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Q. How can food and beverages cause cancer?
A. Foods and beverages may be contaminated with a variety of chemicals
that have been intentionally or unintentionally added during their
production, handling, storage, and processing. Fruits, vegetables,
nuts, seeds, and grains are contaminated primarily with pesticides
and sometimes molds. Dairy, meat, seafood, and processed foods
are also contaminated with industrial chemicals, additives, hormones,
growth stimulants, antibiotics, and other animal drugs as well
as occasionally molds and bacteria. Many of these chemicals have
carcinogenic, neurotoxic, reproductive, or immunotoxic effects.
Q. How much of a health risk are these pesticides?
A. In 1993, two important studies provided overwhelming evidence
that the pesticides used in food production are a public health
menace, especially to the nation's children. Studies by the National
Academy of Sciences, and the Environmental Working Group both concluded
that infants and children are at high risk for future cancers because
of their exposure to carcinogenic pesticides, quite apart from
neurotoxic, teratogenic, and other toxic effects. These reports
are merely the latest in a long line of such findings dating back
to the 1960s.
Q. Are adults also effected?
A. A 1993 study found that women with the highest blood levels
of DDT had four times the breast cancer risk of women with the
least exposure. This study is only one of many since the 1970s
-- all largely unpublicized -- to associate DDT and other related
pesticides and industrial chemicals with breast cancer risk. Many
other cancers related to toxic exposures, including brain cancer,
non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, bladder cancer, prostate cancer, testicular
cancer, and leukemia, have also shown major (age-adjusted) increases
in incidence since 1950.
Q. How prevalent is pesticide use on farms?
A. Unfortunately, pesticide use on American farms has increased
125 percent over the past 25 years.
Q. What should we eat then?
A. Organic food is the way to go. Unlike conventional crops, which
may have 15 or more separate applications of pesticides before
they reach supermarkets, organic produce is grown without the use
of pesticides that persist in the environment or on food crops.
The chemicals and other growing practices used by the organic farmer
(such as the use of sulfur, beneficial insects, and natural pyrethrins)
are safe for you and the environment. Organic foods are also free
from artificial colors, and preservatives such as BHA.
Q. What about eating meat?
A. Organic meats make up another important part of the organic
foods movement. Organic meat and poultry contain none of the antibiotics,
hormones, growth stimulants, veterinary drugs, and other substances
that go along with the factory farm and that threaten the health
of consumers. Furthermore, organic meat is free from freshly applied
pesticides and herbicides that may contaminate the feed.
Q. Besides not having pesticides, are organic foods more healthy?
A. There is growing evidence that organically grown foods are
more nutritious than commercially grown foods. A 1993 study published
in the Journal of Applied Nutrition found that organically grown
foods contain significantly higher amounts of trace elements than
foods grown conventionally with pesticides.
Organically grown foods had nearly two to four times more nutritional
trace elements of boron, calcium, chromium, copper, iodine, magnesium,
manganese, molybdenum, phosphorus, selenium, silicon, strontium,
and zinc than commercially grown foods. Organically grown foods
have also been shown to have higher amounts of vitamin C and higher
Carcinogenic Contaminants Commonly Found in Foods and Beverages
Benzene hexachloride (BHC)
DDT, DDE, DDD
o-Phenylphenol and Na salt
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
Steinman, David and Epstein, Samuel,
Safe Shopper's Bible,
MacMillan: New York, 1995.
Chemicals in Food Raise Children’s Cancer Toll, New York
Get the Cancerous Pesticides Out of Our Food, New
York Times Letter
U. S. Pesticide
Regulations are Weak “What About People?” Los
Angeles Times Editorial
U. S. Laws Open
the Doors for Carcinogens: Assaults on Food Safety Multiply. Los Angeles Times Editorial
“Negligible Risk” Is Still Much Too Great. Los
Angeles Times Editorial
Samuel S. Epstein, M.D.
Chairman, Cancer Prevention Coalition
c/o University of Illinois at Chicago
School of Public Health, M/C 922
2121 W. Taylor Street
Chicago, IL 60612