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Girl Talk on a Serious Subject: Sheila and Sarah Discuss Cancer and Prevention


Sheila Hollender and Sarah Finnie Robinson are great friends and fellow moms. They’re both working hard on environmental health issues — Sheila for the Breast Cancer Fund and SHE (Sustainable Health Enterprises), which won the Curry Stone award for organic feminine care products, and Sarah at Practically Green, a new company that motivates people to take efficient and eco-friendly actions.

Earlier this month they got together for a conversation about cancer basics they want to share with everyone.

Sarah: Think way back and tell us how you first got started on environmental health issues.

Sheila: My passion for a healthy environment and the benefits that would flow to the health of my family started about 25 years ago when I had my first child. My husband, Jeffrey, and I decided to do something about the toxins that were being dumped into our environment by starting a natural home cleaning products company. We called it Seventh Generation, after an Iroquois Native American saying that states, "In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations."

Our work at Seventh Generation was centered on the assumption that by creating products that are non toxic, we will create healthier homes for the families that live within them. It’s our everyday actions and decisions that make a difference. As the rates of cancer accelerate in developed countries, we must focus on the environmental factors that increase these rates.

Sarah: So why is organic so important for people to understand, as it relates to cancer prevention?

Breast Cancer Fund logoSheila: It is now indisputable that environmental toxins contribute to the rise in breast cancer. (See the President's Panel on cancer 2008-2009 Report [PDF]). The rise in post-industrial chemicals dumped into our environment correlates with higher cancer rates in general. Organic farming methods eliminate the use of pesticides and harmful fertilizers. Lots of this seems out of people’s reach! It’s our daily tasks that led me to be passionate about Practically Green. PG provides a comprehensive quiz that measures our level of "green" living. By providing information, actions, recommendations and reward points, an individual can accelerate the steps they want to take to become more responsible.

Sarah: That’s why Practically Green has so many actions that reward you for switching to organic — organic food, personal-care products, fertilizers, clothes — everything we can think of.

Practically Green logoSheila: That’s a great way to get informed and make positive changes! We know that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. There are many things that women can do to help lower their risk — taking a walk through one's home will be a great place to start. For example, a look under the kitchen sink will reveal that most conventional household cleaners are full of toxic chemicals and contain "danger" warnings. These toxins get released into our home environment, and our families end up inhaling them!

Green Kitchen BadgeSarah: How easy! Look at what’s under your kitchen sink, read the labels… and Practically Green’s Green Kitchen badge rewards you for doing just that!

For instance, from Switch to natural dish soap: "Even if you have a dishwasher, you probably have a bottle of dish soap in your kitchen. What do you know about it? Have you ever read the ingredient list? Does it even have an ingredient list? Some don’t, as cleaning product formulas are currently government-protected trade secrets."

Sheila: Next, move on to the bathroom cabinet. Take a look at the personal care products and cosmetics that we all accumulate over time. Check out the labels — if you can't pronounce the ingredients, there’s a fair chance they contain chemicals that are harmful to your health. A great resource is safecosmetics.org.

Sarah: That’s a great warning flag — unpronounceable ingredients with many syllables — like chemistry class! How about all the mysterious abbreviations: BPA, rGBH, DBP? I can only memorize five of them at a time! What are the top five I should know about? And why can't we call these things by names everyone can understand easily?

Sheila: There are so many chemical compounds out there that it IS hard to keep track of them all! The most commonly used chemicals are:

  • BPA: Bisphenol A, which is an industrial chemical used to make plastic resins. Among other uses, it can be found in baby bottles, water bottles, and liners of food cans. Because BPA is an endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC), it has been linked to increased breast cancer rates.
  • rBGH: Recombinant (genetically engineered) growth hormone, which is found in dairy products. rBGH is injected into dairy cows to increase milk production, and has been associated with early onset of puberty and increased risk of breast cancer. This is the single reason that organic milk has become a staple for such large numbers of families with children.
  • DBP: Dibutyl phthalate, a commonly used plasticizer used as an additive to adhesives. DBP is a chemical you don’t hear mentioned as often as some of the others in this list.
  • Phtalates: a group of chemicals commonly used to render plastics soft and flexible. Phtalates are found in a variety of common products including toys, cosmetics, baby care products, and cleaning materials. There is a big push to have phtalates removed from use in these products.
  • PVC: Polyvinyl chloride, another endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC) that leaches from plastic. Found in plastic cling wrap, detergent, toys, etc.

So many chemicals that we need to avoid!

At Seventh Generation, my work as the women's environmental health advocate led me to focus on organic and natural fem-care products. I joined the board of SHE (Sustainable Health Enterprise), which focuses on providing the women of Rwanda with sustainable and local sanitary pads in order for them to stay in school and work.

At the end of the day, we can all make a difference through our daily acts — we have the power to prevent many cancers, especially breast cancer.

Sarah: Increasingly, thanks to Seventh Generation, Stonyfield, and a whole host of other companies, there are lots of healthy alternatives. We’re hoping that people will submit their favorites on Practically Green! Each action has several recommended products, vetted by our products team extraordinaire. Our product guidelines are super-strict because we want to stand firm against green-washing (misleading the public to believe that a product is environmentally friendly when it isn’t):

"Our directory of recommended products is designed to save you time and give you confidence. You should be able to trust that the selection process is reliable and based on good, current information. Our goal is to include only those products that are beneficial for you and the planet."

Read Practically Green’s complete Product Guidelines.

Sheila Sarah InterviewSheila championed Seventh Generation’s move to organic fem-care and is an advocate for women’s health worldwide. She tweets @sheilahollender.

Sarah is Practically Green’s head of social programming, having enjoyed a long career in media at The Atlantic Monthly, iVillage, and The New Yorker.

Practically Green is a leading program for "greening" people, devoted to the idea that healthy, organic, efficient, and smart are all part of the new normal for this decade and beyond. Visit Practically Green; take the quiz, subscribe to the blog, follow us on Twitter @practicallygrn and join the Facebook community.

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