Does everything cause cancer these days?

Posted by Liz Cook on

You may have heard that everything causes cancer. The notion has been tossed around so much over the past decade or so that now it’s almost become a running joke and a reason not to be afraid; if you want to reduce someone’s fear about something just tell them, “Hey, don’t eat that – it might cause cancer.” Cue laughter and go on enjoying your meal.

Have we become desensitised to cancer because of its prevalence (recent stats show almost 1 in 2 of us will have cancer before we hit 85 years of age), or is more a case of apathy because cancer has been casually linked to almost every conceivable thing in the modern world? Perhaps we have become cynical, and doubt it’s even a real risk at all.

Cancer Statistics in Australia

Cancer accounts for 29% of male deaths and 25% of female deaths in Australia each year.

While the rate of deaths from cancer have been slowly decreasing since the mid 1990s, the rate of cancer diagnoses have been steadily increasing over the past 30 years.

The most common cancers in Australia (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer) are prostate, breast, bowel, melanoma and lung cancer. These five cancers account for around 60% of all cancers diagnosed in Australia.

What exactly is cancer?

The Cancer Council explains cancer like this: “Cancer is a disease of the body's cells. Normally cells grow and multiply in a controlled way, however, if something causes a mistake to occur in the cells' genetic blueprints, this control can be lost. Cancer is the term used to describe collections of these cells, growing and potentially spreading within the body. As cancerous cells can arise from almost any type of tissue cell, cancer actually refers to about 100 different diseases.”

For those of you who like to geek-out on the science, Australian Naturopath and researcher Leah Hechtman, explains it this way: At a molecular level, cancer is a disease where regulation of the cell cycle goes awry and normal cell growth and behaviour is lost. Chemical damage to DNA itself does not cause cells to become cancerous, but if that damage is unrepaired it can cause mutation during the process of DNA replication, which can cause cells to become cancerous.

DNA damage can result from internal processes within the cell, by attack from free radicals that cause oxidation (basically rusting of the cell), or from interactions with external agents such as ionising radiation and chemical carcinogens, and sometimes from infections such as hepatitis B or C, or H. pylori.

What actually causes cancer?

There is now strong evidence to demonstrate that 90-95% of cancers are caused by environmental and lifestyle factors, while only 5-10% can be attributed to genetic defect.

Even within this 5-10% there may be preventable epigenetic factors at play (when external factors cause cell mutations). Lifestyle factors include cigarette smoking, radiation, inactivity, stress, obesity, processed foods, alcohol, sun exposure, infection and environmental pollutants.

So, yes, it would seem that there are a lot of factors in this modern lifestyle that contribute to cancer.

Who decides what causes cancer?

One of the major roles of the The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC - part of the World Health Organization) is to identify causes of cancer. They have a system for classifying environmental risks for cancer, including lifestyle factors (food, smoking, exercise etc), naturally occurring exposures (eg UV light), medical treatments, workplace exposures, household exposures and pollution.

The list of Known or Suspected Human Carcinogens includes over 250 studied, proven causes of cancer, including: arsenic, asbestos, alcohol, DDT, diesel exhaust, hepatitis C, glyphosate, ionizing radiation, mineral oils, processed meat, tobacco and wood dust. (You can find the full list at the links below). 

So why doesn’t everyone who’s exposed get cancer?

We’ve all heard stories like the 97-year-old man who swears by his life-long daily routine of half a bottle of whisky and a three cigars. It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it, given what we know about cancer risks?

But we are all so different in our genetic makeup and in our propensity for disease, that not everyone who is exposed to these cancer risks will end up with cancer.

And then again, sometimes we see that the fittest and seemingly healthiest among us end up with a shocking cancer diagnosis with no obvious direct cause.

There are many influences on whether a person gets cancer or not, including exposure to risk factors (as mentioned), number of exposures and number of risk factors, the health of the immune system, age and genetics, and probably more that we don’t yet know. While there is no guarantee you will get cancer if your lifestyle and environment exposes you to the risk factors, there is certainly a much greater chance of it (remember, 90-95% of cancers are preventable).

Cancer and Fragrance

For us as a natural fragrance manufacturer, it is particularly concerning to see several fragrance ingredients commonly used in commercial perfumery be listed as “known or suspected human carcinogens”. These include several synthetic musks (some of which have been banned recently), acetylaldehyde (a green apple scent), styrene (almond scent), allyl isovalerate (cherry), courmarin (spicy), isoeugenol (spicy), benzophenone (sweet, floral), estragole (anisic), methyleugenol (spicy) and pulegone (minty).  

These ingredients have not been banned from fragrance use despite their hazardous status. Around 75% of ingredients currently in use have not yet been evaluated for safety, so it is likely the number of fragrance ingredients linked to cancer could be much greater.

Of perhaps greater concern due to its prevalence are the contaminants that have been found in perfumes and personal care products with petroleum-based ingredients, including 1,4 dioxane, nitrosamines, formaldehyde, ethylene oxide, acrylamide and PSHs, which are all classified as probable human carcinogens. (There are 24 of these contaminants currently known).

