May is National Cancer Research Month. Cancer is so widespread that it’s likely you know someone who has it. As a cure continues to elude our best scientific minds, public health advocates emphasize prevention as the best medicine.
This makes perfect sense, of course, but it’s an approach that’s easily abused. Some activists use the public’s fear of cancer as leverage to promote environmental, nutritional and behavioral agendas. And they often do it with limited (if any) scientific support.
News emerged this spring that scientists had discovered two scary-sounding chemicals (called 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole) in the caramel coloring used in some soft drinks. (If you can correctly pronounce “methylimidazole,” you get a gold star.)
To most people, unpronounceable six-syllable chemical compounds are the stuff of cancer. We’re conditioned to think that way.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI, also known as the nation’s “food police”) is one of America’s most skillful creators of chemical boogeymen. Its leaders say 2-MeI and 4-MeI can cause cancer.
Before you drop your pop, though, let’s put this in perspective. Drinking too much water can kill you. Too much vitamin C can be fatal, too. And your brain actually requires tiny concentrations of arsenic – rat poison – to function properly.
So it’s the dose that makes the poison. We instinctively understand this. No parent would give the adult dose of a pain reliever to a toddler, for instance. But sometimes we seem to have selective memory.
Back to that soft-drink coloring: You’d have to drink 1,000 cans of soda every day (for life!) to reach the level of chemical exposure that causes cancer in lab-rat studies.
The same kind of logic applies to acrylamide, a chemical compound commonly found in French fries, coffee and roasted asparagus.
Does it cause cancer, as some claim? Should every bag of potato chips carry a cancer warning label, as former California Attorney General Bill Lockyer argued?
Not according to science (and common sense). Studies linking acrylamide to cancer in lab rats involved doses many times higher than humans’ typical exposure.
In order to be in any real danger from acrylamide, a person of average weight would have to eat more than 62 pounds of chips or 182 pounds of fries every day for his entire life.
Another pernicious cancer scare surrounds red meat. It’s a common myth that eating meat raises the risk of a colon cancer diagnosis. But the single biggest study on the subject, a 2004 Harvard University project, found no link.
Many so-called “public interest” groups playing the cancer card have hidden agendas. CSPI’s leaders make noise about food coloring in soda because they want everyone to stop consuming soft drinks.
Similarly, trial lawyers have raised a ruckus about acrylamide and other chemicals. Their motivation is often a cash bounty offered by California to people who bring successful lawsuits under the Proposition 65 toxics law. Californians now see cancer warning labels on hammers, fishing rods and Christmas tree lights. (I couldn’t make this stuff up.)
And an animal rights group misleadingly named “The Cancer Project” has suggested a link between cancer and animal protein. This group has strong links to PETA, which explains its real motivation for trying to reduce the overall consumption of burgers.
There are a few things—cigarette smoking, for example—which have been scientifically proven to cause cancer. But oncology is a complicated branch of medicine and cancer prevention can’t be reduced to any one diet formula. The National Cancer Institute’s “cancer dictionary” includes 765 terms starting with the letter “s” alone.
We’re exposed to all kinds of chemicals on a daily basis that can, in high enough doses, cause cancer in lab rats. But when we understand just how low our typical exposure is, our food and beverages don’t seem so scary any more.