February is National Cancer Prevention Month. Here’s our path to cancer prevention.

February is National Cancer Prevention Month. We want to take this time to talk about cancer prevention, and how protecting consumers and the environment from toxic chemicals is one way we can get closer to a cancer-free world.

Toxic threats

Mother and daughter walking on the beach at sunset | CC via pixabay.com
Mother and daughter walking on the beach at sunset | CC via pixabay.com
Gina Werdel

Cancer steals our futures 

This year, our collective consciousness is focused on one public health crisis: the tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic. So it’s easy to forget that in 2020 alone scientists projected that 1.8 million people in the U.S. would receive a cancer diagnosis, and more than 600 thousand people would die from it. Cancer causes unimaginable suffering for those affected — not only is it painful and exhausting, but treatments can be excruciating as well. It takes lives too soon, leaving loved ones to grieve the loss of their parent, child, sister, brother or friend. For those who survive, there may be lasting health impacts, both physical and psychological, caused by the uncertainty, fear and stressful financial burden that accompany a battle with cancer. Cancer steals the future from patients and their loved ones. 

Different cancers can be caused by a variety of factors, and scientists don’t fully understand their causes. But we know that many chemicals in our consumer products and our environment are linked to or are known to cause cancer. Much of the time, we as consumers aren’t even aware that these chemicals are there. 

No one should have to deal with the devastation of cancer. Our decision makers — in government and at companies — should be doing everything they can to make sure that cancer-causing chemicals are eliminated from our products and our environment. When there are cancer causes we can eliminate, it is inexcusable to not eliminate as many as possible.

Our vision for a cancer-free future 

We imagine a world in which people can easily live safe and healthy lives, free of cancer-causing products and pollutants, and free of preventable diagnoses. While a truly cancer-free future may not be possible, we can and need to do more to prevent cancer wherever possible. We have the power and duty to make policy changes that would help us eliminate cancer-causing chemicals from our lives. As individuals, we have the power to call for that change. 

For a long time, U.S. PIRG has advocated for policies that would protect the public from cancer-causing chemicals in our environment and products. We believe our nation must be guided by the following core set of principles:

  1. Precautionary Principle: We should thoroughly assess chemicals for their health impacts before they are put into use. The burden should be on chemical manufacturers to demonstrate that their product doesn’t cause cancer or other health impacts before millions of people are exposed, rather than on the victims who are suffering with cancer as a result of exposure. 

  1. Phase Out Toxic Chemicals: Chemicals that are shown to be linked to cancer should be eliminated from use.

  1. Promote Safe Alternatives: We should promote cleaner and safer alternatives to cancer-linked chemicals.

  1. Right to Know: The public has a right to know about toxics that they are exposed to and a right to participate in decisions that affect the public’s health.

  1. Clean Up and Properly Dispose of Toxic Chemicals: We should thoroughly clean up and remediate threats to human health from past toxics use, release and contamination.

  1. Polluter Pays: We should hold polluters accountable, responsible and liable for the costs and consequences of past and present chemical use that puts us at risk for cancer.

Our path to a cancer-free future 

Throughout February, we are calling on our decision makers to take action to prevent cancer in the U.S. Each week, we’ll focus on one cause of cancer, sharing information on the problem and solution, and connecting you with actions you can take to help make a difference. 

Week 1: Cancer-Free Cosmetics

Highlighting our Make It Toxic-Free Campaign

We should be able to trust that the products we put on our bodies are safe. But the reality is that companies are allowed to use nearly any chemical they want as an ingredient in personal care and cosmetic products, and no government agency is in charge of the pre-market approval for these products. 

When we do something as simple as our personal care routine, we’re often unknowingly exposing ourselves to dozens of toxic chemicals that have been linked to serious health problems, including cancer. Some examples of the toxic chemicals we’ve identified are asbestos in kids’ makeup, lead in lipstick and formaldehyde in baby shampoo. 

That’s why we’re calling on L’Oréal and other beauty companies to make their products toxic-free. Everyone deserves to have a beauty routine that is safe and cancer-free.  

Resource: Check out our consumer guide to help you shop for safer beauty and personal care products. 

Action: Sign our petition to L’Oréal, asking the company to disclose all ingredients in their products, phase out toxic chemicals, and switch to safer alternatives. 


Week 2: Cancer-Free Communities

Highlighting our Make Polluters Pay Campaign

One in six Americans lives within three miles of a toxic waste site. The EPA has listed more than 1,300 of these sites as national priorities for cleanup. The chemicals at these sites may increase the risk of cancer, respiratory and heart disease and other serious illnesses. 

We need to clean up these sites in order to prevent cancer and other health impacts. Unfortunately, cleanup in recent years has been slow due to lack of funding. In order to clean up these sites and prevent more exposure, we need to instate a tax on the polluting industries responsible to fund the cleanup of these sites.  

Resource: This month, we’ll release a new report on the state and progress of the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program in fiscal year 2020. Check back soon for more info!

Action: Tell your Congress members to support a Polluter Pays Tax to fund the cleanup of toxic waste sites.

Week 3: Cancer-Free Families

Highlighting our End the Nicotine Trap Campaign

The U.S. Surgeon General has declared e-cigarette use, commonly known as vaping, among young people an epidemic due to its popularity and health risks. Nearly one in five high schoolers and one in 20 middle schoolers reported e-cigarette use in 2020. Some studies have found that e-cigarette aerosol can contain lead, nickel, tin, benzene and diacetyl — chemicals linked to cancer, central nervous system disorders and lung disease. That’s why we’re working to end the nicotine trap. No young person should be tricked into a cancer-causing addiction.

Resource: Everyone should fully understand the risks of a product before using it, but young people don’t always understand the risks of e-cigarettes. Check out our opinion piece explaining the problem of youth e-cigarette use in 2019.  

Action: (Campaign action link coming soon!) Tell President Biden’s new FDA that now is the time to take the opportunity to ban e-cigarettes and protect our families’ futures.

Week 4: Cancer-Free Fields

Highlighting our Ban Roundup Campaign

Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides are the most widely used herbicides in the U.S. Nearly 1.8 million tons of glyphosate have been used in the U.S. since its introduction in 1974. For comparison, that’s equivalent to the weight of water in more than 2,300 Olympic-size swimming pools. In 2015, the World Health Organization found that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen and research from public health groups and scientists from the past several years indicates that many foods and drinks are contaminated with glyphosate.

Recently, the EPA found that glyphosate impacts 93 percent of endangered species. Now the agency is re-evaluating the pesticide’s registration and accepting public comments on the issue. We can use this opportunity to come together and tell the EPA that we need to ban Roundup unless or until it’s proven safe, in order to prevent further exposure to humans and endangered species. 

Resource: Given how popular Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides are, it can be hard to imagine a shift to a Roundup-free world. But many communities have already made the switch. To see what that looks like, check out our Thriving Communities Guide on 10 places where you can live Roundup-free.

Action: Submit your public comment to the EPA to ban glyphosate. 

Act now for Cancer Prevention

Join a nationwide movement to prevent cancer this February. Follow along to learn about the chemicals that cause cancer and take action to help us move toward a world where no one has to suffer through a preventable cancer diagnosis.


Gina Werdel