10 common misconceptions about cancer and the environment

With the advent of the internet, people are swamped with information about cancer and some of it is not based on “sound scientific evidence” or is “at best, anecdotal,” which can “hamper efforts to prevent and treat” it, reports Curt DellaValle, a cancer epidemiologist and senior scientist at Environmental Working Group. He writes about some of the most common misconceptions about cancer:

Misconception #1: Getting cancer is almost completely out of your control: DellaValle recognizes that some cancers are caused by genetics and “bad luck” and notes that the World Health Organization reports that 20 percent of cancers are thought to be caused by environmental factors such as pollution, infections and radiation, but he also says “as many as half of cancers may be preventable,” noting that smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise are major contributors.

Misconception #2: “Everything” causes cancer: “Not all chemicals, pollutants or guilty pleasures will lead to cancer,” DellaValle writes, while also noting that the amount of exposure to the carcinogen plays a role. “The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a research arm of the WHO, has looked into nearly a thousand suspected causes of cancer. Of those suspicious substances and activities, they have concluded that just about half are known or potentially carcinogenic.

Misconception #3: Exposure to a known carcinogen will give you cancer: “Known carcinogens” are substances that have strong evidence that they can cause cancer, but  it is important to recognize that the risk between them differs. “A person exposed to a known carcinogen is not 100 percent certain to develop cancer, not by a long shot,” DellaValle writes. For example, he writes that  there is a difference between asbestos exposure, a potent carcinogen, and eating processed meats, which is also a known carcinogen, but one that only modestly increases your chances of getting cancer.

Misconception #4: Natural products are safe and synthetic products are harmful: DellaValle writes that “arsenic, asbestos, formaldehyde, radiation and tobacco occur naturally and are known carcinogens.” His advice is to “arm yourself with information” and “know what you’re buying and don’t assume everything that says ‘natural’ is harmless.”

Misconception #5: Chemicals that the body absorbs and retains for a long time are more dangerous than those that are quickly excreted or metabolized: “The hazard of a substance is determined not just by the degree of exposure but also how it interacts with the body,” he writes. For example, nitrates and nitrites in food and water can change into compounds that cause cancer in the body, while chemicals that are excreted quickly, like pesticides and heavy metals, can also cause cancer.

Misconception #6: The cancer risk you accumulate is irreversible: DellaValle writes that certain harmful exposures, like to radiation, does not allow full recovery, but damage from many environmental exposures can be partly reversed with elimination or significantly reducing the exposure. “The Surgeon General’s report on tobacco concluded that quitting smoking at any age reduces a smoker’s risk of cancer by up to 50 percent in just five to 10 years,” he writes.

Misconception  #7: Mammograms cause breast cancer: “The risk with the very small amount of radiation emitted during a mammogram is minuscule for most patients,” he writes. However, “women who are pregnant should avoid mammograms and X-rays that their doctors don’t consider necessary. Radiation could harm the developing fetus.”

Misconception #8: Cell phones, wi-fi, microwaves, power lines and airport X-ray machines will cause cancer: DellaValle writes that cell phones, wi-fi, microwaves and power lines “emit non-ionizing radiation” and is less invasive than “ionizing radiation” that comes from  X-rays, sunlight and uranium. The WHO considers cell phone radiation a possible carcinogen “based on a suspected association between cell phone use and brain cancer,: DellaValle recommends holing your  phones a few millimeters away from your body to “drastically reduce exposure” or use hands-free devices and texting. He does say that it is a good idea to keep wireless routers a few feet from places where people spend long periods of time, though he notes that there is little or no evidence to support that wi-fi signals cause cancer. He also notes that it would take about 1,000 trips through an airport X-ray scanner to equal the radiation exposure from one medical chest X-ray.

Misconception #9: Artificial turf sports fields cause cancer: The jury is out on this one. DellaValle says, “No data exists at this time to say that artificial turf causes cancer, but scientists are just beginning to explore the question. In the meantime, you should play on artificial turf in well-ventilated areas, avoid hand-to-mouth contact while playing and limit direct contact between turf and skin.”

Misconception #10: Residential pesticides are safe: DellaValle writes that many of the pesticides suspected to cause cancer in farm workers are being sold for residential use and notes that some evidence exists that they increase the risk of cancer. While recognizing that  homes would use these products less often and at a lower dose, he did caution to not use them around children or pregnant women. He noted that studies have found that children exposed to pesticides while in the womb and in infancy face an increased risk of childhood cancers like leukemia and brain tumors.

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