Dr. Samuel Epstein, 91, Dies

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dr. Samuel S. Epstein, former chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition and a pioneer in cancer prevention, passed away at the age of 91
  • Epstein was instrumental in helping to spread the word that chemicals cause cancer and he sought to bring corporations to task for their role in the cancer epidemic
  • Epstein was a champion for cancer prevention and wanted to spread the word that most cancers are preventable if you avoid exposure to carcinogens
  • He was an outspoken critic of household products that contained cancer-causing ingredients — and the lax regulations and conflicts of interest that often allow them to remain on the market

By Dr. Mercola

Dr. Samuel S. Epstein, former chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition and a pioneer in cancer prevention, has passed away at the age of 91. As his son Julian told The New York Times, "He walked the walk"1 in terms of avoiding exposure to carcinogens, and he was an outspoken critic of household products that contained cancer-causing ingredients — and the lax regulations and conflicts of interest that often allow them to remain on the market.

"He was never shy in choosing his targets, which included the American Cancer Society [ACS] and the National Cancer Institute, which he accused of potential conflicts of interest because they had corporate sponsors," The New York Times reported.2 Indeed, I've referenced Epstein many times over the years and we met and talked on several occasions.

When I interviewed him in 2010 (see the interview above), we spoke about several controversial health dangers that receive little attention in the mainstream press, including nanoparticles used in cosmetics and recombinant (genetically engineered) bovine growth hormone (rBGH) in milk. Epstein was instrumental in helping to spread the word that chemicals cause cancer and he sought to bring corporations to task for their role in the cancer epidemic.

What's more, he was a champion for cancer prevention and wanted to spread the word that most cancers are preventable if you avoid exposure to carcinogens. And for the record, while 1 out of every 4 deaths in the U.S. is due to cancer,3 Epstein's was not — he passed away from cardiac arrest March 18, 2018.

Epstein Spread the Word About Little-Known Carcinogens

Epstein was adamant about addressing the environmental components of cancer and wanted to spread the word about avoidable toxic exposures. Some of his life's work included bringing the following carcinogens into the public eye so people could make informed decisions about whether or not to risk exposure.

rBGH Milk

Cows are injected with rBGH to boost their milk production. rBGH is a synthetic version of natural bovine somatotropin (BST), a hormone produced in cows' pituitary glands. Science has proven this practice of injecting cows with rBGH, although profitable to the industrialized dairy industry, comes at a high price to you, as well as to dairy cows.

Monsanto developed the recombinant version from genetically engineered E. coli bacteria and marketed it under the brand name "Posilac." It sold the brand to Eli Lilly and Company (specifically their animal health division, Elanco) in 2008.4 According to Elanco, a cow supplemented with Posilac produces an average of 10 more pounds of milk per day,5 which explains why rBGH is the largest selling dairy animal drug in America.6

Yet, it's banned in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union because of its dangers to human health, which include a potentially increased risk of cancer in humans along with medical problems in cows. RBGH increases milk production by increasing levels of the hormone insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1).

IGF-1 is a potent hormone that acts on your pituitary gland to induce powerful metabolic and endocrine effects, including cell growth and replication. Elevated IGF-1 levels are associated with breast and other cancers. When cows are injected with rBGH, their levels of IGF-1 increase. In one of Epstein's studies, a sixfold increase in IGF-1 levels in milk were found as early as seven days following rBGH treatment, with results suggesting it could be a risk factor in both breast and gastrointestinal cancers.7

The synthetic hormone is also known to cause at least 16 medical conditions in cows, including infertility, lameness, hoof disorders and a shortened life span.8 In the U.S., no labeling is required for rBGH milk, but you can find brands that state the milk is produced without it. Organic milk is also rBGH-free.

In what is perhaps a further sign that rBGH is falling out of favor, Elanco announced in late 2017 that it's trying to sell Posilac and its August, Georgia, manufacturing facility.9 For more information on this topic, I recommend reading Epstein's 2006 book, "What's In Your Milk?"


