Presidential panel report: to avoid cancer, eat organic, filter water, avoid plastic food containers

The President's Cancer Panel (http://pcp.cancer.gov, LOL!) today issued a report that includes some surprising recommendations for minimizing environmental cancer risk: eat organic, filter your water, and avoid storing food or beverages in plastics that contain Bisphenol A (BPA). The bottom line is to minimize exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. Snip from Nick Kristof's related op-ed/summary in the NYT:
cancer.jpg Traditionally, we reduce cancer risks through regular doctor visits, self-examinations and screenings such as mammograms. The President's Cancer Panel suggests other eye-opening steps as well, such as giving preference to organic food, checking radon levels in the home and microwaving food in glass containers rather than plastic.

In particular, the report warns about exposures to chemicals during pregnancy, when risk of damage seems to be greatest. Noting that 300 contaminants have been detected in umbilical cord blood of newborn babies, the study warns that: "to a disturbing extent, babies are born 'pre-polluted.' "

NYT: New Alarm Bells About Chemicals and Cancer, and here's the report (PDF, 240 pages total).

After reading the report, I was inspired to throw out (recycle!) all of the pthalate and BPA-laden cheapo plastic food storage containers from my kitchen, and order replacements made from glass with silicone seals. I already buy mostly organic foods, and drink mostly filtered water. I don't microwave my food at all, but if even storing cold leftovers in certain types of plastic containers might up your risk, this seems an easy and cheap enough change to make. Can't hurt.

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  1. Everybody please join Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families (www.saferchemicals.org)! We need your support to reform the archaic laws that govern toxic chemicals in the US.

    The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition represents more than 11 million individuals and includes parents, health professionals, advocates for people with learning and developmental disabilities, reproductive health advocates, environmentalists and businesses from across the nation.

    Our coalition of diverse groups is united by their common concern about toxic chemicals in our homes, places of work, and products we use every day.

  2. The only reference to organics, specifically is in this paragraph:

    Except for animals raised on organic farms, most livestock in feed lots and poultry farms are given antibiotics, growth hormones, and feed that may consist in part of animal tissue that itself may be contaminated by these drugs. When excreted, these medications become part of the toxic run-off from agricultural operations. The impact of this contamination on human cancer is unknown at this time, but there is speculation that the growth hormones may contribute to endocrine disruption in humans.

    They recommend giving preference to produce that doesn’t have insecticides or chemicals on it, but even USDA organic standards allow use of a number of chemicals on crops labeled as organic.

  3. I’m very confused by this study. I thought that a lot of research wasn’t conclusive yet on a lot of the things in it, like not holding your cell phone to your head when you talk and such like that. And I also thought that tap water was safe too. What’s the deal here?

    1. With BPA, it really isn’t. BPA is a plasticizer that isn’t conclusively known to be carcinogenic. And I don’t mean “conclusively” in the sense of tobacco and cancer, but as in honestly, seriously, people are failing to find correlations. What’s true is that BPA has appeared in people’s systems at birth, but this doesn’t mean that it’s harmful, only biologically prevalent. The hysteria over BPA is, frankly, a moral panic.

      Either way, it’s a moot point. BPA isn’t even used as a plasticizer anymore. As soon as public opinion began to be influenced by sensationalist journalism on possible links between BPA and birth defects, cancer, etc., companies began switching to other non-BPA products.

      Frankly, Xeni, the real reason I felt it necessary to comment is that your phrasing “phthalate and BPA city” and “off-gassy and fumey” as denoting something harmful is in no small part confirmation bias. The smell of new plastic that hasn’t been stored in air for a while is the same thing as “new car” smell. It’s polymer plasticizer, and the reason you smell it is because the odor threshold is low, not because it is present in significant quantity. Most synthetic carpet fibers today are made of polytrimethylene terephthalate. You’re probably stepping on them right now. Just because they don’t often occur in nature doesn’t mean they’re bad.

