Preventing Cancer – The Role of Food and Household Chemicals

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Broccoli and cabbage are among the foods least contaminated with carcinogenic chemicals

Over the last 60 years many new chemicals and plastics have been developed for use in water pipes, food containers, industrial solvents, detergents, cleaning products, fire retardants, medical products, pesticides, children’s toys, furniture, cosmetics, shampoo, toothpaste, preservatives and for use in our homes. Many of these chemicals were designed to be stable in the environment, so over decades they accumulate in the air, water and soil, in the food chain, and in our bodies.

We do not have the capacity to break them down or eliminate them unless we take very specific measures to do so. The end result is an escalating body burden of environmental toxins in each successive generation, as they are passed on to our children in utero and through breast-feeding.

Every year we consume and produce more of these contaminants and they have become so ubiquitous that they can almost be considered another food group. Many of these chemicals are carcinogens, implicated in cancers that are hormonally linked — such as cancers of the breast, uterus, ovaries, prostate, testes and thyroid. Many of them disrupt hormones, causing imbalances in our glandular systems and damage to our unborn children. The current epidemic of thyroid disease, infertility, learning disabilities, weakened immunity and cancers are linked to our global intoxication with synthetic chemicals.

How can we protect ourselves? We can become familiar with the chemicals that are harmful and avoid using them. We can encourage industry and government to ban the use of certain chemicals, doing our best to reduce the global burden. We can detoxify regularly, assisting the liver, kidneys, lymph, colon and skin in breaking down and eliminating our personal inventory of harmful chemicals. We can do an intensive sauna detoxification program before we conceive our children, elevating planned parenthood to a whole new level.

Chemicals to Avoid

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling gas that is used to manufacture building materials and produce many household products. Studies of workers exposed to formaldehyde, particularly embalmers and individuals studying human anatomy, have demonstrated an association between formaldehyde exposure and cancers of the nasal sinuses, nasopharynx and brain, as well as myeloid leukemia.

Products containing formaldehyde include adhesives, air deodorizers, antiperspirants, cellophane, concrete, embalming agents, cleaning solutions, contraceptive creams, cosmetics, fungicides, detergents, disinfectants, dry-cleaning compounds, enamels, fabric finishes, fertilizers, finger paints, gas appliances, gelatin capsules, inks, insect repellent, urea formaldehyde insulation, carpets, laminating materials, lacquers, laundry starch, mouthwashes, nail polish, tempera paint, paper towels, particle board, perfume, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, photographic chemicals, photographic film, plaster, plastics, plywood, polyester fabric, rodent poison, shampoos, shoe polish, soaps, tobacco and tobacco smoke, toilet paper, toothpaste, wood stains, and preservatives.

Organochlorines are chemicals in which at least one atom of chlorine is bonded to a carbon molecule. Today there are more than 11,000 different organochlorines being used, specifically in plastics, pesticides, solvents, dry cleaning agents, refrigerants, and other chemicals. Thousands more organochlorines are formed as by-products of chlorine-based industries. These include the bleaching of pulp for paper, the disinfecting of water, and the incinerating of waste containing chlorinated products. Chlorinated dioxin is one such by-product.

At least 16 organochlorines have been found to cause breast cancer in laboratory animals. Some organochlorine pesticides have been restricted in Canada, such as DDT, aldrin, dieldrin, and chlordane. Others, such as PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, used in household plumbing, siding, credit cards, furniture, window frames, flooring, shower curtains, window blinds, raincoats and children’s toys and polyvinylidene chloride, familiar to us as plastic food wrap, are widely used. Methylene chloride, used in paint strippers, and dichlorobenzidines, used to produce dyes, are also still being produced.

Women with the highest concentrations of specific organochlorine pesticides (such as lindane) in their bodies have a risk of breast cancer four to 10 times higher than women with lower levels. We are exposed to pesticides through our food and our water supply. Groundwater in Canadian and American cities was found to have residues of 39 pesticides and their breakdown products. Spraying homes, lawns, roadways, golf courses, and agricultural crops causes the pesticides to leach through the soil and enter the groundwater.

Pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables often varies by species. Fruits and vegetables in Canada and the U.S. containing the most and least amount of pesticides are summarized here.

Most Contaminated Foods

1. Peaches
2. Apples
3. Strawberries
4. Nectarines
5. Pears
6. Cherries
7. Red raspberries
8. Imported grapes
9. Blueberries

1. Spinach and Kale
2. Bell peppers
3. Celery
4. Potatoes
5. Hot peppers
6. Green beans
7. Head and leaf lettuce
8. Cucumbers
9. Carrots

Least Contaminated Foods

1. Avocado
2. Pineapple
3. Plantains
4. Mangoes
5. Watermelon
6. Plums
7. Kiwi
8. Papaya
9. Grapefruit

1. Cauliflower
2. Brussels sprouts
3. Asparagus
4. Radishes
5. Broccoli
6. Onions
7. Okra
8. Cabbage
9. Eggplant


Although most industrialized countries stopped production of PCBs over 10 years ago, their concentration in human tissues has not declined. PCBs are persistent and may not degrade for decades or centuries. PCBs can still be found in old paints, varnishes, inks, pesticides, microscope oil, and hydraulic fluids. They were used to make wood and plastic products nonflammable and stucco waterproof. However, the majority of PCBs were used in electrical transformers, where they are still subject to accidental release into the environment.

