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Cancer-causing agents found in everyday cosmetic and other items

It's the little things in your life that will hurt you, says a medical professor from Chicago: your shampoo, your cologne, the baby's powder, the stuff on your garden, or on your neighbour's. Maybe even your milk.

Dr. Samuel Epstein, who teaches environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Illinois, says many household products are cancer-causing yet consumers don't get the full message from authorities.

It's time to take a different tack, the emeritus professor told an environmental conference on Saturday: Forget the feds, forget the Canadian and American Cancer Societies, and take a trip to your local city or town council.

Epstein said Canadian and U.S. federal governments have ignored many of the dangers of cancer-causing agents in homes and businesses.

Instead, he said, the community needs to rally around a call for safer products, and municipalities are the likeliest path to laws that will protect us.

An example: Beginning in the 1980s, Toronto used its sewer bylaws to restrict the wholesale dumping of pollutants by industry. The city forced major changes, especially among companies that dumped oily wastes down the drain, and metal industries that dumped toxic metal sludges such as cadmium.

He suggested the Ontario communities of Windsor and Sarnia, with their automotive and petrochemical industries, and historic use of asbestos in large amounts, might be good places to start.

Even lobbying industry could be useful, he told the conference organized by the Sierra Club.

"You have more to hope for from industry than you do from the (Canadian) federal government."

The government's response to a call for better regulation of toxic chemicals "will be zilch," he predicted.

So what's wrong with our surroundings?

-Milk, in his view. Canada banned using growth hormones in dairy cows in 1999, he noted. But we have harmonized our regulations with those of the United States, allowing U.S. milk into Canada. And American dairy farmers can use growth hormones.

Such hormone treatments may allow some of the drug itself to enter the milk, he said. But it also tends to cause ill effects in the cattle, which then need more antibiotics drugs that can also enter the milk.

"Apart from all the other crap in milk, you'll find opus cells and antibiotics," he said.

He said the combination raises the risk of colon, breast and prostate cancers

-Soaps, shampoos and cosmetics. Consumers aren't told what's in their favourite soaps, makeup and perfumes, he said. Yet with scented products, "a very significant percentage contain allergens."

As well, many cosmetics contain a class of chemicals called parabens, which act like hormones, and can disrupt the body's immune system.

Other products in many cosmetics are either cancer-causing in themselves, or break down into formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, he said.

"To the overwhelming majority of the Canadian public this will mean nothing at all" because there's no labeling of the ingredients or their dangers on these products, he said.

He called cosmetics "a witches' brew of carcinogens and hormonal agents."

-Pesticides. The Ontario College of Family Physicians did "a terrific report" summarizing the dangers of pesticides, he said, and it's time to restrict their use.

He complimented the Canadian Cancer Society for speaking out against pesticides used on lawns and gardens, but said the organization has been far too silent on other environmental dangers, such as cosmetics and asbestos.