Epstein started warning people about the dangers of mammography in the 1990s, stating:

"The premenopausal breast is highly sensitive to radiation, each 1 rad exposure increasing breast cancer risk by about 1 percent, with a cumulative 10 percent increased risk for each breast over a decade's screening ...

The high sensitivity of the breast, especially in young women, to radiation-induced cancer was known by 1970. Nevertheless, the establishment then screened some 300,000 women with X-ray dosages so high as to increase breast cancer risk by up to 20 percent in women aged 40 to 50 who were mammogramed annually."

The fact is that the ionizing radiation used by mammography to discern breast tumors is a risk factor for the development of breast cancer. Additionally, if you do have a malignant tumor, the crushing compression of your breast could potentially cause it to spread. In a 2015 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers concluded mammography screenings lead to unnecessary treatments while having virtually no impact on the number of deaths from breast cancer.

A positive correlation between breast cancer screening and breast cancer incidence was indeed found, but there was no positive correlation with mortality.10 Epstein described mammography screening as a "profit-driven technology posing risks compounded by unreliability."

In research published in the International Journal of Health Services, he stated that "annual clinical breast examination (CBE) by a trained health professional, together with monthly breast self-examination (BSE)" is a practical alternative that's "safe, at least as effective and low in cost."11

Personal Care Products

In his 2009 book "Toxic Beauty: How Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Endanger Your Health," Epstein details many of the toxic ingredients found in common cosmetics and personal care products like lipstick, hairspray, facial moisturizer and deodorant.

His crusade to get the word out about their toxicity started even earlier, in the 1990s, when he held a news conference listing a "dirty dozen" list of household products he found to be toxic. Among them were talcum powder, a foundation makeup, hair conditioner and hair color. Dr. Epstein also had serious concerns about cosmetic products containing tiny nanoparticles, which can readily penetrate your skin, stating:

"There is no labeling of the warning at all of the dangers of these nanoparticles. Instead they are touted as reducing wrinkling and firming up the skin surface. However, the use of nanoparticles in cosmeceuticals, whether they are sham cosmeceuticals or whether they're bona fide cosmeceuticals, poses an extraordinarily dangerous and unrecognized public health hazard.

Nanoparticles, because of their ultramicroscopic size, readily penetrate the skin, can invade underlying blood vessels, get into the general blood stream and produce distant toxic effects. We already have evidence of this, including toxic effects in the brain, degenerative disorders in the brain and nerve damage. So we're dealing here with one of the most dangerous types of products in the whole cosmetic industry."

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Epstein Exposed Conflicts of Interest in Government Cancer Organizations

Epstein didn't shy away from controversy and helped to expose the many conflicts of interest at play in government cancer organizations that were supposedly protecting public health but were actually beholden to industry. In the 2011 report, "American Cancer Society — More Interested in Accumulating Wealth Than Saving Lives,"12 for instance, Epstein plainly lays to bare the many conflicts of interest that hamper the effectiveness of this organization.

Among them were contributions in excess of $100,000 from companies responsible for polluting the environment with carcinogens or selling products containing toxic or carcinogenic ingredients. This includes industry funding from pharmaceutical, junk food, biotech and petrochemical companies, among others. Epstein was among the first to highlight ACS' close ties with the mammography industry — five radiologists served as ACS presidents.

In addition, Epstein noted, "In its every move, the ACS reflects the interests of the major manufacturers of mammography, films and machines. These include Siemens, DuPont, General Electric, Eastman Kodak and Piker, which allocate considerable funds to the ACS."13 The report also highlighted ACS ties to the pesticide and pharmaceutical industries, along with their long history of siding with industry rather than protecting the public from potential cancer risks. According to Epstein's report:14

  • In 1993, ACS trivialized pesticides as a cause of childhood cancer. The ACS also reassured the public that carcinogenic pesticide residues in food are safe, even for babies.
  • In 1994, ACS published a study designed to reassure women on the safety of dark permanent hair dyes, and to trivialize risk of fatal and nonfatal cancers, particularly Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, as documented in over six prior reports.
  • In 2002, ACS initiated the "Look Good ... Feel Better" program to teach women cancer patients beauty techniques to help restore their appearance and self-image during chemotherapy and radiation treatment but failed to disclose the wide range of carcinogenic ingredients in toiletries and cosmetics.

