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Avoidable Exposures: Consumers

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Foods, Beverages, and Pesticides

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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 protein content.

Carcinogenic Contaminants Commonly Found in Foods and Beverages

Benzene hexachloride (BHC)
Dacthal (DCPA)
Ethylenethiourea (ETU)
Hormone additives
o-Phenylphenol and Na salt
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
Radiation (Chernobyl-related)

Steinman, David and Epstein, Samuel, The Safe Shopper's Bible, MacMillan: New York, 1995.


Chemicals in Food Raise Children’s Cancer Toll, New York Times Letter

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


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