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updated 12/23/2009 9:17:05 AM ET 2009-12-23T14:17:05

Recently, the American Cancer Society (ACS) published its first position statement on environmental cancer-causing agents, calling attention to the need for more research on the full impact of all the chemicals floating around in our environment.

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The details
People generally associate "environmental factors" that cause cancer with air and water pollutants. However, there are over 100,000 chemicals used in the consumer products that we come in contact with every day, and only a fraction have ever been tested for safety. It's these chemicals the authors would like more attention to be paid to, considering that, the authors note, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer has evaluated just 935 chemicals since it started looking at cancer-causing agents in 1969.

Most of these threats are occupational exposures, which contribute to 2.4 to 4.8 percent of all cancer deaths in this country, but the general population is still exposed at much lower levels. To protect all individuals, the ACS is calling for tighter regulatory standards on both occupational and general exposures, based on sound scientific research that should be better funded, and for greater public disclosure of chemicals being used so that individuals can make informed decisions. The society is also calling for more detailed research on a chemical's cumulative-exposure risk, as well as how that risk is influenced by dosing and timing, and for monitoring the accumulation of these chemicals in humans and in the food chain.

What it means
"The environment as it influences health is far more broad than the public may think," says Jonathan Samet, MD, MS, professor in the department of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine and co-chair of the ACS Subcommittee on Cancer and the Environment, which authored the report. Unfortunately, he adds, cancer-causing agents are often shrouded in uncertainty. "Cellphones are particularly salient examples of environmental exposures that are now ingrained in modern life, yet there's an uncertainty of whether they're a cause of brain cancer," he says.

The ACS is concerned about the environment and cancer, but "there's definitely a need for better and more efficient ways to test for toxicity." The report, he adds, was intended to put environmental pollutants into the broader context of cancer prevention, which, along with more stringent testing of chemicals, includes cutting down on tobacco use, improving diet and exercise, and employing vaccines against infections that cause cancer, such as hepatitis B and the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Despite the stew of chemicals we encounter on a daily basis, there are ways to protect yourself from their carcinogenic effects:

Stop smoking
Smoking contributes to 30 percent of all cancer-related deaths in the general population, the authors note, making it the most controllable source of cancer-causing agents. There's plenty of free help available for quitting; start by talking to your doctor or calling the ACS at 800-ACS-2345.

Have your home tested for radon
Radon, a colorless, odorless gas that seeps into homes via cracks in foundations, is the leading cause of non-smoking-related lung cancer in the U.S. It's a byproduct of the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, and some regions of the country have higher instances than others. Visit www.epa.gov/radon to learn if you're in a high-risk area for radon poisoning.

Get vaccinated or screened
The ACS says that 17 percent of cancer deaths are caused by viruses and other infections. Make sure you follow the screening guidelines that are appropriate for your age, gender, and health status. And get your kids the proper screenings, too. Hepatitis B vaccines are generally part of a child's routine vaccination schedule, but the HPV vaccine is administered around the time a girl turns 12. Whether or not you choose to get your kids vaccinated, teach them the value of regular screenings that can catch these infections before they turn into cancer.

Eat organic
Pesticides have been linked to childhood leukemia and breast cancer, among other problems. Choose food that's grown with organic techniques whenever possible, and you'll keep suspect chemicals out of your body. Voting organic with your dollars also decreases the amount of agrichemicals that end up in our water and soil.

Clean naturally
Like pesticides, harsh chemicals in cleaning products have been linked to a wide variety of health problems and some are suspected of causing cancer. Since cleaning companies aren't required to tell you what's in their products, the simplest way to avoid cancer-causing agents is to make your own cleaners using natural ingredients like vinegar. You should also avoid home care products that contain chemical fragrances, which may be listed as "parfum" or "fragrance" on the label.

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