June 15, 2018

Chemicals and the environment: How to reduce your cancer risk

People come into contact with chemicals every day, whether it's in the cleaners we use in our homes or in the air we breathe.

Research has not been able to show a direct link between most environmental toxicants (harmful man-made, artificial products introduced into the environment by human activity) and cancer, but scientists say that we can be vigilant about the chemicals we are exposed to and take steps to avoid those that may be harmful to our health.

"It is appropriate to be wary of things in the environment that may cause disease," said Melissa Runge-Morris, M.D., director of the Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors, or CURES, at Wayne State University and professor of Medicine in the Department of Oncology at WSU and the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute. "Chemicals are part of our world. We have to learn to be smart about them."

The CURES program unites scientists from WSU, Karmanos and the Henry Ford Health System, as well as other major health systems in metropolitan Detroit, along with members of the academic community and health- and community-based organizations, to promote environmental health sciences research.

"It's rare to look at a single exposure that may give rise to cancer or other diseases," said Michele Cote, Ph.D., associate professor of Oncology at the School of Medicine and Karmanos, and program leader of Career Development with CURES. "Many cancers can take years to develop."

Melissa Cooper Sargent, Green Living Resources director at the Ecology Center, based in Ann Arbor, is co-chair of the CURES Community Advisory Board. She said that there are specific steps people can take to reduce chemical and toxicant exposures.

"We tell people, 'Do one thing at first,'" she said. "Eliminating pesticides is a great place to start. Pesticides are toxic by design; they are meant to kill organisms. You can also start by reading labels on products. Buy cosmetics with simple, understandable ingredients. Find cleaners that say 'Caution' instead of 'Warning,' 'Danger' or 'Poison.'"

Other strategies to decrease your exposure to harmful toxicants:

Stop smoking.

Maintain a healthy weight.

Visit the Environmental Working Group's website at www.ewg.org for lists of foods that may contain more pesticides than others.

Limit your use of fragrance products, including perfumes and scented candles.

Test your home for radon, which is strongly associated with lung cancer. Testing kits are available at most home improvement stores, and radon abatement services can reduce radon levels.

For information about the CURES program, visit cures.wayne.edu or www.facebook.com/CURESWSU. To learn more about the Ecology Center, visit www.ecocenter.org or www.facebook.com/EcologyCenter.