How to avoid cancer culprits

Did you know that a host of everyday products can contribute to your risk of developing cancer? We pinpoint the culprits and show you how to avoid them.

27 July 2010
by Gillian Warren-Brown

At a social gathering where people were talking about the dangers of food preservatives, I heard an elderly lady saying, ‘But surely they wouldn’t put them into food if they were bad for us’. This is rather a quaint but naïve perspective – one that, sadly, we can’t afford to adopt. In fact, it’s more appropriate to make every effort to find out about the everyday products and things in our environment that could cause cancer. As the saying goes: ‘forewarned is forearmed’.

The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) says research shows that up to 90 percent of cancers are caused by the environment. Head of CANSA research Dr Carl Albrecht estimates that a quarter of all cancers are caused by exposure to man-made chemicals in our food, drinking water and polluted air – what we’re in contact with every day.

Hidden dangers from the kitchen:


That bag of potato crisps you’ve been saving for when you watch a DVD may not be such a great idea. Acrylamide is a chemical released in high-carbohydrate foods when they’re exposed to high temperatures – like fried potato products and baked cereal products. It’s been shown that acrylamides cause cancer in some laboratory animals.

Trans-fatty acids 

Although naturally occurring trans fats in animal products such as milk and meat are harmless, those made industrially from vegetable oils have been linked to breast and prostate cancer. These fats have been used widely in the food industry as they are cheap, palatable and have a long shelf life. Recently, legislation has been put in place to ensure that trans fat content of foods should be less than two percent, and producers are obliged to include the trans fat content on food labels. The good news – from CANSA’s fatty acid analysis of 40 margarines available in supermarkets – is that all of the margarines had less than two percent trans fats per total fat.


In Foods to Fight Cancer (Dorling Kindersley), Professor Richard Béliveau and Dr Denis Gingras warn that smoked meats and other foods containing preservatives such as nitrates (bacon, sausages, prepared delicatessen meats, ham and others) increased the risk of stomach and oesophageal cancers because the nitrates are transformed through body chemistry into carcinogenic substances. Dr Albrecht says, ‘Vitamin C effectively counters that process, which is why you should drink orange juice if you eat bacon.’


These man-made chemicals – known as DEHP and DEHA – are used to make plastic softer and more sticky. They’re the reason that plastic wrap clings. The danger is that these chemicals can leach into your food from clingfilm, especially if it’s in contact with fatty food such as cheese, chicken and mince meat. The process is faster at high temperatures – when cling-wrapped food is microwaved. DEHP and DEHA are absorbed into the cells of the body and affect genes that could lead to cancer. Fortunately, some clingfilm products are made of polyethylene and are free of plasticisers – such as Glad Wrap and the house brands of Pick n Pay, Checkers, Shoprite, SPAR and Woolworths.


If you have a baby, the bottle you use for feeding could be another potential hazard. Dr Albrecht says US research has found that bisphenol A (BPA), an ingredient in the plastic used to make baby bottles, may cause hormonal changes in babies under one year, something that could predispose them to getting breast or prostate cancer later. ‘When the bottle is heated, BPA is released into the fluid in the bottle,” says Dr Albrecht. ‘I recommend using a BPA-free plastic bottle – most of the major bottle brands produce them.’

The environment around us:

Smoke pollution 

All smoke – not just from tobacco – contains harmful carcinogens. We’re exposed to it every day, whether it comes from vehicle emission gasses or from open fires in areas that are not well ventilated. While cigarette smoke is recognized as a cancer threat, we shouldn’t forget about other kinds of smoke that may also be causing cancer.

Polluted water 

It’s possible that water could be contaminated with carcinogens. Dr Albert says the greatest threats are accidental spillages, and industrial and agricultural pollution. Examples include uranium or cadmium ore from mining and agricultural pesticides.


Although it’s not an everyday thing, it’s worth knowing that some shampoos that are used to treat headlice or scabies in children contain Lindane which is and organic pollutant that may cause convulsions and serious pre-cancerous blood disorder called apastic anaemia. Check the ingredients.

  • Reduce your exposure to carcinogens
  • Cut down on foods containing preservatives or trans fats and limit your intake of carbohydrates baked or fried at high temperatures – such as crisps and hot potato chips.
  • Limit how much braaied meat you eat and avoid eating it if it’s charred.
  • Make sure any confined area where wood or coal is being burnt is well ventilated.
  • Avoid inhaling vehicle exhaust fumes as much as possible.
  • Store food in glass and plastic containers or wrap it in foil instead of clingfilm. Otherwise make sure you buy a brand that’s plasticiser-free.
  • Avoid plastics that have a triangle with the number 7 in the centre and the PC (polycarbonate) sign indicated at the bottom, especially for baby-feeding bottles.
  • Drink fresh, clean (preferably filtered) water. Avoid mining sludge and don’t drink or swim in mine-contaminated water.

For more information call CANSA on 0800 22 66 22 or visit www.cansa.org.za.

Read More: Cancer Super Section