Reduce your family’s cancer risk by learning about—and eliminating—chemical carcinogens commonly found in our homes.
All of us would like to live in a clean, healthy environment without having to worry about exposure to toxic chemicals. But the sad truth is that most of us are exposed to such toxins on a daily basis—and often within our own homes.
A surprising number of chemicals commonly found in our homes is associated with serious health risks, including an increased risk of developing cancer. Some of these substances are frustratingly hard to get rid of, while others are relatively easy to banish from our homes once we know they’re there. Here’s a brief guide to getting some of the major offenders out of the house and making your home a healthier place.
Indoor air pollution can be a real problem—many common pollutants contribute to the risk of developing cancer, particularly lung cancer. However, many of these common concerns are also relatively easy to identify and eliminate or neutralize. You can find more information on all the indoor air quality issues below by visiting the EPA’s Indoor Air Subject Index.
No Smoking. Don’t overlook the obvious: Tobacco smoke—the leading cause of lung cancer—is a carcinogen, as is secondhand smoke. If someone in your home smokes, ask them to take it outside.
Test for Radon. Radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that sometimes accumulates in homes, is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Fortunately, it’s relatively simple and inexpensive to test for radon using DIY kits available online or at the hardware store, and if you discover your home has a problem, it’s not difficult to fix.
Inspect and Repair Heating Equipment. While it often flies under the radar, faulty or improperly installed heating equipment can cause all kinds of problems. The leading concern is carbon monoxide leakage, but we also want to avoid breathing particulates, which can contain radon or benzopyrene, both carcinogens. Problems with combustion gases and particles can be caused by anything that burns wood or fossil fuels, including furnaces, woodstoves and fireplaces. Experts recommend having heating systems serviced annually by a professional to keep them operating safely and efficiently. A thorough energy audit will also address issues with combustion safety.
Think About Asbestos. Another well-known carcinogen, asbestos is used in many building materials, including attic and wall insulation containing vermiculite, some types of shingles, textured (or “popcorn”) ceilings, and insulated pipes. As long as these materials remain in good condition, your exposure to asbestos is probably minimal. You’re most likely to come in contact with it during DIY home repairs or remodeling. If you’re planning a project and are concerned about whether your home contains asbestos, have your home tested by an asbestos professional to find out if the material is present, and if so, what to do about it.
If you have a well, it’s a great idea to test your drinking water. But if your water comes from public sources, the work is done for you by officials. Public sources of drinking water are required to test for contaminants, and that information is publicly available. If there’s a serious problem, you should be notified by your water provider, but you can also look up the information on your water safety yourself. The EPA has in-depth information on water quality issues, including links to reports on local drinking water, at water.epa.gov/drink. You can also contact your water supplier directly and ask for a drinking water report.
Read the Reports. Most of us won’t find any major concerns on our water reports. According to a 2010 EPA report, 92 percent of all public water systems in the U.S. met all national standards. However, sometimes water tests do find problems, including substances linked to cancer. For example, that same report found that about 1 million people were drinking water that violated federal standards for the carcinogen arsenic.
Think About Regulation. If you research drinking water safety, you will likely also discover some controversy about what should be regulated. A good example is the carcinogen hexavalent chromium. According to a 2010 report from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), this substance is fairly widespread in drinking water: They found it in the water of 31 out of 35 cities tested. The EPA does not directly regulate hexavalent chromium—it’s lumped in with other forms of chromium—but has since begun reviewing this standard.
For more information on filtering your home's water for safety, check out our guide to home water filtration systems.
While specific pesticides have been linked to cancer, some of the most worrying evidence is from general studies of farmers and others routinely exposed to pesticides, which find that increased exposure to pesticides leads to higher rates of cancer. A great source for in-depth pesticide information is the nonprofit organization Beyond Pesticides. Its website offers useful information on pesticide risks and details on the best alternatives, from controlling ants in the kitchen to dealing with weeds in the yard. If you want to dig into issues of pesticides and produce, you can also find detailed information about which pesticides are commonly used with which crops and the associated risks.
Protect Farmers. A good reason to buy organic products: Not only does it limit your exposure to pesticide residues on produce, it helps protect the people who grow our food. It’s also a good reason to think twice before applying pesticides around your own home, and on your lawn and garden.
Keep Kids Safe. Another good reason: The American Academy of Pediatrics recently made an official recommendation to limit children’s exposures to pesticides and herbicides, including minimizing the use of foods grown with chemical pesticides and using nonchemical pest control methods at home.