People who eat fish regularly from the north shore of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec have a mean PCB level of six parts per million. The Inuit, who rely on seafood as a staple, have PCB levels of 4.1 parts per million, which is five to 10 times higher than the average Canadian’s. Levels this high are linked to depressed immune systems, particularly a decline in the T-cells which would ordinarily keep cancer in check. PCBs affect both thyroid and ovarian hormones. Interference with thyroid hormone during gestation may cause low birth weight, poor growth, hyperactivity, autoimmune diseases, immune suppression, and impaired learning and memory. The PCBs associated with breast cancer are PCB105, PCB118, and PCB156.

A human baby breast-fed for six months receives five times the allowable daily limit of PCBs set by international health standards for a 150-pound adult. A woman passes half of her lifetime accumulation of dioxins and PCBs on to her child when she nurses for just six months. The most consistent dietary predictor of PCB concentration in breast tissue is fish consumption.


Perchloroethylene is used as a dry-cleaning solvent and is hazardous to workers and consumers because of its contribution to cancer and reproductive problems. It is commonly found as a contaminant in food and groundwater. Women who work in the dry cleaning industry have a greater risk of miscarriage.


2,4-D was used in the Vietnam War to destroy the rain forest as a component of Agent Orange. It was introduced for agricultural use in the U.S. and Canada after that to control weeds and in the forests for shrub management. It became one of the most popular weed killers for lawns, gardens, and golf courses. It is marketed under the trade names Ded-Weed, Weedone, Plantgard, Lawn-Keep, and Demise.

It is linked to a six-fold increased incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in humans. Dogs and pets also are at risk and the incidence of lymphoma doubles among pet dogs whose owners use lawn chemicals at least four times annually. Infants and toddlers are exposed to significant amounts of pesticides from crawling on carpets and ingesting house dust. Children whose yards are treated with pesticides had a fourfold increase in soft tissue cancers over children living in homes that did not spray their lawns. Brain tumors in children have been linked to increased use of pest-repellent strips, flea collars on pets, lice shampoos containing lindane, and weed killers on lawns.


Phthalates are re used in about 50% of all PVC products to soften them and add flexibility. They are a family of over 20 different compounds used as ingredients in plastic food wraps and packaging, paints, inks, and adhesives, blood bags, syringes , heart valves, medical tubing and cosmetics. Fatty foods, such as cheese and oils, are easily contaminated with phthalates and bisphenol-A when packaged in plastic. Phthalates may be present and can be absorbed from plastic baby bottles, nipples, and plastic “soothers.” They have been linked to cancer, kidney damage, and may interfere with your children’s ability to reproduce.


Phthalates comprise several compounds used in making a variety of goods, each with a documented effect on our health. Here are some examples:

• Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP)
Found in: building products, children’s toys, children’s polymer clay, food packaging, medical devices, in PVC resins for teething rings, pacifiers, balls, vinyl upholstery, tablecloths, shower curtains, raincoats, adhesives, food containers, medical tubing, animal glue.
Known health effects: probable human carcinogen, toxic to thyroid (decreases T4), liver and kidney; harmful to male reproductive tract.

• Di-isononyl phthalate (DINP)
Found in: garden hoses, shoes and shoe soles, toys, construction materials.
Known health effects: reproductive and developmental harm

• Di-isodecyl phthalate (DIDP)
Found in: car undercoating, wires and cables, shoes, carpet backing, pool liners.
Known health effects: liver and reproductive toxicity

• Di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP)
Found in: latex adhesives, cellulose plastics, solvent for dyes.
Known health effects: reproductive and developmental toxicity, skin irritation, nervous system and blood pressure impacts, disrupts estrogen

• Butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP)
Found in: vinyl tile, artificial leather, food conveyor belts, traffic cones, children’s polymer clays
Known health effects: reproductive disorders, birth deformities, nerve disorders, suspected carcinogen, disrupts estrogen

• Di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP)
Found in: flooring and carpet tile, canvas tarps, notebook binders, plastic food containers, medical tubing and blood bags, wire and cables, carpetback coating, floor tile, adhesives, cosmetics, pesticides
Known health effects: reproductive toxicity, liver and thyroid toxicity, birth deformities, genetic mutations

• Di-n-hexyl phthalate (DnHP)
Found in: car parts, tool handles, dishwasher baskets, flooring, tarps, flea collars
Known health effects: liver and thyroid toxicity, reproductive toxicity, genetic mutation


Bisphenol-A is a hormone disrupting chemical found in epoxy resins and polycarbonate plastics, which are hard plastics. It is used in formulas to seal crack “protection” against tooth decay and in the plastic fillings used to replace mercury amalgam fillings.

