The urologist gave me a puzzled look as she evaluated the biopsy results and asked a question I never thought I'd hear: "Have you worked around or been exposed to toxic chemicals?" I answered that it was an incredibly ironic question given that I have dedicated my career to the elimination of toxic chemicals. Why did she want to know? Much to her surprise and mine, her results showed that I have bladder cancer. Common risk categories for this cancer include older white guys who smoke or workers exposed to certain industrial chemicals like dyes and pesticides. Aside from being white, to my knowledge none of the above seemed to fit. And so I was left wondering why. Why me?
I am not alone. Scientists, cancer survivors, and the families who love them around the world are wondering what is going on. Genetics cannot explain the significant increases in incidence of certain cancers, nor can random mutations or lifestyle choices. Perhaps most alarming are the statistics around breast cancer. Between 1973 and 2011, the span of one generation, a woman's lifetime risk of breast cancer increased from 1 in 20 to a mind-boggling 1 in 8.
It turns out we expose ourselves daily to a myriad of chemicals known to harm human cells and disrupt the body's development. Tests of blood, urine and breast milk show the presence of dozens of carcinogenic chemicals and other chemicals of concern in our bodies. Proving that a particular chemical exposure led to someone's cancer is an elusive and impossible goal. Still, it is naïve to think that these toxic industrial chemicals found within our bodies have no impact on health.
But how can it be that chemicals, which can cause such harm, are allowed in the products we bring into our homes, schools and workplaces? Unfortunately, the laws intended to protect us are out of date. The US law that governs the use of chemicals in commerce, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), was put in place in 1976 and grandfathered in all chemicals on the market at that time. Since 1976, our understanding of cancer and toxicology has significantly advanced, while federal law has largely remained static and ultimately ineffectual.
While Europe, Japan, and Canada have all modernized their approach to regulating toxic chemicals at a national level, it has largely fallen on local and state governments in the US to take action and prevent harm. A plethora of local and state bills restrict the use of chemicals like lead and cadmium in children's products, phthalates in toys, or certain flame-retardants in upholstered furniture. These efforts are incredibly important, but not comprehensive enough. With over 100,000 chemicals used by industry, bans on a handful of chemicals barely scratch the surface of the problem. In addition, a narrow focus can lead to the phenomenon of "regrettable substitution." Witness the replacement of the hormone-disrupting bisphenol A (BPA) in cash register receipts with the lesser known, bisphenol S (BPS), which has been shown to disrupt normal brain growth, leading to hyperactivity. Scenarios like this require renewed vigor in safer product design.
Even before my personal experience with cancer, I have spent my career as an advocate for safer product design and the Precautionary Principle. On February 4th, I had the opportunity to convey my efforts and thoughts at Less Cancer's event for National Cancer Prevention Day in Washington DC. I proudly shared that California is taking a comprehensive approach through its Safer Consumer Products Program. The program will radically change the way manufacturers design and produce consumer products and the benefit will be felt far beyond the borders of our state. Manufacturers who want to sell certain products into California will have to answer the question: "Is it necessary to use this toxic ingredient, or is there a safer alternative?" The state's landmark 2008 Green Chemistry Law introduced the concept of alternatives assessment, providing a regulatory driver to spur the development of safer products. When manufacturers must examine all alternatives, the marketplace responds with innovative solutions that are both effective and protective to human health and the environment. We have seen it happen again and again.
Under the leadership of Governor Jerry Brown and the California Department of Toxics Substance Control, California's Safer Consumer Products Program supports public health and is a strong driver for business innovation. Already, companies have responded by promoting products designed with safer alternatives to some of the 1,100 potentially problematic chemicals targeted by the program. As with previous state regulations around energy and fuel efficiency, California's early actions to protect health and the environment send signals to a wider marketplace eager and able to respond. California's Safer Consumer Products Program benefits the entire nation by encouraging an innovative upstream framework, which is critical to making products safer.
While the task of identifying safer alternatives may seem daunting, it pales in comparison to dealing with the impacts of cancer in our lives. As more families like mine struggle to cope with a diagnosis of cancer, we don't have time to waste debating whether the known carcinogens or endocrine disruptors found in everyday products cause cancer-even my bladder cancer. Evidence and ingenuity have shown that far too often, those chemicals are NOT necessary. So, even as governments around the world continue to work with manufacturers on safer alternatives, families need to start asking, "Is there a safer alternative available and if not, why not?