It’s one thing to take charge of your life by trying to make sure you, and your family, are eating the best possible produce that’s least contaminated by chemicals and other health-threatening compounds. It’s another when these harmful compounds are in the air we breathe and in the water we drink.

Almost everyone I know is extremely selective of what they eat. Loads of friends are vegetarian, or grow their own vegetables and herbs, or pay attention to where their fish and meat come from and what sorts of additives, coloring, antibiotics or growth hormones have gone into them.

In this light, although aware of carcinogens in the environment, it was still alarming to read the details of what President Obama’s Cancer Panel had to say in a report submitted to him recently. Here are some highlights:

  • About 1.5 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer in 2009; more than half a million people died of the disease
  • Two in five Americans will be diagnosed with cancer within their lifetime, and one in five will die of it
  • There is a lack of research on the environmental impact on cancer risk, from polluted food, water and air
  • Child mortality from cancers has dropped since 1975, but diagnosis of cancers in kids over these same decades has steadily risen, not necessarily due to better reporting or diagnosis
  • Emissions from vehicles, especially diesel-fueled ones, cause 30 percent of pollution-linked cancers
  • Byproducts from public-water disinfection have been linked to cancers
  • Americans get half their total exposure to radiation from medical imaging, compared to about 15 percent thirty years ago. Kids in particular are more at risk; they have many more years in which a malignancy, triggered by medical radiation, can develop

Of particular interest to me is the fact that radiation dangers accumulate over time. On a recent visit to the dentist’s office, in which he took 10 xrays of my then-9 year old’s teeth and oral cavity, the nurse had said they were ‘low doses’ of radiation whose effects would leave the body quickly.

She was wrong. The scary fact is that your total exposure to xrays over the course of your life could leave you as much, or more, at risk of radiation-caused cancer, as someone who has survived an atomic bomb.

The report says, “People who receive multiple scans or other tests that require radiation may accumulate doses equal to or exceeding that of Hiroshima atomic bomb survivors. It is believed that a single large dose of ionizing radiation and numerous low doses equal to the single large dose have much the same effect on the body over time.”

What irks me is how casually xray tests are offered. When my son, 8, recently had a mysterious ailment (later found to be virus related) that made walking difficult, he had up to 8 xrays taken (of his hip area) one morning at the radiology lab, before we visited a pediatric orthopedist later that day at about 6:00pm. The nurse, and the orthopedist, upset that I didn’t have those earlier xray films on me, thought it was perfectly okay to expose my son again to another 8 xrays, and the nurse very matter-of-factly presented this to me as if I had no say in it.

Well, I did. And the answer was No.

As it turned out, my son was later diagnosed within 2 minutes by another orthopedist who knew from my son’s symptoms and gentle prodding that his ailment was virus related. This doctor only needed a cursory glance at one xray film to be sure, as he suspected, that no bones were misaligned.

So, What Can We Do To Reduce Exposure?

While the panel presented the president with a long list of What To Dos for the government to peruse and hopefully act on (quickly), here are some practical steps for the little people on the ground:

  • Parents can pick food, toys, playspaces, house and garden products, medicine, and medical tests that minimize exposure to toxics.  Parents themselves should avoid exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals and known carcinogens before a child is conceived, during pregnancy and in the kids’ fragile early years.
  • Remove shoes before entering the house, especially if you are exposed to occupational chemicals at work. Wash clothing separately, too, if so
  • Filter drinking water to limit intake of suspected endocrine-disrupting chemicals or carcinogens
  • Store water in stainless steel, glass, or BPA- and phthalate-free containers. This prevents chemicals leaching into the water from plastics.
  • Microwave food and drink in ceramic or glass containers for the same reason
  • Pick food grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers and wash produce to remove residues. Avoid livestock that was fed antibiotics and growth hormones and eat free-range meat
  • Also avoid processed, charred, and well-done meat to reduce exposure to carcinogenic substances
  • Consult the Household Products Database to make informed decisions about products you buy
  • Dispose of drugs, household chemicals, paints property to avoid contaminating drinking water or soil
  • Avoid, or reduce, the use of landscaping pesticide and fertilizer
  • Conserve electricity, use your cars less, bike or walk if possible, to reduce toxic auto fumes and petroleum combustion byproducts being released into the air
  • Limit exposure to electromagnetic energy by wearing a headset when using a cell phone, keeping calls brief, and texting rather than calling
  • Check home radon levels
  • Reduce exposure to cigarette smoke, including second-hand smoke
  • Reduce radiation exposure from medical sources and discuss the need for tests; keep record of imaging/tests and the estimated radiation dose
  • Wear sunscreen and protective clothing when sunlight is intense
  • Make your voice known and be your own advocate about products and factors that are carcinogenic or containing endocrine-disrupting chemicals; speak to policymakers and manufacturers and trade organizations about promoting safer products

Were you aware of how many fronts there are from which your family is exposed to chemicals and carcinogens? Or about the dangers of radiation? Have you ever questioned a doctor or nurse about the need for xrays or CT scans? Talk to me in comments!