Bisphenol-A is a breakdown product of polycarbonate, present in the plastic coating that manufacturers use to line metal cans, which were added to prevent a metallic taste in the food. Plastic linings are present in 85% of food cans in the United States, and bisphenol-A was found to have leached into about half the canned foods that were tested. When analyzed, some cans contained 80 parts per billion of bisphenol A, which is 27 times more than researchers have demonstrated is enough to make breast cancer cells proliferate in the laboratory. Nalgene water bottles are made of polycarbonate, which can release bisphenol A after long term use or when the bottle is scrubbed with an abrasive material.


Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are hormone disrupting chemicals used in 11 industrial areas and in household and industrial soaps and detergents, natural and synthetic textile processing, plastic manufacturing, pulp and paper making, petroleum refineries, pesticides and for oil extraction. They are one of the ingredients used to make plastic soft, and readily leach out into fluids at room temperature. We may find them in our water bottles, fruit juice containers, and packaging of convenience food.

We should choose soaps and detergents, particularly liquid products, which the manufacturer guarantees do not contain NPEs. The following companies do not use nonylphenol oxalates in their detergents: Proctor & Gamble, Lever, Pond’s, Tide, and Sunlight.


PBDEs are a class of chemicals similar to PCBs. They have been found in breast milk, human blood, food, remote rural air, wild fish, and in sewage sludge. The Great Lakes are among the most PBDE-contaminated bodies of water in the world, with Lake Michigan being the worst. PBDEs are similar in chemical form, and in many of their actions, to PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). Within 10 to 15 years PBDEs will have surpassed PCBs as environmental hazards.

Bromine is a highly-reactive chemical element, a halogen in the same class as chlorine and iodine. Worldwide, eight chemical corporations manufacture about 300 million pounds of brominated fire retardants each year, of which about 80 million pounds are members of the class known as polybromo diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. PBDEs leach into the environment from the plastics in appliances, TVs and computers, foam in upholstery, and the fabrics of carpets and draperies. Many hard styrene plastics and many foam padding materials are 5% to 30% PBDE by weight. Some PBDEs can cause cancer, interfere with hormones, and disrupt normal growth and development in laboratory animals. Brominated compounds interfere with thyroid hormones, which are critical for the proper development of the brain and central nervous system in animals and humans. Baby mice exposed to PBDEs show permanent behavioral and memory problems, which worsen with age.

This list shows products commonly made with PVC along with alternative materials. Prepared by Greenpeace:

• Windows — wood (pine, larch, fir, spruce, beech), chlorine free plastics
• Floorings — ceramic tiles, wood, parquetry, linoleum, rubber, stoneware tiles, cork, sisal hemp, terazzo, chlorine free plastic (polyolefine)
• Walls — brickwork, pebble dash, wood, gypsum, plaster board
• Wallpaper — uncoated paper (made from chlorine free recycled fibres), environmentally sound paints, paper wallpaper with protective coating on acrylate base, ceramic tiles, cotton canvas
• Facades, Curtain Walls — plaster, wood
• Roll Joints, Hand Rails — wood, metal
• Furniture — wood, metal, wicker
• Blinds, Shutters — wood, textiles
• Weather Stripping — natural rubber
• Sewage Pipes — concrete, earthenware, stoneware, polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene pipes (PP)
• Electrical Installations & Cables — chlorine free plastics like PE, special rubber
• Packaging — Minimize packaging, but when necessary, use cardboard, wood, glass, brown paper bags, waxed paper, and if plastic is necessary, use PE, PP. (We need to develop organic packaging from hemp, straw, vegetable fibres, etc. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all packaging could be composted to feed a garden or be used as mulch?)
• Medical Products — Switch from disposable (usually PVC) to reusable products; e.g., redden bottles, reusable scalpel handles, refillable glass bottles, and where disposable products are necessary, use chlorine free plastics such as PE for gloves, infusion bags, or use latex or natural rubber
• Toys — wood, textiles

Next month I will discuss how to rid the body of these chemicals. For now, you can become familiar with them and avoid them, and do what you can to educate others to discontinue their use. This will decrease your personal and our collective cumulative body burden.

For several decades Sat Dharam has been integrating and creating a fusion of her three great passions: Kundalini Yoga, Naturopathic Medicine, and Environmental Sustainability. She has developed and/or teaches several programs: Kundalini Yoga Classes, The Healthy Breast Program, Four Season Yoga Cleanse, Beyond Addiction, and Compassionate Inquiry with Dr. Gabor Maté, taught in Canada and around the world. She invites you to participate and/or train with her on one or more of these extraordinary journeys to wholeness and fitness. She believes that together we can form dedicated, purposeful global communities to inspire, educate and uplift others. She looks forward to working with you to discover a way of living that helps sustain you and the planet. For more information, visit:

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