The Chemicals of Cancer - Part 2

May 25, 2001

By Michael Jessen

When television host Bill Moyers had his blood tested recently, he saw red. Not as in the colour but as in anger.

As part of a nine-person study tested for 100 chemicals in each person's body, Moyers was shocked to learn his body contained 84 of the chemicals, including 31 different polychlorinated biphenyls, a now-banned family of chemicals, and 13 different dioxins. Moyers' "chemical body burden" also included pesticides such as Malathion and DDT.

The 66-year-old Moyers took the blood test prior to the March 26th airing of his PBS television special "Trade Secrets" ( that revealed how chemical companies sometimes hid the truth about the health implications of their products from the public.

Earlier in March, the Centers for Disease Control had confirmed the presence of chemical contaminants in the blood and urine of average Americans in the "National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals" ( The report is the first to academically ascertain that the body tissues of average citizens now carry a burden of unhealthy toxic substances including mercury, cadmium, organophosphate pesticides, and phthalates, a compound used to soften plastics, emulsify soaps and carry fragrances among other things. Some of the chemicals have been linked to a variety of human diseases including cancer, birth defects, and developmental and reproductive disorders.

In "Trade Secrets," based on a secret archive of chemical industry documents uncovered during a lawsuit, Moyers brings to light thousands of memos and scientific reports that show a vast cover-up within America's chemical companies. Industry executives had research evidence in the late 1950s indicating that a chemical like vinyl chloride caused cancer and other health problems. But time after time, the companies agreed to keep the findings from the public and their own workers. The Environmental Working Group has made the entire archive available at

"It was a story we never were supposed to know," Moyers says in the documentary based in part on a series of articles ( written by then Houston Chronicle reporter Jim Morris. The American Chemistry Council responded to the show ( calling it "inaccurate" and "incomplete" and claiming that Moyers did not adhere to proper journalistic standards.

The documentary jumpstarted a wave of grassroots activism to make food, water, and communities safer from untested chemicals. The Coming Clean Campaign ( seeks to phase out use of dangerous toxins and hold the chemical industry responsible for its misdeeds.

PollutionWatch ( is an environmental information service provided by the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, Canadian Environmental Law Association, Canadian Environmental Defence Fund, and the U.S. group Environmental Defense. By typing in their postal code Canadians can get information about the kind of chemicals that manufacturing facilities release in their communities and which of those may pose health risks. While information is power, both Trail's Cominco ( and Castlegar's Celgar ( plant representatives encouraged PollutionWatch visitors to contact them about the respective rankings of their companies on the web site since the medical community has not concluded that emissions from either company pose any measurable health risk.

PollutionWatch's Environmental Release Reports combine data from the 1999 Environment Canada National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) with information on the potential health hazards associated with specific chemicals. It covers the approximately 2,000 facilities that reported to the NPRI on the release and transfer of 245 chemicals on the NPRI list for 1999.

The reports, however, do not cover other sources of pollution including cars, small businesses, and electric utilities. The reports do not tell you if the volume of pollutants released in your community is safe or unsafe. Nor do the reports calculate the amount of health risk that reported pollution in your area poses.

Dr. Samuel Epstein, chair of the Cancer Prevention Coalition ( and professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Illinois School of Public Health in Chicago, is convinced lifelong use of mainstream personal care products from conception to death poses major avoidable cancer risks.

"Toxic ingredients in consumer products stand near the top of the list of avoidable cancer risk factors," adds Epstein. Jeanne Shaw, a Slocan Valley registered nutrition consultant and local director of a Cancer Prevention Coalition chapter, started researching toxic personal care ingredients when a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"What I discovered was that as consumers we are not given enough information to make safe choices," said Shaw. The labeling laws in Canada do not even require disclosure of ingredients in personal care products like shampoo, tooth paste, cosmetics, and bubble bath, she added.

"Products can be labeled as containing a natural, even organic, substance when that substance has actually been chemically modified into something potentially toxic," said Shaw. "I also discovered that some ingredients can be contaminated with harmful substances; that of course is not on the bottle."

Two of the ingredients Shaw and others say are harmful are sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate. These chemicals are foaming agents that can apparently become contaminated with nitrosamine compounds that have been linked to cancer. There are many web sites that point out dangers with these chemicals ( and Yet Health Canada says these warnings are all part of an Internet hoax ( Who to believe? Is it better to be safe than sorry?

Shaw ( or is an independent distributor of the Neways brand of personal care products that have been tested by third party scientists and are guaranteed to contain no harmful ingredients or contaminants. Shaw's business is online at

On the PBS web site about the Trade Secrets show are pages about the harmfulness of chemicals in personal care products. The descriptions about ingredients in some cosmetics give an frightening warning (

"Phthalates are sometimes listed on labels of nail polish and other cosmetics, but there are multiple synonyms for phthalates that may not be immediately recognizable. The phthalate DBP, for example, may be labeled as "butyl ester." And, according to the EPA, there are 26 synonyms for the phthalate DEHP. Scientists do not know whether the levels of phthalates found in nail polish pose a risk to the developing fetus in humans. However, because animal studies have found that DBP interferes with normal fetal development in male offspring, pregnant women and women who wish to have children may choose to avoid nail polish as much as possible."

ONE SMALL STEP - Over 150 million kilograms of toxic chemicals are released by manufacturing facilities into Canada's environment each year, including 7 million kilograms of carcinogens. Some products we use everyday may also contain known carcinogens. Relying on chemical companies to vouch for the safety of their products is like relying on the tobacco industry to assess the risk of tobacco. Learn everything you can about chemicals in your life; failure to do so may be the death of you.

RESOURCES - The May 21 issue of Maclean's magazine has a cover story on cancer and its increase in Canada. The article includes a survival guide to the latest in prevention and treatment. It mentions the studies of one Canadian scientist who minimizes the effects of chemicals on cancer rates. (The article is available online at by entering cancer in the search engine. The May/June issue of World Watch magazine ( contains an article about the proposed tougher stance on chemicals being taken in the European Union. The June issue of Utne Reader ( contains a number of excellent articles by Kenny Ausubel, Sandra Steingraber, Karen Olson, and Dr. Larry Dossey under the general title "The Future of Healing." The summer issue of Earth Island Journal has a alarming article about the dangers of fluoride. The May/June issue of Tikkun magazine ( has an article by Kenny Ausubel about the cancer industry and its response to alternative therapies like the Hoxsey treatment. Another article by macrobiotic counselor and certified nutritionist Nina Moliver makes the case that lifestyle and toxins have a combined role in cancer. The spring issue of Orion Afield ( has an article entitled "Toxic Tourism" with the shocking information that three out of five African Americans live in communities with abandoned toxic waste sites. Could this have anything to do with the fact that African Americans have a higher incidence rate of almost every type of cancer in the United States? Finally, the April 2001 issue of The Ends Report ( has articles about the death toll of the Belgian dioxin crisis, the chemical industry Internet expose, and fluorochemicals. Health Care Without Harm ( is the web site of the Campaign for Environmentally Responsible Health Care that is trying to eliminate incineration of medical waste and the use of mercury and PVC plastic in medical facilities. The organization also promotes comprehensive pollution prevention practices.

Michael Jessen is an environmental consultant and owner of toenail environmental services, which specializes in helping businesses with sustainability issues. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 250/229-5632. His firm's award-winning web site can be found at

All columns archived here are copyright © 2000 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at to arrange appropriate payment.