President's Cancer Panel: Eat Organic, Avoid Plastics
Mary Cordaro

By Leah Zerbe

WHAT IT MEANS: Eating organic food is named as a strategy to reduce cancer risk. Though the "O" word itself is scarce, the authors referenced organic food in everything but name. "Exposure to pesticides can be decreased by choosing, to the extent possible, food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers…Similarly, exposure to antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxic runoff from livestock feed lots can be minimized by eating free-range meat raised without these medications," the report states. Food produced without antibiotics, hormones, or toxic agrichemicals is, by definition, organic. "Organic production and processing is the only system that uses certification and inspection to verify that these chemicals are not used on the farm all the way to our dinner tables," says Christine Bushway, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, a business association for the organic industry in North America. Certified organic farms are inspected at least once a year and subject to surprise visits to make sure the harmful chemicals and drugs referred to in the President's Cancer Panel report are not being used. has been telling you all this since we launched; we're glad the government is catching on. To recap, here are some strategies mentioned in the report that you can use to lower your cancer risk:

  • Eat organic whole foods. If you're in the grocery store and don't know your grower personally, choosing the USDA-certified seal ensures your food is grown without the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and human sewage sludge that is often contaminated with heavy metals and pharmaceutical drugs. Organic dairy and meat are raised without the antibiotic and hormone use that are prevalent in the factory-farm conditions that supply most of the food in this country. These types of operations are linked to a rise in sometimes fatal MRSA infections and virulent E. coli outbreaks. (Runoff from the lots can get into irrigation water used on produce crops.)

  • Don't heat plastic…ever. Heating plastic in the microwave or dishwasher causes it to break down and leach chemicals into our food and drink. Some of these chemicals are tied to cancer, sexual development problems, and infertility. Start phasing out your plastics and instead use ceramic, glass, and stainless steel food and water containers and bottles.

  • Phase out phthalates. Phthalates, plastic-softening chemicals, are used in a huge variety of everyday consumer products, from artificial fragrances in candles to hairspray, and in vinyl products like flooring and even rubber duck toys. When used in personal-care products, phthalates are often hidden in the "fragrance" or "parfum" concoction mentioned in the ingredients list. Avoid fragranced products and products made from soft plastics when you can, especially vinyl and PVC. See our healthy home series for more suggestions.

  • Take off your shoes when you come home, and have the rest of your family do likewise. It's a smart habit that will keep you from tracking in pesticides and other chemicals from outdoors.

  • Reduce your exposure to radiation from unneeded medical tests. A report released in 2008 found that exposure to radiation from medical testing has increased by seven times since the 1980s.

  • Filter your tap water. See our story about filters for advice on choosing the right filter for your needs.

None of use can live in a bubble or create an environment completely free of questionable chemicals. But we can change the way we think about the chemicals we come into contact with every day and let that guide our decisions. "Don't think of our environment only as our air and water," says Zuckerman. "Think of it in terms of our kitchen cabinets, our baby's toys, the microwavable containers that contain our instant meals, the box our pizza comes in." All—yes, even the pizza box—have chemicals. "I'm glad that the oil doesn't soak through the pizza box, but not if it means the chemicals from the box get into the pizza that we eat," says Zuckerman.

Among other things, the report recommends a precautionary approach in which the burden of proving a chemical's safety is shifted to its manufacturers, before it's approved for use. "We have to test chemicals before we allow them to surround us, not wait until it's too late. That will probably mean living with fewer chemicals, and hopefully it will mean living longer and healthier lives," Zuckerman adds.

Zuckerman warns that there will be a lot of critics of this report. "Some will be nonprofit organizations that receive lots of money from companies that sell the products that may be harming us," she says. "So, keep that in mind as you hear people debate this report." But a robust debate is better than the status quo, she adds. "There are a lot of unanswered questions, but it's time to take those questions seriously instead of pretending that cancer is caused only by genes and other things we can't control."

This article was originally published on May 6, 2010. It was also published in It is reprinted here with permission.