Sunday, May 18, 2008
Everything in the Entire World Causes Cancer
Forget about making a list of suspected carcinogens - I'd like to know what items have not been labeled "carcinogenic" by one stupid study or another over the past thirty years. Why doesn't the entire scientific community just put out a press release which says, "we have now determined that EVERYTHING IN THE ENTIRE WORLD CAUSES CANCER FOR EVERYONE FOREVER", and be done with it?
Look at your newspaper tomorrow; somewhere inside it, there will be yet another article on how goldfish, or dental floss, or picnic baskets, or anything, "has been linked to increased risk of cancer". Evidently, like the speed of light, it is an immutable law of the universe that there is no better way for a scientist to secure funding for a study than to announce s/he is hot on the trail of a "hitherto unknown possible cause of cancer!". And evidently, no better way to secure a headline, or sell papers or TV ad space, than to trot out the old "c" word again.
Nor does the ease of the cancer game make it any less effective. For example, if you don't really get any solid evidence of a link in your study, but you still think there might be a link, or would just rather there be a link, you just announce, "we have concluded that there may be a link between Item X and cancer".
That is, you only say what everyone in the world actually already knows: that there "may" be a "link". Well, yeah - sure. There "may" be a link between what I ate for breakfast this morning and who will win the World Series next year; there "may" be a "link" between any two things in the entire universe. It's just that this doesn't tell us anything important. Very rarely are we even told what kind of "link" it "may" be, which is another problem. For example, I could justifiably say that there is a "link between being alive and cancer", since only live people get cancer. But this doesn't tell us much. Anyway, none of this matters, because the merest reminder that something scary is possible is enough to rivet us. It's certainly enough to get us to buy the newspapers and books, watch the shows, etc.
Fortunately for the cancer-scare industry, it is quite easy to wind up with "evidence" of carcinogenesis. All you need to do is locate a chemical in some substance safe for human use - say, in a pesticide or disinfectant spray - and then multiply its concentration to astronomically high levels, wildly in excess of what any human would ever encounter in real life; and then, voila! CANCER! Hooray!
There is something deeply irrational in this. The evidence showing that DDT, or a thousand other items, is perfectly safe when used correctly, just melts into nothingness when humans hear about evidence that the item is UNsafe when used INcorrectly. We can even talk about our latest cancer fears sitting next to our children at dinner, all of whom are holding a utensil called a knife, which if used incorrectly, would be lethal, and not notice any irony there.
A large enough amount of anything will kill us. A large enough amount of many substances will specifically trigger carcinogenesis. If we are doing things like constantly inhaling ash into our lungs, or eating forty crates of unwashed, pesticided cabbages every day for six years, yes, we should be concerned about cancer and change our behaviour accordingly. Overall, though, it seems to me that the incessant onslaught of cancer scare media pieces is hardly worth our notice 95% of the time. (Maybe it's 99%...).
Just my two cents.