An EWG test of 15,000 cosmetics and personal care products found that these impurities may be found in around 80% of all personal care products. These trace often readily penetrate the skin…and their presence in products is not restricted by government safety standards — they are legal at any level.

An EWG 2004 online survey of the cosmetics and personal care products used by 2,300 people found that impurities are so ubiquitous that one of every five adults is potentially exposed every day to all of the top seven carcinogenic impurities common to personal care product ingredients.

Although companies can easily remove these impurities from ingredients during manufacture, tests documenting their common presence in products show that they often don’t, leaving their customers at risk for potential chronic and widespread exposures to this cancer-causing compound.

Doesn't the law ban toxic ingredients?

The fragrance industry is almost completely self-regulated, with governing bodies such as the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) stating that the onus is on the perfume manufacturers to assess the safety of the materials they use.

In addition, Trade Secret Legislation in both the USA and Australia (and many other countries) actually protects perfume manufacturers from disclosing any ingredients they deem to be ‘trade secret” which means any number of ingredients can be used and not listed on the ingredient panel, so you will never know if any of these or other toxic ingredients are in your favourite bottle of scent.

So when you see ‘fragrance’ on a personal care product's label, read it as ‘hidden chemicals.’

A major loophole in The USA’s FDA's federal law and The ACCC in Australia lets manufacturers of personal care products, including perfume, include nearly any ingredient in their products under the name ‘fragrance’ without actually listing the chemical.

Companies that manufacture personal care products are required by law to list the ingredients they use, but fragrances and trade-secret formulas are exempt.

The EWG states that “the only way to steer clear of styrene [and other carcinogenic ingredients] in personal care products is to avoid using any that say they contain “fragrance” but don’t list the perfume’s individual components. That’s because the (USA) federal Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have the authority or resources to evaluate the safety of risky ingredients and respond accordingly. It will take a long overdue reform of federal law to ensure that these products contain only safe ingredients.”

(For more on the hidden toxic ingredients in perfume, read the EWGs 2010 report, Not So Sexy, in the links below).

Cancer is not the only concern

What about those ingredients that have been linked with other health concerns, not necessarily cancer?

There are many materials used in our modern world that contribute to disease and may not directly result in cancer. Two of those of biggest concern in the fragrance industry are phthalates and synthetic musks, both of which have potent disrupting effects on the endocrine system (hormones) and are linked to precocious puberty (early onset of menstruation), infertility, miscarriage, depressed sperm motility, genital abnormalities in male infants and many other disease states. These materials can even pass through the skin and breast milk of the mother to her unborn baby.

For more on other common perfume ingredients and their potential health effects, you can download our guide here.

How safe is my perfume?

In 2010, after years of intentional secrecy, the IFRA bowed to public pressure and published a list of 3163 ingredients (ironically called the Transparency list) that its members reportedly use to make fragrance. The updated 2016 list contains 3999 materials (the vast majority of which are synthetic chemicals. (You can find the full list at the links below).

The IFRA states that every ingredient on this list is included in the RIFM safety assessment program, but that “manufacturers are responsible for the safety of the ingredients they use in their products.” Around 25% of those ingredients listed have actually been tested for safety.

As a side note, it should be mentioned testing is short-term (weeks) and for the purpose of allergenicity, not disease. The IFRA has been labelled by some as “reckless” and “irresponsible” due to questionable practices and non-disclosure when it comes to how ingredients and products are tested and what data is actually supplied.

After conducting an audit of the 2010 list, The EWG stated that 1 in 20 of the materials earned a ”high” hazard score, and a further 1 in 6 earned a “moderate” hazard score. In addition 25 of these 3163 ingredients scored a 10 (highly hazardous with robust scientific data).

How to minimise your risk

Is it true that everything causes cancer these days? It can seem like it might be so in this modern world of pollution, plastic and pesticides. While the lowest-risk strategy might be to shun the modern world and grow your own veggies from a hay-bale cabin in the mountains of Iceland, that is clearly not realistic for most.

So while all of us will be exposed to at least some known carcinogens over our lifetime, we can make choices to minimise our exposure and maximise our health.

In her book, The Case Against Fragrance, author Kate Granville states: No one knows what the safe dose of any carcinogen is for a human. To know that, you'd have to do those impossible carcinogenicity studies on people. But, even if you did know what dose was safe, it wouldn't help consumers. As we've seen, the ingredients that give a product its fragrance aren't disclosed, and the amount we get from second-hand sources is impossible to calculate. So it's true that there may be a dose for formaldehyde, or 1,4-dioxane, that won't trigger cancer. But it's impossible to know what that dose is, or whether we're on the right side of it.”

You can’t be perfect, but we can all be better and lessen our risk. Start by reading labels, choosing truly natural products, avoiding synthetic scent, finding more time to de-stress, buying or growing organic produce, avoid cigarette smoke and too much sun.

Do what you can. Every change has an impact on your health for the better.


Find a full list of references here >

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