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The environment and cancer: Weighing the risks

Can you—or your kids—get cancer from eating a pesticide-treated apple? Is your TV a lethal weapon? Can your electric razor shave years off your life? From time to time, the media issues reports that would have us think so. The fact is, when it comes to environmental carcinogens (cancer-causing agents), the sun and secondhand smoke are the biggest threats. To help you put things in perspective, here’s a look at the most dangerous environmental carcinogens.

Ultraviolet light. Exposure to ultraviolet rays is responsible for one in 10 cancer cases. Most of the more than million annual cases of skin cancer could be prevented if victims followed these simple steps: (1) Stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. (2) Wear light, loose layers, including hats and sunglasses when you’re outdoors. (3) Before heading out, apply a PABA-containing sunscreen with a sun-protection factor of 15 or higher, and reapply often. (4) Steer clear of tanning booths and sunlamps—artificial but no less dangerous sources of ultraviolet radiation.

Secondhand smoke. Putting a lid on secondhand smoke would eliminate one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in the United States—lung cancer in nonsmokers. If you’re a nonsmoker, remind smokers that sidestream smoke contains twice as much tar and nicotine as inhaled smoke. That means they’re putting you at serious risk. Avoid smoky places, and complain if smoking is going on in nonsmoking sections of restaurants, offices or other facilities.

Radon. You can’t see, smell or taste radon, a radioactive gas created by the natural breakdown of uranium in rocks and soil. Outdoors, it’s diluted to such a low concentration that it’s nothing to worry about, but if it accumulates indoors it may lead to lung cancer. Scientists estimate that radon is responsible for as many as 30,000 lung cancer deaths a year. Alarming in recent years has been the discovery of high radon levels in homes around the U.S. Natural deposits of uranium in the soil on which the homes are built are to blame for the buildup. If you’re concerned, contact the EPA Radon Division at (202) 343-2394 for the name of a company that performs testing and renovations in your area.

Asbestos. Asbestos has been used so widely in products like pipes, paints and ceiling and floor tiles that most of us have been exposed at one time or another. The problem: Asbestos fibers break down into tiny particles that stick to skin and clothing and are easily swallowed and inhaled. Once particles work their way into the body, they stay there. It’s not unusual for symptoms of asbestos-related conditions such as lung and stomach cancer to appear decades later. At highest risk are those who worked with asbestos, but what about nonoccupational exposure? Should you worry if the pipes or tiles in your home contain asbestos, for example? Not unless you plan to drill or saw them. Ordinarily, asbestos that is bonded into finished products likes pipes and tiles poses no health risk as long as it’s not damaged or disturbed. If you have questions about asbestos exposure or removal, call the Consumer Product Safety Commission at (800) 638-2772.


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