year.”
As for Mr. Drouin, he believes consumers have the power to affect widespread change. If people become more educated about what they’re buying and start demanding safer, worry-free products, the market will meet that demand. At the same time, there needs to be public pressure on governments to create more transparent laws on labelling practices so consumers know exactly what’s in every product they use.
Taking our health into our own hands
“By just loving life and staying aware of how precious and irreplaceable it is, we stand a much better chance of being efficient at preventing the kind of behaviour, exposure and products that might increase the risk of getting cancer or other diseases,” Mr. Cook says.
In closing, although there are no guarantees or statistics when it comes to our actual chances of reducing the risk of getting cancer, the good news is that we can do something now to improve our lifestyles and live longer, healthier lives. And for more good news, according to the experts in attendance at the forum, consumers have the power to bring about policy changes. It is up to us to make informed decisions. We can choose healthier lifestyles and products that are free from harmful chemicals. As citizens, we can put pressure on governments to implement better legislation. And as consumers, we can look for independent certifications and put our money behind companies that make the effort to manufacture worry-free products.