Taking measures to avoid cancerPublished 9:02am Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Column: Pothole Prairie
The human body is amazing in its ability to clean out the unwanted chemicals in our world and make excellent use of the wanted chemicals.
What causes cancer? That’s a big question in our world. I am neither a doctor nor an expert in the field, but I do retain what I read. Everyone takes their own steps based on what they learn.
Carcinogens cause cancer, of course. There are three kinds: known carcinogens, probable carcinogens and the much larger category of things we don’t know.
We are really good at figuring out that this particular chemical or that particular chemical does this or does that. But the research we lack is how multiple chemicals at varying levels correspond in the human body.
What happens if you encounter a wide variety in a day? After all, that’s what really happens. The lab and the real world are two different things. I’m a Persian Gulf War veterans, and though I didn’t have Gulf War syndrome, many veterans did. We all learned that there wasn’t much research about low-level exposures of particular chemicals but there was a lot of research on high amounts. We also learned that in the real world we encounter so much more than what often can be defined conclusively by science, which, for good reasons, has strict rules. Gulf War syndrome, for most, was caused by encounters to a cocktail of chemicals and conditions, not any single thing.
Clearly known carcinogens include forms of tobacco, secondhand smoke, ultraviolet rays, radon gas, asbestos, benzene, vinyl bromide and things with long names like N-Methyl-N-nitro-N-nitrosoguanidine. Genetics plays a factor of whether you are susceptible to certain types of cancer.
Probable carcinogens have long names, too, like glycidol, isoprene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, but there are some short names, like lead and mirex.
Where do we find all these chemicals? I don’t know — and there are many silly urban legends, like burned coffee — but I do know that I, like most folks, take steps here and there to avoid harmful circumstances. Here are mine:
• I don’t like to follow cars too closely, especially stopped ones. I know when I am standing along a busy road or a highway or walking through pumps at a gas station, the smell changes. Car exhaust stinks, probably because it is bad for you, and many waste products of oil cause cancer. We must breathe in a lot of car exhaust, whether we are getting it from the car or truck in front of us or just life in a city. (Who hasn’t driven behind a car that smells especially awful?) OK, but if it doesn’t directly cause cancer, I know carbon monoxide is said to exacerbate many diseases in humans, and the American Cancer Society says diesel exhaust indeed is a carcinogen. Frankly, I’d just rather breathe fresh air, thank you very much.
• Speaking of gasoline, whenever I pump gas, I never stand nearby. I stand away or clean my windshield. Sure, gas fumes do smell nice, but, again, fresh air, please.
• Ever clean a bathroom and your lungs slightly hurt later from the chemicals? That’s probably the chlorine, ammonia or other irritants. There are chemicals in household cleaning products — filled with dirt-busting petrochemical solvents — that are irritants just the same but haven’t been proven a carcinogen one way or the other. They have been linked to asthma and respiratory illnesses, according to the American Lung Association. What’s worse, manufacturers are not required to list ingredients on cleaning supplies. You don’t know what volatile compounds are in there. I have learned to open a window and run a fan when I clean the bathroom.
• There isn’t much a person can do to avoid everything in the air. I’m not overly obsessive about it, just aware. I do know that the American Cancer Society and everyone agrees that exercise helps your body get rid of chemicals faster and better. Long walks in the fresh air have been part of human existence for ages and continue to do us a world of good.
• What are we eating? I eat plenty of food that is probably bad for me. I eat meat, but I work at consuming it at only one meal a day, not noon and night, and even less sometimes. The U.S. allows cattle tissue to be fed to pigs, chickens and sheep. Cattle can be fed chicken remains. Can you believe that? It seems so unnatural, like a means of disease transmission just waiting to happen. It isn’t known to cause cancer, but consider this: We are what we eat and we are what we eat eats. What else is in there?
• The thinking about fresh air applies to diet, as well. We probably cannot avoid all the bad chemicals out there, but if we eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains more regularly, our bodies likely will do a better job of cleaning the bad stuff, such as trans fats, too much sugar and too much sodium.
• This one isn’t really cancer-related, but I thought I would mention it: Some folks have a tendency to disinfect everything all the time. Like I said, I’m no expert, but I think it does us some good to be exposed to germs to a slight degree for the sake of our maintaining a strong immune system. If we never take in germs, our body can’t fight them off. We keep a clean home, but we aren’t obsessive about it every moment of every day. The five-second rule is in place at the dinner table. We drink water straight from the tap.
I suppose the best a person can do is consume a wide variety of cancer and health information and decide for themselves what is fiction and nonfiction. And take their own steps.
The best news is that, no matter how you look at it, people are living longer than we ever have as a species, so there must be fairly good habits in general.
Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.