Have you ever noticed that there is a huge mismatch between the skills, talents, abilities and sheer numbers of the professional scaremongers among us and the topics we most need to be alarmed about?
That is, the scariest threats to human health and safety receive almost no attention from those who are most adept at frightening ordinary citizens, while threats that are trivial and maybe even nonexistent are the subject of an inordinate amount of ballyhoo.
What brings all this to mind is a President’s Cancer Panel report that reads like it was plagiarized from the junk science screeds published by anti-chemical activist groups. (It’s all the more surprising because the two-member panel was appointed by George W. Bush!)
By the way, if you enjoy a good scary movie but are turned off by excessive bloodletting, I recommend the original Steve McQueen version of “The Blob.”
Beware of the Blob
Although the cancer report doesn’t even come close to matching the drama of a good horror flick, it’s every bit as mythical.
Scary Scenario. For starters, the report tells us there are “about 80,000 chemicals in commercial use in the United States,” [How could 80,000 of anything be safe?] but federal regulators have assessed only about 200 for safety. After noting a “proliferation of chemicals in water, foods, air and household products,” the report doesn’t actually say that any of them have caused cancer in humans. [But if you’re a cautious person how could you doubt it?] After noting that “recent studies have found industrial chemicals in umbilical-cord blood, which supplies nutrients to fetuses,” the report goes on to say “babies are born ‘pre-polluted.’” [Only the heartless would point out that “pre-polluted” is hardly a scientific term.]
A Dose of Reality. Truth is that the issues raised in this report have been studied again and again. As Elizabeth Whelan told the L.A. Times the other day, “the so-called environmental trace levels of chemicals play no role whatsoever in the etiology of cancer.” That’s why the report has been panned by the American Cancer Society and responsible scientists everywhere.
The ABC’s of Chemical Risks. As explained by Professor Bruce Ames and Dr. Lois Swirsky Gold in an NCPA report published more than a decade ago:
- The ability to find chemicals in parts per billion means we can find tiny traces of chemicals almost everywhere — in a glass of water or an umbilical cord, for example — but there has never been any evidence that chemicals in tiny amounts cause cancer.
- The labeling of a chemical as a “carcinogen” is usually based on studies in which rodents are given massive doses of it (just under the dose that would kill the rodents outright).
- About one out of every two chemicals tested in this way — whether natural or manmade — has been shown to cause cancer in at least half of the rodents tested.
- Even though only a few hundred chemicals have been tested, it seems likely that about one-half of all chemicals will produce cancer in rodents if administered in such massive amounts.
- The reason why only a couple of hundred chemicals have ever been tested in this way is that it finally dawned on the scientists that the high-dosage bombardment, rather than the chemical itself, was probably producing the cancer and that no useful information was being gleaned anyway. (And — dare I say it — maybe they felt a tinge of sympathy for the mice!)
- It is impossible to avoid exposure to small quantities of carcinogens. There is no diet that lacks carcinogens. As previously reported at this blog, a typical Thanksgiving dinner is teeming with dozens of natural carcinogens.
What Really Causes Cancer. Smoking, poor nutrition, obesity and lack of exercise are all greater contributors to cancer than chemicals:
The cancer society estimates that about 6 percent of all cancers in the United States — 34,000 cases a year — are related to environmental causes (4 percent from occupational exposures, 2 percent from the community or other settings).
I’ll write more about the Bruce Ames theory of cancer in a future Alert.