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Life is Carcinogenic

Here’s a newsflash for you folks. Almost anything that exists on the Earth can be harmful to you. What would happen to me if, for instance, I decided to consume 350 lemons right now? Or, how about a news story I read recently on the damage to human health and well being caused by … chairs? I understand why people hear the term, “carcinogenic” and get really, really freaked out. After all, who wants to get cancer? Furthermore, who wants to get cancer from factors that are beyond their control.

But merely demonstrating that something has the ability to encourage the growth of cancerous cells in your body is a far cry from demonstrating that exposure to said chemical/material actually kills and injures people. Certainly, for many of the things that are correctly thought to be carcinogenic, like dioxin, humans are exposed to it on a daily basis. However, take a look at what the scientific literature has found on the actual health impacts of dioxin on humans. Look at the epidemiology on the people who were thought to be at risk for extreme exposures in the wake a newsworthy exposure to this toxic chemical (e.g. Love Canal and Seveso). Even for this “ghastliest” of chemicals, you are going to find scant evidence that dioxin actually has hurt people. For almost all of us, our exposures are at significantly lower levels than that which would cause harm, or the exposures we get are not sustained long enough to cause problems. For fun, go check out what the EPA has to say about dioxin. You’ll see a heck of a lot of “possiblys”, “maybes” and “potentiallys” and not much if at all of “has caused,” etc.

Does this mean we should ignore dioxin? Not at all.  But it certainly does mean that dioxin ought to be thought of in the same way that you think of me eating lemons, or pounding cups of coffee (which has myriad carcinogenic chemicals in it). Just like the CAGW alarmists argue that they need a new, scarier name for Global Warming, maybe folks need to work on a new name for chemicals like dioxin that sound less scary?

Whenever you hear someone argue that something is carcinogenic, I urge you to do the following.

  1. Think about whether that chemical or exposure has actually been demonstrated to harm human beings. That means not just checking the science that says feeding 85 million tons of the stuff to a lab rat makes it get cancer, but examining the epidemiology from known exposures.
  2. Consider the following. Almost EVERYTHING is carcinogenic. If my bio friends are correct, they tell me that many of us are born with cells that are predisposed to cancerous growth, independent of what agents may act on those cells. Ought we ban … birth? I know that’s a popular idea among some folks on this planet, but ask your friends if they think banning birth to prevent cancer is reasonable. But more important, if we want to make a list of the things that are known to cause cancer, and rank those things according to their severity, think about how far down that list things like BPA and dioxin would be as compared to … anything that extends your life. When American life expectancy was about 45 years old at the turn of the 20th century, many of the top 10 leading causes of death were infectious diseases. And while some cancers were known at the time, most of us did not live long enough to die from them. American life expectancy 100 years prior to that was 39 years, so the exposure to chemicals during the start of the Industrial Revolution did not seem to overwhelm us. But what happened since then? The advance of microbiology has enabled us to dramatically reduce our exposures and risks from infectious diseases. So we are likely to make it out of childhood and young adulthood and many of us are blessed to expect to live well beyond our 60s. You typically have to live long enough to get cancer in order to, you know, actually get cancer. I put forth that the leading cause of cancer in America today is therefore antibiotics and vaccines.

How many of you think it is a good idea to eliminate and regulate antibiotics and vaccines so that they can stop causing cancer? No? Why not? And what’s different about antibiotics than some of the activities that we enjoy and benefit from that may have the unintended side effect of releasing something that may cause cancer in the future? It’s not like we are releasing them on purpose. 

Have a nice day. If you get a cold, be sure not to treat it, for if it doesn’t kill you, you may get cancer.

7 Responses to “Life is Carcinogenic”

  1. Aaron McNay says:

    I took your advice and went to the EPA’s website on Dioxins, located here: http://www.epa.gov/pbt/pubs/dioxins.htm. You are correct that the web site does use a lot of words like: “potentially”, “anticipated” and “likely.” However, I found the following sections the most interesting:
    1. “Most of us receive almost all of our dioxin exposure from the food we eat: specifically from the animal fats associated with eating beef, pork, poultry, fish, milk, dairy products.”
    2. “Important exceptions to this pattern of general population exposure are individuals who, over an extended period of time, eat primarily locally grown meat, fish or dairy products that have significantly greater dioxin levels than those found in the commercial food supply. Individuals in this situation receive greater exposure and are at greater risk than the general population. ”

    Based on these two sections of the EPA’s website, it appears that most of us get our Dioxin exposure through food. In addition, those that eat locally produced food may face significantly higher Dioxin exposure levels, if they live in an area with high dioxin levels. I wonder why I do not ever recall hearing about this risk of eating locally produced food from “eat local” supporters.

  2. chuck martel says:

    A big part of the concern about carcinogens is the technological advancement in substance analysis. Testing techniques like atomic absorption analysis can reveal the presence of quantities in a sample as small as parts per billion. Government guidelines are then issued to avoid ingestion of things that contain quantities so small that they can be found in a sample taken of anything, anywhere. I would compare reluctance to eat a fish whose flesh contains 25 parts per billion of mercury to forgoing a trip to India because there are 25 serial killers loose in the country.

  3. coyote says:

    One of the things that has occurred over the last 30 years is that our detection equipment has improved so much. We can now detect chemicals at insanely low parts-per-billion concentrations. As we become able to pick apart a sample molecule by molecule, we likely will find a molecule of about anything in most any sample.

    This gives rise to the “______[awful sounding compound] was found in ________[common consumer item]” press release. These are fabulous for generating news stories, fear, and funding for advocacy groups, but not very helpful in assessing real risks.

  4. wintercow20 says:

    Indeed, just after you posted the above, I learned about another new cancer risk that somewhere on campus is really worked up about. It’s not even a chemical I heard of before – and now I am told that it is “potentially” devastating. I even forget the name of the chemical already, it begins with an A.

  5. mark says:

    basically, many of the combustion products of cellular membranes and organic molecules are carcinogenic. roasting coffee, grilling meats, frying something, has the same exact carcinogens that are present in cigarettes…Cigarettes! i love telling this people who are so overly concerned about second-hand smoke

  6. Alex says:

    So everything carries some risk of giving you cancer, but aren’t people weighing the costs and benefits of not having those things because they increase the risk more than others and/or provide less benefit than others? Perhaps people are misjudging the expected costs and benefits, but one would presume that things like being born, roasting coffee, has more benefits than expected costs (via more exposure to carcinogenic materials), whereas cigarettes have relatively few benefits (for many people) compared to their expected costs.

  7. Alex says:

    And how do we deal with some diseases that reduce the risk of other diseases..for example sickle cell carriers have reduced susceptibility to malaria.

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