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What Caused My Cancer?

Was it bad genes? Bad luck? Or was it the toxins I eat, drink, breathe, and touch on a regular basis because the United States has a policy of putting the burden of proof for product safety on the consumer?
Bisphenol A is primarily used to make plastics. (Photo: monticello/Shutterstock)

Bisphenol A is primarily used to make plastics. (Photo: monticello/Shutterstock)

Wandering through the drugstore recently, I was stumped by the prospect of which body lotion to buy. Which brand would best nourish my skin while poisoning me with harmful chemicals least? I stood in the store aisle staring at my smartphone app for the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Guide trying to determine which product would be best for my body.

Certainty in health safety is elusive. Deciding which water bottle to buy (the Bisphenol A or BPA-free plastic, aluminum, or glass) causes many American consumers angst. BPA is everywhere, and it’s been linked in numerous studies to cancer.

When I faced my own breast cancer diagnosis recently, it heightened my intellectual interest in toxins and the history of health and safety in the United States. My concerns moved from the theoretical to the real: Why did I develop breast cancer? What role, if any, did the toxins running through our water and food supplies, and our cosmetic and household products, play?

Many products on our shelves are in fact known to be toxic to humans. Many of the regulatory checks we assume are in place to protect us are meaningless.

I will never know. Science tells us that the potential causes of my cancer range from genetic mutation, family history, and bad luck to environmental contaminants.

Recent reports about the surge in use of quantum dots in consumer electronics and television sets—an environmental hazard for the future due to the proliferation of cadmium—remind us how much we do not know about what could harm us.

News of microplastic litter in our water systems is also alarming. Who would have guessed, decades ago, that man-made fabrics that released us from ironing would be deleterious to our health?

As for environmental contaminants, we know that regulations are less than meaningful, in part because the science of health continues to change, and new knowledge constantly emerges that forces a re-evaluation of products that previously had been considered safe.

Still, many products on our shelves are in fact known to be toxic to humans. Many of the regulatory checks we assume are in place to protect us are meaningless.

A new study out from the British Food Journal analyzes trust in food labeling and finds that many consumers distrust the content of the foods they eat. A recent book from the Academy of Marketing Science, Ideas in Marketing: Finding the New and Polishing the Old, offers strategies to engender customer brand loyalty. But isn’t trust to be earned, not strategized?

We know, for example, that flame retardants in children’s clothing and mattresses are toxic, and have been linked to neurocognitive problems . To my own horror, I found out last year that the cleaner I had been using on the floor that my toddler, baby, and two cats crawl around and walk on, licking their fingers, toys, and paws, received an “F” and environmental contamination from the Environmental Working Group.

How does this happen?

Many companies rely on—and are able to exploit—the uncertainty of causality with regard to health, manipulating reports to convince consumers that their products are safe, since it’s so difficult to prove that they’re otherwise.

In the U.S., the burden of proof for product safety is on the consumer. Not so in the European Union, which places the burden of proof on the company, following what’s known as the precautionary principle. That is defined by the Science and Environmental Health Network this way: “When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

But the American system seems to favor corporations over public safety.

Tobacco is a good example. Throughout most of the 20th century, tobacco companies successfully claimed that it wasn’t possible to link use of their product to cancer. As Alan Brandt elegantly exposes in his classic 2007 book, Cigarette Century, they exploited the uncertainty of proof to successfully market tobacco.

Certainly, for many products there is no sure way to determine a link with negative health consequences. Proof is elusive. And corporations’ successes fuel the American economy. But I’d suggest that when public health is at stake, the uncertainty of causality should lead to caution rather than carelessness.

Public policy needs to stand for consumer health and safety in a more aggressive way. Recently in New York Albany County became the first in the state to sign into law a ban on toxins in children’s toys. Why can’t all counties be as progressive when it comes to our health safety?

I will always wonder what caused my cancer. Bad genes? Bad luck? Did the toxins I eat, drink, breathe, and touch contribute? I’ll never know.

But what I do know is that I’d feel safer living in a society whose regulations placed human (not to mention environmental and animal) health above profits. The best I can do for now is be cautious, and only hope that manufacturers and policymakers will watch out for me, my family, and my friends.