Continuing Epstein's Legacy

One of the best ways to honor Epstein's life work as a champion of cancer prevention is to continue to spread the word about how to avoid or reduce your exposure to carcinogens in your daily life. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) requires that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compile and keep a current list of chemical substances manufactured or processed in the U.S.

That list includes about 85,000 chemicals,15 but even the EPA is largely in the dark about what that actually means for people's health and the environment. Very few chemicals on the market are tested for safety, but even those that are are not necessarily safe. Part of this is because safety testing is typically done on just one chemical at a time, and under laboratory conditions. The way you're actually exposed to chemicals — in combination and under countless different real-world scenarios — may increase their toxicity exponentially.

Research published in the journal Carcinogenesis also found that chemicals deemed "safe" on their own can cause cancer when combined, even at low doses, with researchers noting, "Our analysis suggests that the cumulative effects of individual (noncarcinogenic) chemicals acting on different pathways, and a variety of related systems, organs, tissues and cells could plausibly conspire to produce carcinogenic synergies."16

Experts agree that in order to gauge the true risk of a chemical, it should be tested in combination with others to more closely replicate real-world exposures. Yet, U.S. National Toxicology Program data suggests testing the interactions between just 25 chemicals for 13 weeks would require 33 million experiments and cost $3 trillion.17

Jonathan Latham, Ph.D., cofounder and executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project, pointed out that even if such experiments were possible, it's likely that no chemical would be deemed truly "safe."18 So what can you do? Until change occurs on a global scale, you can significantly limit your exposure by keeping a number of key principles in mind.

Eat a diet focused on locally grown, fresh and ideally organic whole foods. Processed and packaged foods are a common source of chemicals, both in the food itself and the packaging. Wash fresh produce well, especially if it's not organically grown.

Choose pastured, sustainably raised meats and dairy to reduce your exposure to hormones, pesticides and fertilizers. Avoid milk and other dairy products that contain the genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST).

Rather than eating conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury, supplement with a high-quality krill oil, or eat fish that is wild-caught and at little risk of contamination, such as wild-caught Alaskan salmon, anchovies and sardines.

Buy products that come in glass bottles rather than plastic or cans, as chemicals can leach out of plastics (and plastic can linings), into the contents; be aware that even "BPA-free" plastics typically leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are just as bad for you as bisphenol-A (BPA).

Store your food and beverages in glass, rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap.

Use glass baby bottles.

Replace your nonstick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware.

Filter your tap water for both drinking and bathing. If you can only afford to do one, filtering your bathing water may be more important, as your skin readily absorbs contaminants.

Look for products made by companies that are Earth-friendly, animal-friendly, sustainable, certified organic and GMO-free. This applies to everything from food and personal care products to building materials, carpeting, paint, baby items, furniture, mattresses and others.

Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to remove contaminated house dust. This is one of the major routes of exposure to flame-retardant chemicals.

When buying new products such as furniture, mattresses or carpet padding, consider buying chemical-free varieties containing naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, cotton, silk and Kevlar.

Avoid stain- and water-resistant clothing, furniture and carpets to avoid perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).

Make sure your baby's toys are BPA-free, such as pacifiers, teething rings and anything your child may be prone to suck or chew on — even books, which are often plasticized. It's advisable to avoid all plastic, especially flexible varieties.

Use natural cleaning products or make your own. Avoid those containing 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME) — two toxic glycol ethers that can compromise your fertility and cause fetal harm.

Switch over to organic toiletries, including shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants and cosmetics. EWG's Skin Deep database can help you find personal care products that are free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals.19

Replace your vinyl shower curtain with a fabric one or use glass doors.

Replace feminine hygiene products (tampons and sanitary pads) with safer alternatives.

Look for fragrance-free products. One artificial fragrance can contain hundreds — even thousands — of potentially toxic chemicals. Avoid fabric softeners and dryer sheets, which contain a mishmash of synthetic chemicals and fragrances.