Could chemical-free living make you healthier?

A respected professor of cancer prevention, says avoiding environmental toxins is one of six things

A respected professor of cancer prevention, says avoiding environmental toxins is one of six things people can do to help prevent or delay cancer, or live much longer if they already have diagnosis. Picture: Thinkstock - Credit: PA

Should advice about cutting the risk of cancer include avoiding many common chemicals and environmental toxins?

Jane Pearson's Health Foods for You store in Sudbury has launched an initiative to cut down on plast

Jane Pearson's Health Foods for You store in Sudbury has launched an initiative to cut down on plastic use and sells personal care products free of chemicals linked with potential harm to health. Picture: Jane Pearson - Credit: Archant

Anyone who wants to increase their chances of avoiding a cancer diagnosis knows about the importance of diet, exercise, not smoking, drinking within sensible limits and maintaining a healthy weight.

But how many people would include avoiding environmental toxins on their good health ‘to do’ list?

Probably not many. But, says Dr Lorenzo Cohen, they really ought to.

Dr Cohen, a respected professor of cancer prevention, says avoiding these toxins is one of six things people can do to help prevent or delay cancer, or live much longer if they already have diagnosis.

His ‘Mix of Six’ anticancer lifestyle pillars are outlined in his new book Anticancer Living, which he’s written with his wife Alison Jefferies, and which builds on ideas proposed by Dr Cohen’s friend, the late neuroscientist Dr David Servan-Schreiber.

Dr Servan-Schreiber was diagnosed with a brain tumour at the age of 31, and dedicated his remaining years to investigating the lifestyle choices that can affect human biology, enhance immunity, decrease inflammation and suppress the proliferation of cancer cells. He incorporated the cancer-beating choices into his own life, and lived for nearly 19 years after his cancer diagnosis - four times longer than expected.

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Dr Cohen’s book clearly identifies the six lifestyle choices - all linked with cancer risk and found to influence outcomes for those with cancer - and explains how to incorporate them into everyday life.

He points out that the consistent message from numerous studies is that maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, not smoking, and drinking in moderation can prevent at least half of cancers and cancer deaths - claims well-supported by research. But his six lifestyle factors, which also include love, support and stress management, take things even further - and the key with his recommendations is that although each one helps reduce cancer risk independently, they are far more potent when working hand-in-hand.

As far as environmental toxins are concerned, Dr Cohen says endocrine (hormone) disruptors such as bisphenol A (BPA) and parabens, have been implicated in obesity, risk of cancer, and other illnesses and warns people to limit exposure to them. Other chemicals we’re exposed to daily have also been classified as carcinogens, says Dr Cohen, including polystyrene foam and formaldehyde.

He advises using glass containers for storage and stainless steel water bottles to reduce exposure to plastics containing BPA or other plastic-based endocrine disruptors.

In addition, he says, people should read the ingredients list on personal-care products and avoid parabens, other ‘-bens’ and phthalates. “Creating an anti-cancer environment begins at home and starts with what you are exposing yourself to voluntarily,” he says.

That’s all music to the ears of Jane Pearson, who runs a shop called Health Foods for You, in Sudbury.

Jane has recently introduced a ‘Go Green & Save’ initiative at her shop in an effort to reduce plastic use, converting many health foods lines into self-dispensing canisters for organic fruit, seeds and nuts.

Customers are encouraged to bring in their own jars, pots, tubs or bags, which are weighed ahead of being filled with loose, self-serve products, so they pay only for the product.

Go Green & Save is primarily aimed at cutting plastic use from an environmental point of view but Jane has long been aware of the wider health issues surrounding plastic use and other chemicals. Many of the personal care products she sells are certified free of chemicals, such parabens.

“I don’t think people generally do know a lot about the health problems associated with many of these chemicals, unless they have been unwell and have learned more as a result of that,” says Jane. “What I’m trying to do here is give people a choice and to raise awareness about some of the issues involves. It’s something I feel very passionate about.”

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Parabens: Health store Holland & Barrett says more than 75% of skin care products available to buy contain parabens, a chemical compound of para-hydroxybenzoic acid used as a preservative in products such as shampoos, deodorants, moisturisers and mascaras. Parabens are also used in hundreds of other everyday products. If you see methylparaben, butylparaben, propylparaben or isoparaben (or anything else ending in’paraben’) on a product label you’ll know it contains parabens.

However, Cancer Research UK says there is no good scientific evidence to show that these products affect the risk of cancer.

BPA: BPA is a common chemical used in the production of polycarbonate, a high-performance transparent, rigid plastic often used to make food and drink containers, says NHS Choices. BPA can migrate in small amounts into food and drinks. As it is such a common chemical that has been in use for several decades, it can be found in small quantities in the urine of most adults. According to NHS Choices the science is “not yet completely clear” on how BPA may affect humans but it may mimic hormones and interfere with the endocrine system of glands, which release hormones around the body. Those calling for a ban suggest that it may be a factor in a rising numbers of human illnesses, such as breast cancer, heart disease and genital birth defects. There is a growing body of research into the safety of BPA, but no single study conclusively proves that BPA is harmful to humans, says NHS Choices. Most plastics are labelled with a number inside the triangular recycling mark which allows you to work out whether it contains BPA. One, two, four or five means the plastic is BPA free. A three or a seven means that the plastic may contain BPA. The BPA may be released if you heat them up or put detergent on them. A six means it’s made from polystyrene.

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