To Clean or Not?

Nancy Snow, MS
Research and Communications Specialist

Headlines in the last 24 hours or so have looked too good to be true: Cancer risk in a clean house and Houseproud women ‘more at risk from breast cancer.’ Can I really stop cleaning without guilt?

Sadly, the spin on a new study is indeed too good to be true. The study was published yesterday in the journal Environmental Health: “Self-reported chemicals exposure, beliefs about disease causation, and risk of breast cancer in the Cape Cod Breast Cancer and Environment Study: A case-control study,” with data that “suggest that cleaning product use contributes to increased breast cancer risk.” The increased risk was up to two-fold in the highest compared with lowest quartile of self-reported combined cleaning product use and combined air freshener use.

The five categories of cleaning products that women in the study were asked about using — solid and spray air fresheners, surface cleaners, oven cleaners, and mold/mildew products — typically contain chemicals known to have adverse health effects: chlorine, ammonia, several different solvents, phthalates, parabens, alcohol, fragrances, disinfectants, lye and more.

But if you stop cleaning, other chemical bad actors lurk in house dust: PBDEs from virtually any electric appliance that has plastic components; lead from pre-1978 house paint; pesticide and oil residues brought into houses on shoes; and vinyl from blinds, plumbing, furniture, shower curtains and many other things plastic. Then there are unfriendly pathogens that may be brought into your house on food, pets or visitors; toxic mold that’s always floating about the air waiting for a moist place to land and grow; and much bigger organisms that will be attracted to unclean areas: ants, cockroaches, and even rats.

The takeaway here is not to stop cleaning, it’s to stop cleaning with toxic chemicals. CHE provides a searchable database of books, websites, databases, consumer guides and more with everything from the science behind chemicals’ effects on health to recipes for nontoxic cleaning products.

As for the solid and spray air fresheners: they’re not needed at all. If your house smells, remove the source of the odor, whether animal waste, garbage, smoke residue, mold, mildew or old gym clothes. Open a window for at least part of every day if you can, and breathe easier both during and after cleaning your house.

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Review of Autism Society National Conference in Dallas: Excerpt

The following is excerpted from a review by CHE Partner Leigh Attaway Wilcox of the 2010 Autism Society National Conference. It is reprinted with her permission. The full review is on the Dallas Moms blog.

On July 8, 2010, CHE’s Learning and Developmental Disability Initiative, with the support of the John Merck Fund, cosponsored the 2nd annual Science That Makes a Difference Annual Symposium at the Autism Society of America National Conference.


The “Science Symposium” was potentially the most powerful and meaningful part of the conference, in my opinion. Six very well-respected and knowledgeable experts shared their take on “Environmental Exposures and Child Development: The Latest on Environmental Health Sciences, Developmental Disabilities and Public Health Policy.” While waiting for the first session to begin, I was encouraged that Sharon Lewis and Lee Grossman were both in the audience. Sadly, they both left before the first speaker began. I had secretly hoped that in hearing the blatant scientific proof that our environment is greatly affecting our youngest, and most vulnerable generation, that Ms. Lewis would feel compelled to share concerns with President Obama…that I might even have the opportunity to dialog with her about the topic. However, since she was not there throughout the day, I don’t know if she has heard what these speakers had to say…or what many of the other speakers addressing the topic of our toxic environment have to say…I can only hope that she has heard and will continue to learn from these experts in the coming months.

My dream would be to have President Obama hear directly from these speakers! After hearing them, one cannot walk away without strong determination to take action and make necessary changes; that is what our country – our global society – truly needs.

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To kick off the Science Symposium, Dr. Ted Schettler gave a general overview of our Environmental Health entitled “In Harm’s Way.” Dr. Schettler’s speech was not geared directly at ASD, but moreso at our general and overall health as a global community.

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Dioxin – Scientific Analysis

This letter is reprinted with permission from the Environmental Working Group, a CHE partner. See the original letter with full science analysis on EWG’s website.  

Dr. Timothy Buckley, Chair
Dioxin Review Panel
Science Advisory Board
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Washington, DC

Dear Dr. Buckley,

Twenty-five years after publishing its first assessment of dioxin, a common industrial pollutant and food contaminant, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has yet to establish a safe daily dose for human exposure to this potent chemical.

Dioxin (2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, also known as 2,3,7,8-TCDD, or TCDD) may well be one of the most-studied of all chemical pollutants. The U.S. National Toxicology Program has listed dioxin as a known human carcinogen since 2001 (NTP 2005), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed to do the same (EPA 2010a). There is a large and persuasive body of research dating from the 1950s showing that dioxin undermines fetal development, damages the reproductive and immune systems and causes severe skin ailments and other disorders.

