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Do I Need to Worry About Household Chemicals and Cancer Risk?

US News & World Report - Health logo US News & World Report - Health 7/18/2018 Elaine K. Howley

Cleaning shower tile with a sponge and spray bottle of cleaner: Never mix bleach or any bleach-containing product with a cleaner that contains ammonia. © (Getty Images) Never mix bleach or any bleach-containing product with a cleaner that contains ammonia. Which chemicals pose a risk and how worried should you be?

In early July, news outlets around the country reported that more than 400 lawsuits alleging that Monsanto's Roundup weed killer caused cancer could move forward. The U.S. District judge on the case expressed concern that evidence linking the herbicide, which contains a chemical called glyphosate, to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma was "rather weak," but permitted the science to be used in upcoming trials. The landmark ruling could disrupt agribusiness, but it also raises the question: How worried do we need to be about the chemicals we use in and around our homes on a regular basis?

Regulations in place in a variety of industries are intended to keep us safe from potentially toxic chemicals that turn up in our cleaning agents, personal care products and other common goods found in the home. But we're living in the age of plastics and we're surrounded by chemicals all the time. Knowing how to find products that are less likely to cause health issues and understanding how to use them appropriately may further reduce your chances of dangerous exposures and potentially lower risk of developing chronic diseases such as cancer.

Cleaning Products

The American Lung Association reports that "many cleaning supplies or household products can irritate the eyes or throat, or cause headaches and other health problems, including cancer. Some products release dangerous chemicals, including volatile organic compounds. Other harmful ingredients include ammonia and bleach."

Rule number one when dealing with cleaning agents: Never mix bleach or any bleach-containing product with a cleaner that contains ammonia. When ammonia and bleach mix, they release gases that can cause lung irritation and, in extreme cases, could kill you. It's suspected that exposure to these gases could contribute to the development of cancer; for example, dioxin can be released from chlorine bleach and is a known carcinogen. Therefore, it's important to ventilate the area well when you're using strong cleaning agents such as bleach or ammonia. You can also look for products that don't contain these robust chemicals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists products that are less likely to cause harm in its "Safer Choice" database.

Samara Geller, a senior database and research analyst with the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, says sometimes less is more when it comes to cleaning products. "You don't always have to use a harsh cleaning product or disinfectant product for your home." She says you can even make your own cleaning products with nontoxic ingredients already in the cupboard such as lemon juice or vinegar. If you prefer to buy a product, Geller says you can search for safer alternatives via the EWG's Guide to Healthy Cleaning, an online product database and report that lists nontoxic products.

Cosmetics and Personal Care Products

From lipstick and lotion to bug spray and sunblock, we put a lot of products on our skin in the course of a normal lifetime. Geller says many of these products contain compounds that are believed to have carcinogenic properties, including phthalates, parabens and phenols. Like with other compounds such as bisphenol A, also known as BPA (a chemical often found in rigid plastic products and the lining of canned foods) phthalates and similar compounds are believed to mimic the effects of estrogen in the body. As noted in a study recently published in Environmental Health Perspectives, some researchers suspect there's a relationship between exposures to these compounds and the development of cancers that use hormones to grow including breast, prostate and ovarian cancer.

Geller says switching to products that are labeled phthalate-free can reduce this exposure and may improve your risk profile. But there are other things to watch out for, too. "It's not limited to phthalates. Things like synthetic musk and other fragrances will accumulate in your fatty tissues, and they've also been linked to hormone disruption."

Some manufacturers have responded to consumer concerns about such compounds and are working to reformulate their products to remove them – aided in part by the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act of 2017, a new law coming into effect in California in 2020 that will force manufacturers to disclose whether their products contain these sorts of compounds. Still, Geller says you should take note of what's in your favorite shampoo or body wash, and if a product you use lists "fragrance," rather than detailing specific ingredients, it might be worth finding a different product that's more specific about what it contains.

The EWG also has a program that certifies personal care and other household products after a review of what's in each product. Products that are deemed safer earn the EWG Verified logo, which consumers can use as a quick reference tool when shopping.

Lawn and Garden Products

There are lots of natural ways of working with the local environment to keep weeds and pests at bay, such as planting certain species that repel pests or weeding by hand. If you have to resort to using a chemical product to remove the weeds that are choking your prize peonies, protect yourself by wearing a mask, goggles and gloves when applying chemical fertilizers or herbicides.

Dr. Peter Shields, a medical oncologist and researcher focusing on lung cancer at The Ohio State University James Cancer Hospital, says when it comes to herbicides and pesticides, it's important to use some common sense. "Prudence says stay away from [these chemicals] for a few days," after applying them. "Don't have your kids out on the lawn," and pets should also be kept away from areas that have been treated, as they can ingest chemicals and get sick, too.

Most weed killers and fertilizers are clearly labeled with instructions on their appropriate use and this information usually includes guidelines on when it's safe to walk barefoot on the grass again after a treatment. Limit your and your family's exposure to chemicals by following these instructions and giving the area a wide berth until the chemicals have done their thing.

As with cleaning and personal care products, Geller says it's important to become a good consumer by reading labels carefully and doing some research into what's in the product you're planning to use. Educate yourself on how to use it safely and take care with products that could be linked to health concerns.

With all of these products, keep in mind that "natural" doesn't necessarily equate to "safe." Geller says it's important to "be aware of green washing and green-washed products," meaning products that imply they're safer because they're made of natural ingredients. Green-washing is "rampant throughout the personal care and cleaning product space," in part because "the term natural is not regulated. You might see nature-inspired branding and graphics and think all is fine. But be on guard." She says your best option is to look beyond the pretty packaging and find out what's actually inside the container. "It's best to become a label-reader and really scan those packages to make sure you're getting the healthiest ingredients." The EWG also offers online glossaries of common ingredients that can explain what they are and what health risks they've been associated with so you can make more informed decisions about what products to use.

Don't Forget about Known Carcinogens

Shields says that in your quest to keep your home safe from potentially cancer-causing agents, it's important not to overlook the things we already know cause cancer. "I have patients who are smokers and they come and ask me about the chemicals under their sink," he says, which is a case of missing the forest for the trees.

"When there's a lot of media about the stuff under your sink, two things happen: People forget about the real things we know that have consistently been found to cause cancer and then they also get confused and mix up the things we know and the things we don't know. They start to think, 'well everything causes cancer,'" and that leads to a sort of desensitization over more immediate risks, such as exposure to tobacco smoke, Shields says.

"There's so much noise out there that we forget that exercise, diet and healthy lifestyles" have been conclusively linked to reducing cancer risk. Given that cancer typically arises from a variety of exposures over the course of one's lifetime, it's hard to pinpoint one specific thing that causes an individual case of cancer, but obesity, smoking and alcohol have all been strongly linked to the development of cancer. Those are all controllable factors that are likely to have a bigger influence on whether you develop cancer than occasional exposure to a lawn or cleaning product. Shields says "there's no one magic bullet and no one individual chemical," that must be avoided in order to ensure a cancer-free life. "I'm more focused on teaching my kids to eat healthy than not to eat on the kitchen counter that I just cleaned with whatever cleaning product I use."

Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report

Gallery: 11 potentially cancer-causing things you might use every day (Business Insider)

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