      1. YMMV, and if you are a fan of 99-cent-store plastic food containers which emit smelly fumes *and* are confirmed to contain suspected toxins, please provide a shipping address and I’ll mail you mine.

        There is a wide range of debate over BPA toxicity. Along with hysteria there are concerns based in science, coming from non-hysterical sources. To write all of that off as “moral hysteria” is tantamount to trolling.

        Additionally, your psychic skills are off. I don’t have carpeting in my home.

        1. While I agree that the safe levels of BPA in people are in doubt (and that humans are exposed to BPA is certainly NOT in doubt), I wasn’t trying to troll. What I was simply trying to point out was that much of the rhetoric that you were putting forward wasn’t about the science but about “common sense” arguments, reminiscent of a moral panic but not necessarily indicative of one. My comment about phthalates was meant to point out that just because something sounds like chemistry it’s necessarily bad. In my opinion the only thing that matters is the science involved.

          I am a pretty poor student, and use said 99-cent plastic tupperware things all the time to help me keep my food costs down. I’ll be the first to drop them like an ugly baby if and when BPA is proved toxic – I do have a stake in this kind of thing. FWIW, though, if you are truly concerned, you probably ought to stop drinking from aluminum soda cans as well. Turns out BPA is still used in the polymer lining that prevents the contact between liquid and metal from fouling the can.

          Oh, and by the way, you are right about the nonstick coatings. Teflon has a different thermal expansion coefficient than most metal and decomposes at high temperature, which leads to microscopic cracks and flaking off of teflon that’s at high temperature, as well as decomposition products getting in your food. Heck, I’m a fan of cast irons as a non-stick alternative myself – gets you a little bit more minerals in your diet anyhow.

          1. You wrote:

            you probably ought to stop drinking from aluminum soda cans as well

            The points behind your arguments are reasonable to debate, but the presumptuous “gotcha!” tone of your comments in this thread is annoying. You’re making mistaken assumptions about my personal lifestyle choices (or wording your comments poorly).

            I don’t buy beverages in cans. I drink mostly (filtered) water, homemade juices, or tea/coffee. Partly for economics, partly because I am lazy and don’t like lugging around lots of heavy cans, partly for health and nutrition reasons, and partly because that’s just what I like.

          2. I apologize if I came off as heckling you and making assumptions about your lifestyle choices. Either way, I don’t think it’s worth spending our time trying to work out our statements, so cheers.

  4. Of course, glass and silicone are fine materials, but there’s no need to throw out cheapo plastic food storage containers if they’re #2, or #5 (Polyethylene, and Polypropylene respectively), since those plastics don’t leach stuff in general, and specifically don’t contain Bisphenol A. Bisphenol A isn’t used to make them, either.

    1. As it happens, the cheapo stuff I had in the cupboard, which i bought — seriously! — from a 99 Cent Store, was pthalate and BPA city. Some were soft, others stiff, and apart from the fact that I confirmed they likely either contained pthalates or were BPA offenders, they were also kind of gross to begin with — when I bought them, I remember they smelled all off-gassy and fumey for like a week. That can’t be good. So, out they go, and in with glass.

  5. I engage in all manner of cancer causing activities as part of my lifestyle, so I guess it’s too late for me: but isn’t recycling the evil plastics merely passing the buck to the next unlucky citizen? (better than burning them in a big pyre or throwing them in the sea I suppose. . .)

    1. Yeah, I’m not happy about having created waste. But plastics can be recycled, and are recycled, into non-food uses. And the point here was that storing food and beverages in containers made from this type of plastic is bad news.

  6. Okay, the linked PDF appears to be from a previous year, but even so it looks like the news article is seriously mis-representing the recommendations this panel is likely to put out.

    Not “organic.” Either produce grown without pesticides–which is not strictly the same as organic, for a number of reasons–or WASHED before eating. (Duh.) Frankly, it looks like the article could be twisting the report to push an agenda.