For more information on pesticides, our health and our food system, read the article Why Eating Organic Is Still Important.
It can be a discouraging thought, but commercial products expose us to many health risks. Here are a couple of areas to pay particular attention to.
Check cosmetics and cleaners. Problematic chemicals are found in many personal- care products such as shampoo, lotion and makeup. In fact, cancer risk is just one of many concerns; chemicals common in personal-care products are also associated with reproductive and developmental issues. The carcinogen formaldehyde is one ingredient to look out for.
One good way to get a clear idea of the health hazards associated with various personal-care products is to use the EWG’s Skin Deep cosmetics database. You can look up specific products, and it will flag major concerns and list the ingredients associated with cancer risk. We also offer in-depth information on the common toxins in personal-care products with recommendations for healthier alternatives in the article Come Clean. Another approach is to make your own beauty products, giving yourself total control over the ingredients. (Bonus: It’s often much cheaper.) We offer a variety of DIY beauty product recipes on our Homemade Beauty Products page.
Household cleaning products have many of the same issues as personal-care products. For more information on healthier household cleaners and recipes to make your own, see the article TKTK.
Don’t breathe those fumes. Some products irritate our eyes and noses, and may cause headaches. Those irritating fumes from paints, stains, glues, cleaning products, gasoline and dry cleaning usually contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Breathing them definitely isn’t good for us, and yes, some of these chemicals are linked to cancer—a few VOCs include the carcinogens formaldehyde and benzene. The EPA has additional information on VOCs at epa.gov/iaq/voc.html.
In trying to avoid these products, follow your nose. Any product emitting major fumes is worth investigating. If you must be around open containers of these items (including gasoline and paint) make sure it’s in a well-ventilated area, and follow product directions carefully. Also read the labels: Choose paints, stains and adhesives labeled low- or zero-VOC. Formaldehyde-free is another good label to look for—it’s often used with new furniture, which can have formaldehyde issues. As a bright spot: Formaldehyde has been a long-running concern with manufactured wood, but new, more restrictive standards for formaldehyde content in this material were scheduled to go into effect at the beginning of 2013.
Additionally, most dry cleaners use the probable carcinogen perchloroethylene. Some dry cleaners offer chemical-free “wet cleaning” or nontoxic “carbon dioxide cleaning”—or you could simply avoid dry cleaning entirely.
Some problem chemicals are so widespread, there’s not a lot we can do to reduce exposure to them. In these cases, one of the most productive things we can do is to learn more about the issues and then make our voices heard by contacting our elected representatives and other government and industry decision makers.
Ditch Dioxins. For example, we know dioxins—byproducts of burning and of a wide range of manufacturing processes including smelting, chlorine bleaching of paper pulp, and the manufacture of some herbicides and pesticides—to be toxic, and one type of it is a carcinogen. Yet dioxins are so widespread that almost every one of us is exposed to these chemicals through the food we eat. The most effective way to reduce our exposure to dioxins is to work on releasing less of them into the environment to begin with. You can read more about what the EPA is doing about this issue at epa.gov/dioxin.
Face Down Flame Retardants. Flame retardants are another problem area. Many flame retardants are toxic, and some have been linked to cancer, but they’re still deliberately added to many consumer products, especially upholstered furniture and baby products. They’re unlikely to be labeled, so there’s not an easy way to avoid these products even if you’re aware of them. The good news is that flame retardants are coming under closer review.
Boot BPA. Finally, there’s the case of BPA, or bisphenol A, present in many common items including some plastic containers and food packaging—especially canned foods and beverages. As of today, BPA has not been classified as a human carcinogen. That doesn’t mean it won’t eventually happen; new research suggests BPA may be linked to brain and breast cancer.
So far, the FDA has banned BPA from baby bottles and children’s cups, and they continue to study the issue. For now, consumers who want to avoid BPA can avoid plastics (particularly No. 7 plastic) and canned food. Relying more heavily on glass containers is a good option. You can also look online to find companies’ policies on BPA—Eden Foods uses BPA-free cans for their beans and Amy’s food products have been BPA-free since 2012. Stay tuned for more action on BPA. It will likely take new government regulations to get it out of our homes completely.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all classifications of carcinogens are from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization.
Megan E. Phelps is a freelance journalist based in Lawrence, Kansas. She highly recommends all the resources listed in this article; they’re terrific sources of information.
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