As U.S. industrial data demonstrate, dioxin is released from municipal waste incinerators; industrial and military hazardous waste treatment facilities; pesticide manufacturing and paper bleaching plants; and a wide range of other industrial processes. In the 1970s, dioxin was identified as a contaminant in Agent Orange, the notorious defoliant deployed by the U.S. during the Vietnam War and blamed for diabetes and other diseases among exposed personnel (Chamie 2008; Cranmer 2000; Gupta 2006).

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On Oil Spills and Making Mistakes

Elise Miller, MEd
CHE Director

In a recent interview regarding the BP oil disaster, Bill McKibben pointed out that even if all the oil had reached its intended destination—i.e., your corner gas station—it still would be an ecological and human health catastrophe. It is only because of the acute and immediate impacts of this so-called “spill” (which hardly captures nature of the devastation) that we actually stop, at least for a moment, and consider the magnitude of the ways we humans persistently undermine the health of our home planet and thus, ourselves.

A colleague once said to me: “I don’t mind making mistakes—that’s how we get better at what we do; but I don’t want to make the same mistakes—only new mistakes.” The current oil calamity in the Gulf is another profoundly sad example of our proclivity to repeatedly make myopic mistakes. Though this situation may be considered the single largest environmental disaster in US history, it is hardly an aberration—and it is hardly just an “environmental” disaster. Instead, the current oil spill only underscores how challenging it seems to be for us to make systemic changes for the benefit of all as well as why we should never forget that human health and environmental health are inherently inseparable.

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Preventing Cancer: A Call to Action

Ted Schettler, MD, MPH
Science Director

reprinted with the author’s permission from the Science and Environmental Network’s Networker

Identifying the causes of cancer, in order to help develop preventive strategies, has been of great interest for a long time. Almost 30 years ago, the Office of Technology Assessment of the US Congress commissioned two British epidemiologists, Richard Doll and Richard Peto, to quantify the avoidable risks of cancer in the US. They limited their evaluation to cancer deaths in people under age 65 and, using epidemiologic data, estimated the largest contributors to be tobacco (30%) and diet (35%). Far down on the list were environmental pollution (2%) and occupational exposures (4%).

Doll and Peto were fairly confident about their estimates for tobacco and less so about diet. They acknowledged that estimating other factors, including pollutants, was hampered even more by a number of assumptions, data gaps, and uncertainties. Despite these limits, which other analysts have repeatedly pointed out over the ensuing years, many scientists and policy makers continue to accept Doll and Peto’s estimates as fact. Their numbers have supported arguments against spending time and resources to reduce exposures to environmental contaminants, emphasizing instead the importance of personal lifestyle choices.

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A Bridge to Somewhere – Responding to the President’s Cancer Panel Report (Part 1)

Sandra Steingraber, PhD
CHE Partner

This essay is reprinted with permission from Sandra’s “Living Downstream” website.


The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.

—Theodore Roosevelt (inscribed on the wall of the U.S. Capitol Building)

On May 21, I participated in a congressional staff briefing organized by the Collaborative on Health and the Environment and the Breast Cancer Fund in conjunction with Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The topic was the President’s Cancer Panel report, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, released on May 6. The essay below is taken from the first half of my presentation. The second half appears in this space next week. My co-presenters were physician Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, and epidemiologist Richard Clapp, DSc, MPH, first director of the Massachusetts Cancer Registry and a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health.

I was last here in Washington, DC, just a month ago as part of a film and book tour. My book Living Downstream, which explores the environmental links to cancer, has recently been released as an updated second edition as well as a documentary film. The movie version premiered here as part of the a special screening hosted by the DC Environmental Film Festival.

A few hours before the film screening, I jogged over to the Smithsonian Institution to visit the new Hall of Human Origins and its life-like mannequins of Lucy and other hominids. I’m a biologist; I have an abiding fondness for natural history exhibits. I also had a special reason for this particular visit.

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Toxicity in Oil Dispersants: First Data

Ted Schettler, MD, MPH
Science Director

Yesteday the US EPA publicly released their initial toxicity-testing data for eight different oil dispersants. Data include results for acute toxicity (LD50s) in two Gulf species, cytotoxicity, and interaction with androgen and estrogen receptors in in vitro assays. The agency has not yet examined the toxicity of dispersant-oil mixtures or effects on other species.

Excerpt: EPA Releases First Round of Toxicity Testing Data for Eight Oil Dispersants

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today released peer-reviewed results from the first round of its own independent toxicity testing on eight oil dispersants. EPA conducted testing to ensure that decisions about ongoing dispersant use in the Gulf of Mexico continue to be grounded in the best available science. Read the full announcement, including a link to the data.