Posted By Bill Couzens, Founder Less Cancer

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Community Trust Should Never Be A Blind Trust-

By Bill Couzens and Maryann Donovan Phd MPH

Have you ever seen a ‘Do Not Touch’ wet-paint sign and then touched the paint to see if it was wet?

Unlike wet paint, frequently we cannot confirm environmental dangers with our own eyes or with a touch of our hand. In the work to identify and reduce cancer-causing environmental exposures, often it is not possible to definitively link dangerous environmental exposures to health effects, and there are many reasons why.

Examples of known environmental exposures that increase cancer risk include: smoking, UV light, asbestos, some pesticides, hormones, metals, and vinyl chloride, gasoline, and small particulates from automobile and coal-fired power plants, to name a few.

From laboratory studies, it is clear to scientists that some ingredients in products used in our homes, schools and communities are toxic and do cause cancer. In fact, only a small fraction of the more than 85,000 chemicals used in products have been tested and shown to be safe. We suspect that some ingredients and contaminants, such as aspartame in soft drinks, lead in lipstick, and bisphenol A (BPA) in our baby bottles, may be bad for the environment and unhealthy for humans as well.

The concerns about safe product choice are especially relevant for children. Importantly, children look to adults to protect them. Children assume that we as adults are doing everything we can to keep them safe. They understand this concept because they watch our actions: we buckle them up in the car when we go to school; we pack them healthy lunches and, if aware, are careful to provide organic and/or natural foods. We send messages in the form of ‘actions’ all day to our children, messages that tell them we are keeping them safe from harm.

Children are not small adults; rather, they are a developing version of an adult. Simply put, children are under construction. They are unfinished and their developing systems are quite fragile. We know, for instance, that in children the brain continues to develop into their twenties, and this makes their brains potentially more vulnerable to toxicants. They breathe much more rapidly, so they take in more toxins through their lungs. An exposure that might have little negative effect on an adult can be deadly for a child. For children, depending on the exposure, some of the first systems to show negative health effects can be the neurological and respiratory systems.

The effects of environmental exposures on children are of particular concern when we consider the rising incidence of pediatric cancers. Never before has there been so much cancer in children.

In terms of “environmental exposures,” how we and others use the products that we bring into our homes, schools, public spaces, farms, and yards is important as well. In some states there are laws that protect children from pesticide exposures on play spaces and in schools. Individuals who assume that “legal means it is safe for children,” unfortunately an incorrect assumption, often are the same people making decisions about how to use pesticides in schools and play spaces. For this reason it is critical for parents to develop an understanding of school and community policies so that their voices will be heard when they get involved and advocate for the safety of their children at home and in school. To be safe, no application of toxic chemicals that presents a potential health risk should be done in the presence of children, and this, of course, includes painting of buildings as well as spraying of any of the many types of pesticides.

Does this mean that pesticide use does not have a place in communities? Absolutely not, an obvious infestation that could pose a public health threat is one example of a situation that might require pesticide use. Rather, what we are advocating is a reduction in the indiscriminate use of chemicals on grass and gardens for the purpose of landscaping and beautification. The increase in toxic exposure for purely aesthetic benefits may not be justifiable when the health of our children is at risk. In addition, if the situation warrants the use of toxic pesticides, clear regulations that eliminate exposures to children, workers, and others must be enforced.

As scientists and educators, our job is to inform our communities about the scientific evidence that implicates some of the chemicals in our environment with adverse health outcomes. As citizens, we all have a responsibility to be mindful of each other, and to consider the broader implications of our choices. It is not only the big decisions that we make that matter. The accumulated effects of the small decisions we make everyday can also add up and, in some cases, produce large effects. Our choices, from not flushing medicines down the toilet to buying and using a greener laundry detergent, can make a world of difference in the quality of our drinking water, the quality of our air, and ultimately in our health.

It is our responsibility as grown-ups to become informed consumers so that we will be able to make better choices. In this way, we will ensure that our children can trust us to be stewards of the environment who are actively involved in improving our communities, reducing our exposures to toxic chemicals, and, most importantly, doing our part to keep them healthy.

* Bill Couzens is the Founder of Less Cancer.

* Maryann Donovan Phd MPH Scientific Director, Center for Environmental Oncology, University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute