We've always known that life brings us in contact with a staggering number of chemicals, some of which are potentially dangerous in high doses. But we've never had a clear understanding about how many of those chemicals are actually making their way into our bodies—until now.
The Environmental Working Group just released a first-of-its-kind report on the chemical carcinogens found in people's bodies. After compiling biomarker data, which measures chemical levels in the blood, urine, breast milk, and hair, the EWG detected up to 420 different potential carcinogens.
What the report means for you
Now, before you freak out, it's important to realize that just because these chemicals may be in your body, it doesn't mean they're actively causing cancer.
Though there is a clear link between chemicals and disease (the World Health Organization estimates that as many as 19 percent of cancers are caused by environmental factors), the toxicity of the chemicals, the duration of exposure, and the body's genetics all play a huge role. And the EWG estimates that only nine of the more than 400 carcinogens found were measured at levels high enough to pose nontrivial cancer risks.
How to reduce your risk
Carcinogens are present in everything from industrial products and pesticides to more natural sources like food and water, so not even the most Howard Hughes-est of germophobes stands a chance of completely dodging them.
However, certain simple lifestyle tweaks can help reduce your risk of exposure. We reached out to hormone expert Dr. Sara Gottfried to get her take on some of the report's most widely found carcinogens and snag some of her tips on how to keep them out of your body.
1. Heavy metals
Heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead were among the most frequently detected carcinogens in the report, found in 90 percent of the participants. Industrial workers are especially vulnerable to heavy metal exposure, but trace metals are also present in drinking water and certain seafood. Metal molecules can disrupt the endocrine system and bind to DNA to cause mutations.
Pesticides from industrial farms can sneak into food and water sources, and traces of them were found in one-third to two-thirds of those surveyed in the EWG study.
The EWG advises choosing organic produce whenever possible, especially if you're shopping for these 12 pesticide-heavy fruit and veggie varieties, and Dr. Gottfried recommends investing in a water purification system to nix pesticide contaminants from your tap.
Phthalates are synthetic chemicals found in certain plastics, beauty products, and pesticides. Known hormone disruptors, they've been tied to metabolism, fertility, and reproductive health issues.
The EWG recommends steering clear of all personal care and cleaning products that have the word "fragrance" on the ingredients list, since they often contain phthalates. Dr. Gottfried says to avoid plastic products that have the "3" recycling code molded on the bottom, for they also likely contain the chemical.
4. Bisphenol A (BPA)
Bisphenol A is another chemical that's found in household plastics like water bottles and food can linings. It can disrupt the endocrine system and has been linked to obesity, diabetes, and endometriosis.
The EWG recommends opting for fresh food over canned whenever possible and avoiding plastics marked with “PC” (for polycarbonate) or "7" recycling codes. Dr. Gottfried suggests adding more probiotic-rich foods like yogurt and tempeh to your diet, as they've been shown to facilitate the removal of BPA from the body in animal studies.
What the report could mean for the country
The EWG released the review to advance research about how carcinogens drive disease and educate the public about the pervasiveness of chemicals in modern life.
"We thought that would be really valuable for researchers to see where the gaps are, and we also thought it would be valuable for individuals to understand the incredible amount of carcinogens in the world, where they're coming from, and the ways in which they can reduce exposures," Curt DellaValle, the study's senior scientist, explained to mindbodygreen.
DellaValle also underlined the importance of federal policy in spurring real chemical reform.
"When we stopped using lead in paint, we saw a drastic decrease in people who had the chemical in their system. When PCBs were banned in America, we also saw a decrease in the amount that was detected in people," he said. "I think that shows that when we pass effective policies, we can see really dramatic reductions in our chemical exposures."
President Obama's recent Moonshot Initiative aims to find a cure to cancer—a cure that the EWG and its President Ken Cook think could start before diagnosis.
“We should focus on preventing cancer by preventing human exposure to these chemicals," he said in the report's press release.