    1. I’m not going to get into a semantics article over organic/chemical-free agriculture here, but regarding your assertion that I got the report date wrong: You’re wrong, the report was released today, based on data over the past two years.

    1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bisphenol_A

      Wikipedia is not a good place to look for subjects in which new research is changing traditional viewpoints. Most editors tend toward conventional views, so that unconventional views need to be heavily documented to survive.

      “Plastics with recycling labels #1, #2 and #4 are safer choices and do not contain BPA” according to “A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives”, Ruth Winter, 2009, p.105.

      It makes no sense to use suspicious substances when there are safer alternatives at similar costs. I don’t like plastics around foodstuffs, especially stored or heated ones. Glass containers are not expensive, and can be recycled from countless sources for many uses.

  7. My mother heats frozen food in plastic containers in the microwave. She’s 85, and I can’t keep up with her.

    Personally, I won’t cook in aluminum. I don’t trust Teflon at all. Cast-iron, stainless, Pyrex, and ceramic . . . They’ve pretty much banned styrofoam containers in this town.

    1. Yeah. There are mixed reports on aluminum toxicity, and as I understand it, much of the concern stemmed from a flawed study back in the 1970s.

      Nonstick coatings, as I understand it, present the greatest risk when exposed to high temps (= overheat an empty skillet) or when they start to wear down and flake off in your food. When I used to keep birds in the house, we were told to be really really careful about using nonstick cookware, as fumes from overheated/empty pans were potentially life-threatening for birds. That always creeped me out.

      I’m not clear on the scientific consensus on those two issues. But it seems sensible to choose provably stable, nonreactive cookware, like cast iron or stainless steel, when possible. I’m also going to migrate over to those, too, and ditch the few pieces of tired old teflon/aluminum cookware I have in the kitchen when budget permits (= a few saucepans and an electric rice cooker). Plus, I find them more aesthetically pleasing.

  8. You know I love some sweet tea, and really like to steep it in the same container that I’ll store it in (just makes it easier). But I am hard pressed to find a reasonable size (say 2 quarts or so) glass container. At this point I’d even go for a PBA free plastic, but that seems impossible….

    I’d love to see more things come in glass, but I guess the increase in shipping cost might out weight the benefits….

    1. There might not be a health-food store near you but I know that stores that carry organic milk frequently make use of 2 quart to 1/2 gallon glass containers that you can re-use to make your tea. They typically have a bottle refund price of $2 (or something) to encourage their bring brought back to the store so it can be returned to the producer for re-use.

  9. THANK YOU for the link to the Snapware Glasslock containers. I saw some of these the other day at good old Bi-Mart, but they were one-at-a-time to purchase and it was too much for me to deal with when I already had a car full of groceries. Nice to see they come in a multi-pack from Amazon!

    I have a ton of “gladware” type containers that I have been using less and less, wanting to get out of storing food in plastic as much as possible. I look forward to finding other creative uses for them. My craft room is a mess, and I’m sure I could store a LOT of doodads and whatsahoozits in those containers.

  10. I just want to point out that the actual study uses the word “organic” in the sense of “organic farming” only once, in regards to animal growth hormones, and this is what it says:

    “The impact of this contamination on human cancer is unknown at this time”

    (The report uses the word “organic” many more times, but they are all the original, chemical sense of the word.)

  11. Yes, there is science on the toxicity of BPA: It’s mostly concerning fetal development of rats with too little folate in their diets. Observational studies of people show that older men with the most BPA in their urine are more likely to have heart disease and maybe diabetes, but other associations to other conditions (like cancer) within other groups of people haven’t been proving out.
    On the other hand, there’s a population of people exposed to large quantities of BPA to be studied: boats and surfboards were made from hand laid epoxy (which means stirring cups to gallons of neat BPA in buckets and using a brush or squeegee to spread it, then sanding down the not quite cured fiberglass) for decades before safety rules limited exposure. If people are developing cancer due to BPA exposure, why aren’t studies showing it?

    Also, if your plastic smells “fumey”, it probably doesn’t involve BPA. BPA isn’t very volatile, and doesn’t smell like much.

    1. Also, if your plastic smells “fumey”, it probably doesn’t involve BPA. BPA isn’t very volatile, and doesn’t smell like much.

      That portion of my comment referred to the soft plastic containers in my cupboard which, from all indicators, almost certainly contain pthalates. Not BPA, but pthalates.

  12. Is there some easy way to check if a plastic product contains BPA or not?
    Are old plastic product more likely to contain BPA?
    Are plastic bags an issue too?

    BTW, you can’t spell BPA without BP (gasp!)

  13. When I was a child all mothers bought those little jars of grape jelly that came in kid-sized drinking glasses. Everyone in our neighborhood grew up drinking out of those things, at cost zero and total recylability. If you bought the fancy cheese sauce, it came in a fancy cut-glass version suitable for high society. Now that I am an old man, I drink out of glass peanut butter jars. No plastics for me!

    Here’s some tips for y’all:

    – if it has more than five ingredients, or has any ingredient that has more than five syllables, it’s not food. Try to minimize the number of things you eat that aren’t food.

    – if you have to throw part of it away as soon as you get home, don’t buy it. Get your meat trimmed at the butcher, bring it home in waxed paper, rinse the paper and use it to start fires in winter or to wrap other things for disposal. Use your own shopping bags.

    – whenever you have the opportunity to sing, make love, or play a musical instrument, do that in preference to anything else you might want to do at the time.

    – make time to talk to children and pretty girls.

    1. “- if it has more than five ingredients, or has any ingredient that has more than five syllables, it’s not food. Try to minimize the number of things you eat that aren’t food.”

      A problem is that many things that sound singular and hunky dory (“meat”) is in fact a chem clusterf**k, due to antibiotics, “fortifications” and other factors in the modern profit maximizing animal death factories.

      “whenever you have the opportunity to sing, make love, or play a musical instrument, do that in preference to anything else you might want to do at the time.”

      Great advice there! Though we who have a hard time pulling off all three at the same time need some tie-breaker suggestions.

  14. Personally, I will only drink rain water and pure grain alcohol.

    We must protect our precious bodily fluids.

  15. I’m with XJ on this.
    2 Things:

    1) Some plastics display not linear, but Exponential rates of leaching. ie: their rate of contamination of the contained liquid/solid is x% @65F. At 90F, it’s orders-of-magnitude higher.

    2) Very few people are aware of their total risk profile based on their total health, nutritional intake, sleep schedule, heredity, etc + Epigenome (ie: the part of the genome that plays a controlling role in which are expressed and which aren’t; the reason why/not your granny had ovarian cysts and somehow you don’t get them; why some people get mesothelioma from 1 bit of asbestos and others can practically chew on the stuff with no effects.)

    -Especially given that 2nd one, the best path to take is probably the safest + most holistic one. ie: Err on the side of caution.

    Debate all you want, but if you miss your Vitamin D for a week because of a weather pattern, eat some bad food, down a few KFC or fried-fish free-radicals, pull in some outgassing from a printer at work, diesel particulates from city buses, ionized particles down-wind from high-tension lines, forget your spinach & acai, …
    All of those teeny-tiny links in the chain could add up to your epigenome for any particular condition being switched on.
    -Oops.

    Ex: I knew this really ghostly/near-albino-pale white guy who was mystified as to why he got Multiple Sclerosis while living in Skowhegan, Maine.

    -> The minimum US latitude where you get enough Vitamin D production all-year-round is ~Atlanta, GA.
    There was no way that guy’s skin melanin was going to soak up enough rays while in Maine to prevent his epigenome for MS being tripped.
    etc, etc, etc.

    1. It’s hard to know absolutes, but this sort of thinking seems sensible to me. Reduce as many possible negatives as you can, and increase as many positives as you can.

