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Chemical Soup

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A report just published in an American Cancer Society Journal concluded that there are more than 200 - that's 200 - commonly used chemicals that cause breast cancer in a variety of laboratory animals. "Overall, exposure to mammary gland carcinogens is widespread," the researchers wrote in a special supplement to their journal Cancer. "These compounds are widely detected in human tissues and in environments, such as homes, where women spend time." An increasing consensus has emerged, also according to the report, that most cancers are from the environment (including diet), not from our genetic make-up. Moreover, many of these 200 or so toxic substances are mutagenic, causing genetic mutations threatening future generations. And when toxic chemicals interact, through what scientists call synergy or potentiation, their risks can increase by a factor of 100 or more.

Environmentally-induced cancers are the result of human failure. This failure is because of a misguided War on Cancer - focusing too much on the cancer result and not the cause - as well as the continued industry addiction by agriculture and others to toxic agents. Fundamentally, it also reflects a failed regulatory regime coupled with antiquated and ineffective toxic chemical control laws in the United States.

Nationally, our primary standard is TSCA - the Toxic Substances Control Act (also sometimes referred to by its many critics as the Toxic Substances Conversation Act). Enacted in the 70s under TSCA, chemicals are considered innocent until proven guilty and, to be banned, are first given more due process than people ever get. The statute's primary main goal was to require comprehensive cancer tests in animals for the tens of thousands of industrial chemicals in widespread use - a goal 30-plus years later we have just begun to achieve. That's why the Europeans have agreed to a treaty requiring extensive test testing and then phase out the worse actors over the next decade or so. The U.S. declined to sign.

Recognizing these national failures, here in California two decades ago we enacted Proposition 65 - requiring first a list by the Governor of chemicals "known to cause cancer" - and then a warning prior to exposure - and a prohibition from being in drinking water - where they pose a significant risk. The California agency charged with listing - known as OEHHA - has not used its independent authority to list a single carcinogen in more than five years. Their most recent failure: refusal to ever "expedite" consideration of PFOA, the stuff of Teflon which a panel of U.S. EPA scientists has already concluded is "likely" to cause cancer in humans. So we wait, and while we do, many of us contract this dreaded disease.