Walking upstream to eliminate environmental causes of cancer

Family walking in creek

This month’s Green Moms Carnival is focused on the environment and cancer. At first, I was so excited to post about this issue. But then I started to get overwhelmed.

Should I talk about radon? Radon is a leading cause of lung cancer. Elevated levels of radon in the home have also been linked to increasing the risk of children developing acute lymphoblastic leukemia. But, radon is easy to detect and relatively simple to remove from the home, but many people seem unaware of the risk. Seems like a great topic.

But then I thought I should talk about the link between common household pesticides and cancer. For example, did you know that use of conventional pesticides in the home and garden during pregnancy and the first year of a child’s life increases that child’s risk of developing leukemia by as much as a factor of 9? That’s pretty scary. And with so many non toxic alternatives for pest control, that seemed like an awesome topic.

Should I talk about carcinogens in our personal care products, like the carcinogen 1,4-dioxane in every parent’s staple, Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Wash?

Should I talk about one of my soapbox subjects – the irony of beauty companies sponsoring breast cancer research when most of them use ingredients that are linked to an increased risk of cancer, and often increased risk of breast cancer? Pinkwashing at its finest.

It gets a little scary when you think about all the products we use every day that are linked to cancer, doesn’t it? All the ingredients and constituents that are carcinogens (cancer causing agents) become overwhelming.

And I think you become immune to it. It seems like there is a new scary product or ingredient every day. So if everything causes cancer, then why worry about it?


It is easier to do nothing. To think that our easy care, non stick, disposable lifestyles don’t really matter. That one person’s choices do not count or matter.

It really is easier to not think about.

But we can’t. We can’t let the overwhelming information paralyze us.

And while it is certainly true that what you eat, whether you exercise, whether you get enough sleep, your genetic makeup, if you drink, if you smoke, if you take recreational drugs all play a role in your risk of cancer and certain infectious agents (like HPV), environmental factors also play a role. A role that we do not yet fully understand.

Our efforts in the war in cancer seem focused on detecting, treating and curing cancer instead of considering that the world we live in affects whether we get cancer. The Secret History of the War on Cancer
says that the end result if 10 million preventable cancer deaths in the last 30 years. Which is why pinkwashing makes me so angry. It would be a much better investment for those companies to spend money reformulating their products to eliminate known or suspected carcinogens or hormone disruptors instead of trying to sell us even more CARP we don’t need just because it is pink.

Instead, I thought I would talk about two of the books that most moved me to do more, to do better, to live a less toxic life. The first is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the second is Sandra Steingraber’s incredibly powerful Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment (which is now being released in an updated version, my quotes are from the 1997 edition).

Why these two books? Because they point out something very, very telling about the link between the lives we live and the cancers we get. Rachel Carson focused on the rising death rates of cancer, and was disturbed by the evidence that childhood cancer had become the most common disease killer of US children. But Rachel Carson’s concerns have been dismissed, in part because childhood cancer mortality rates have been going down. She didn’t have access to incidence data, which shows while medical improvements have dramatically decreased how many kids die from cancer, how many kids get cancer continues to increase.

Sandra Steingraber writes:

Heroic measures may be saving more children from death, but every year more children are diagnosed with cancer than the year before. Increases are most apparent for leukemia and brain tumors. At present, eight thousand children are dianosed with cancer each year; one in four hundred Americans can expect to develop cancer before the age of 15.

Cancer among children provides a particularly intimate glimpse into the possible routes of exposure to contaminants in the general environment and the possible significance for rising cancer rates among adults. The lifestyle of toddlers has not changed much over the past half century. Young children do not smoke, drink alcohol, or hold stressful jobs. Children do, however, receive a greater dose of whatever chemicals are present in the air, food, and water because, pound for pound, they breathe, eat, and drink more than adults do.

That is it. Our children are getting more cancers despite the fact that the other factors people point out – smoking, drinking, etc. – haven’t changed for them.

Granted, obesity rates are sky rocketing in our kids and I would guess that is a contributor.

Nonetheless, the Environmental Working Group’s 10 Americans study clearly, unequivocally demonstrates that our children are born polluted. Polluted from chemicals we use now, and from chemicals we banned more than 30 years ago because they persist in our environment.

Living Downstream is now coming out as a film. And I’m thrilled. I hope if brings more attention to what it means to live downstream, and how we can change our environment by walking upstream. Check out the Living Downstream website – I can’t wait for Sandra Steingraber’s essays!


I hope that these books, and the Living Downstream trailer inspire you.

You can take simple steps to reduce chemical exposures. Start with one of the simplest, and it requires no money. Just take off your shoes to reduce tracking in DDT, PCBs, and lead into your home. Then, trying switching to non toxic cleaners and personal care products. Stop using conventional pesticides.

But more than that, I hope it inspires you to do more. To work on greening your school, your daycare, your work or your church. To advocate for change. To write your elected representatives to support legislative efforts. To vote with your pocketbook.

To run for office.

To walk upstream.

Go check out the other Green Moms who posted this month on the environment and cancer by starting with Nature Moms (post will be up 3/8).

And, for full disclosure, the text links to books in the post are part of my Amazon Affiliate account. If you click and buy, I’ll probably make about $0.00025 or something miniscule like that. Just so you know.

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