      Not nuking one’s office lunch in a plastic container seems an easy one to scratch off the list. Can this help you decrease total risk? A number of sources say yes. Can it hurt you? No.

      A number of the suggestions highlighted in Kristof’s article, and explored in more depth in the report, are easy changes to make, and cannot cause harm (checking radon levels, drinking filtered water whenever possible, avoiding produce sprayed with lots of chemicals)….

  16. I have also switched to mostly glassware,steel containers, not much store canned foods and local water but one thing i never hear about is our water delivery system in general. How much plastic and what type(s) are used from creek to cup? Given that most folk tested have BPA in their blood and BPA dissipates within 24 hrs I believe water may have something to do with that.

  17. “Traditionally, we reduce cancer risks through regular doctor visits, self-examinations and screenings such as mammograms.”

    Screenings and exams are actually for early detection of cancer (where the goal is to detect it at an early, treatable stage) rather than preventing a cancer from occurring (e.g. mammos, pap tests, PSAs). Exceptions are colonoscopy, where pre-malignant polyps can be removed (colon cancer rates are just starting to drop in the US), and possibly removing nasty moles that are on their way to cancer but aren’t yet melanomas.

    Reducing deaths from cancer overall will continue to require a multi-pronged approach of prevention, early detection, and improved treatments. Knowing what particular types of cancer are in your family history can give you some hints at cancers you might be more susceptible to as well, but the majority of cancers are non-hereditary. Then there is the frustrating element of randomness to which particular piece of DNA may or may not get damaged at which particular time, and whether that particular damage persists in a cell, and whether enough damage happens to accumulate in a cell to the point that it has malignant potential, and whether that cell can evade the immune system and grow to a point where it can successfully metastasize….

    Some mathematical models of cancer suggest that it’s actually amazing that humans don’t get much more cancer!

    While much of the evidence on environmental cancer risks is unclear at this time, at least reports like this draw attention to all the stuff out there in the world that goes into/onto our bodies, and makes folks think about it a bit more.

  18. There do seem to be a few odd tidbits in here– for one, the report, under “radiation” suggests limiting use of cell phones (headsets, text vs. call, and keeping calls brief).

    It also suggests walking instead of driving as a method of lowering auto exhaust. Which is correct as far as the environment goes, but would surely put the walker in contact with far more auto exhaust than driving would– walking slowly along a road versus driving quickly over it.
    Might not be a personal health goal there.

    1. what you say sounds common-sensical, but I remember reading (years ago so if there was a citation I don’t know what it was) a story about a study which showed testicular cancer rates were about twice as high in car drivers compared to bicycle riders… and I’d think that if anything’s going to give you testicular cancer, those tiny hard bike seats are (unless you’re a woman of course, who seem less likely to develop testicular cancer).

  19. It’s important to remember that the report is only concerned with “environmental” risk factors. My understanding is that the majority of cancers are attributable to personal behavior risk factors i.e., smoking, poor diet, excessive alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, excessive sun exposure etc. I’m no expert, but i have a feeling that the recommended environmental risk factors are nowhere near as significant as personal behavior related risk factors.

    1. I think that if you’re a smoker, you’re probably not in the target demographic for *this* report. This is what we can do after dealing with the bleeding obvious. You could also argue that sun exposure is environmental, or that eating heavily processed, irradiated food that’s been boiled in liquified pthalates is a personal behaviour risk factor.

  20. Humans seem to be suffering from a disease I call singular myopia, which allows them to see the world only in an overly focused manner, completely ignoring the fact that our planet works synergistically. What does it matter if a single chemical causes cancer on its own, if it creates the disease in collusion with thousands of other artificial products on the market? The truth is, inconclusive proof is merely a clever excuse for the inadequacy of “modern” science to see the world as it really is. We just don’t have the tools to prove or disprove anything of an important nature. Sadly, the fact that so many of think that science holds all the answers only proves that the inmates are running the asylum.

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