Chemicals in everyday items like cosmetics linked to cancer in controversial new study – The Independent
Chemicals found in fossil fuel-powered vehicle exhausts, cosmetics, electric and traditional cigarettes, glue and building materials may increase the risk of cancer because they can interfere with the body’s natural repair mechanism, according to a new study.
Researchers found that formaldehyde “stalls and destabilises” structures involved in replication of DNA and “selectively depletes” the BRCA2 gene, which helps suppress tumours.
They suggested the chemical and other aldehydes might trigger cancer in people with a faulty copy of the gene.
However, another scientist, commenting on the research, said it was “rather misleading” to suggest that everyday items containing the chemical, like shampoo, could be an “important cause of cancer in humans”.
Many things are carcinogenic but the effect is so low they are not considered major health problems. For example, toast, coffee, sunlight and granite all increase the risk of cancer.
But, writing in the journal Cell, the researchers said their discovery of aldehydes’ effect on DNA could be important.
“The public health significance of our findings is emphasised by the ubiquity of exposure to formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, particularly in the urban environment, from sources including tobacco smoke, e-cigarettes, automobile combustion emissions, building materials, and even cosmetics,” they said.
And Professor Ashok Venkitaraman, director of the Medical Research Council Cancer Unit at Cambridge University, added: “Our study shows how chemicals to which we are increasingly exposed in our day-to-day lives may increase the risk of diseases like cancer.”
He said people who inherited a faulty BRCA2 gene might be particularly affected by the chemicals.
“It helps to explain why ‘the faults in our stars’ – namely the faulty genes we are born with – could make some people particularly sensitive to the cancer-causing effects of these chemicals,” Professor Venkitaraman said.
“An important implication of our work is that it may be aldehyde exposure that triggers cancer susceptibility in people who inherit one faulty copy of the BRCA2 gene.
“This may help us in future to prevent or treat cancer in such people.”
13 ways to help prevent cancer
Stopping smoking. This notoriously difficult habit to break sees tar build-up in the lungs and DNA alteration and causes 15,558 cancer deaths a year
Avoiding the sun, and the melanoma that comes with overexposure to harmful UV rays, could help conscientious shade-lovers dodge being one of the 7,220 people who die from it
A diet that is low in red meat can help to prevent bowel cancer, according to the research – with 30 grams a day recommended for men, and 25 a day recommended for women
Foods high in fibre, meanwhile, can further make for healthier bowels. Processed foods in developed countries appear to be causing higher rates of colon cancer than diets in continents such as Africa, which have high bean and pulse intakes
Two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables a day were given as the magic number for good diet in the research. Overall, diet causes only slightly fewer cancer deaths than sun exposure in Australia, at 7,000 a year
Obesity and being overweight, linked to poor diet and lack of exercise, causes 3,917 deaths by cancer a year on its own
Dying of a cancer caused by infection also comes in highly, linked to 3,421 cancer deaths a year. Infections such as human papilloma virus – which can cause cervical cancer in women – and hepatitis – can be prevented by vaccinations and having regular check-ups
Cutting back on drinks could reduce the risk of cancers caused by alcohol – such as liver cancer, bowel cancer, breast cancer and mouth cancer – that are leading to 3,208 deaths a year
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Sitting around and not getting the heart pumping – less than one hour’s exercise a day – is directly leading to about 1,800 people having lower immune functions and higher hormone levels, among other factors, that cause cancers
2011 Getty Images
Hormone replacement therapy, which is used to relieve symptoms of the menopause in women, caused 539 deaths from (mainly breast) cancer in Australia last year. It did, however, prevent 52 cases of colorectal cancers
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Insufficient breastfeeding, bizarrely, makes the top 10. Breastfeeding for 12 months could prevent 235 cancer cases a year, said the research
Oral contraceptives, like the Pill, caused about 105 breast cancers and 52 cervical cancers – but it also prevented about 1,440 ovarian and uterine (womb) cases of cancer last year
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Taking aspirin also prevented 232 cases in the Queensland research of colorectal and oesophagal cancers – but as it can also cause strokes, is not yet recommended as a formal treatment against the risk of cancer
However, another scientist at Cambridge University said no one should worry about the study’s findings.
Professor Paul Pharoah, a cancer epidemiologist, said the link between aldehydes and the risk of cancer had been known “for a long time”.
“For example, it is well known that a high alcohol intake is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer,” he said.
“However, this study tells us little about how important those risks are and it is rather misleading to suggest that shampoo, for example, is an important cause of cancer in humans.
“What these researchers have done is to use biological models to show how specific chemicals called aldehydes might be capable of inducing cancer.
“While this is important in helping us to understand the biology of cancer it has no immediate implications for the general public.”