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Angela Logomasini - The True Causes of Cancer

Angela Logomasini - The True Causes of Cancer

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Published by: Competitive Enterprise Institute on Dec 03, 2010
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202-331-1010 www.cei.org Competitive Enterprise Institute
The True Causes of Cancer
By Angela Logomasini
Environmental activists have long claimedthat man-made chemicals are causing rampantcancer rates that could be addressed only bygovernment regulation. Accordingly, lawmak-ers have passed laws directing governmentagencies to study environmental causes of cancer, estimate the number of lives allegedlylost, and devise regulations to reduce deathrates. However, lawmakers should be aware of some key problems with how this system hasworked in practice. First, the claim that chemi-cal pollution is a major cancer cause is wrong.Second, agencies have relied on faulty scientificmethods that grossly overestimate potentialcancer deaths from chemicals and potentiallives saved by regulation. As a result, regulatorypolicy tends to divert billions of dollars fromother life-saving uses or from other efforts toimprove quality of life to pay for unproductiveregulations.
True Causes of Cancer
In their landmark 1981 study of the is-sue, Richard Doll and Richard Peto set out todetermine the causes of preventable cancer inthe United States.
According to Doll and Peto,pollution accounts for 2 percent of all cancercases, and geophysical factors account for an-other 3 percent (see figure 1). They do note that80 percent to 90 percent of cancers are causedby “environmental factors.” Although activists
1. Richard Doll and Richard Peto, “The Causes of Can-cer: Quantitative Estimates of Avoidable Risks of Cancerin the United States Today,”
 Journal of the National Can-cer Institute
66, no. 6 (1981): 1191–308.
The Environmental SourceCompetitive Enterprise Institute www.cei.org 202-331-1010
often trump this figure as evidence that indus-trial society is causing cancer, Doll and Petoexplained that environmental factors are sim-ply factors other than genetics—not pollutionalone. Environmental factors include smoking,diet, occupational exposure to chemicals, andgeophysical factors. Geophysical factors in-clude naturally occurring radiation, man-maderadiation, medical drugs and medical radiation,and pollution. Tobacco use accounts for about30 percent of all annual cancer deaths. Dietarychoices account for 35 percent of annual cancerdeaths.Bruce Ames and Lois Swirsky Gold havecome to similar conclusions, noting that smok-ing causes about a third of all cancers.
2. Bruce N. Ames and Lois Swirsky Gold, “Envi-ronmental Pollution, Pesticides, and the Prevention of Cancer: Misconceptions,”
FASEB Journal 
11, no. 13(1997): 1041–52, http://socrates.berkeley.edu/mutagen// AmesGold.pdf.
underline the importance of diet bypointing out that the quarter of thepopulation eating the fewest fruitsand vegetables had double the cancerincidence than those eating the most.Finally, they conclude: “There is noconvincing evidence that syntheticchemical pollutants are important asa cause of human cancer.”
The Dose Equals the Poison
Before government officials, bothdomestic and international, advocateor issue regulations, they need to jus-tify the regulations on the basis of public health benefits. Accordingly,regulators and scientists at interna-tional organizations have developedvarious tests to assess risks. Althoughthose tests have a tremendous effect on whichchemicals are chosen to be regulated and towhat degree, there are serious problems withthe methodologies and the claims that research-ers make about their findings.During much of history, scientists contended,“the dose makes the poison.” Indeed, at smalllevels, substances can be helpful or benign, butat high levels, they can sicken or kill. But in thelater part of the 20th century, regulators, manyin the environmental community, and a fewscientists abandoned that idea. They contendedthat many chemicals can have adverse effects atany level and that risks increase linearly withany dose above zero. On the basis of those as-sumptions, regulatory policy around the worldhas focused on ways to regulate chemicals to re-duce exposure to as close to zero as possible. Butmany scientists question whether such linearity
3. Ibid., 1041.
t erPollutionGeophysical factors AlcoholOccupational factorsReproductiveand sexual behaviorInfectionsTobaccoDiet
Figure 1. Causes of U.S. Cancer-Related Deaths
: Doll and Peto, “The Causes of Cancer.”
Chemical Risk202-331-1010 www.cei.org Competitive Enterprise Institute
even exists. They contend that the old way of thinking was correct: many chemicals are safeunder a given threshold or exposure level, witheach chemical having its own threshold:Scientist Philip Abelson notes that the “error
in this approach is becoming increasinglyapparent through experiments that pro-duce data that do not fit the linear model.”Indeed, he argues, “Pharmacologists havelong stated that it is the dose that makes thepoison.”
Others note that the low-dose linearity
model ignores the fact that the human bodymay create defense mechanisms againstchemicals when we are exposed to them atlow doses, which means low-level exposuresmight help us fight off cancer and other ill-nesses. Scientist Jay Lehr notes that studieshave found cases in which people exposedto low-levels of radiation actually experi-enced less incidence of leukemia than thegeneral population, whereas highly exposedindividuals experienced elevated rates of leukemia.
 Another study found that increasing levels
of low-level radon exposure are linked to
cancer rates.
 Increasingly, the idea that all chemicals are
unsafe at any level is losing credibility.
4. Philip Abelson, “Radon Today: The Role of Flimflamin Public Policy,”
14, no. 4 (1991): 97.5. Jay Lehr, “Good News about Radon: The LinearNonthreshold Model Is Wrong,” Environmental Educa-tion Enterprises, Ostrander, OH, May 1996, http://www.junkscience.com/news/lehr.html.6. Bernard L. Cohen, “Test of the Linear–No Thresh-old Theory of Radiation Carcinogenesis for Inhaled Ra-don Decay Products,”
Health Physics
68, no. 2 (1995):157–74.7. For a discussion of thresholds, see James D. Wilson,“Thresholds for Carcinogens: A Review of the RelevantScience and Its Implications for Regulatory Policy,” in
fact, the U.S. Environmental ProtectionAgency (EPA) proposed a rule that wouldhave applied threshold assumptions in1998. When the EPA reversed its position,a federal court vacated the rule becausethe EPA did not use the best peer-reviewedscience as required by the Safe DrinkingWater Act.
Mice, Men, and Carcinogens
When environmentalists and governmentagencies label chemicals as carcinogens, theyoften point to rodent tests. However, the testshave been proven seriously flawed. They entailadministering massive amounts of chemicals torodents bred to be highly susceptible to cancer.Then researchers extrapolate the possible ef-fects of such chemicals on humans, who may beexposed to small amounts of the same chemicalover their lifetimes.First, we should ask, “Are the impacts onrodents relevant to humans?” Doll and Petonote that some chemicals found to be carcino-genic in humans have not produced canceroustumors in rodent experiments. In fact, for manyyears, cigarette smoke failed to produce malig-nant tumors in laboratory animals even thoughtobacco is perhaps the leading cause of cancerin the United States. These discordant effects of chemicals in animals and humans underline thedifficulty of relying on animal results to esti-mate human risks.
 Second, researchers question whether theextremely high doses administered in the lab
What Risk?
ed. Roger Bate
(Boston: Butterworth Heine-mann, 1997), 3–36.8. See the policy brief titled “Safe Drinking WaterOverview.”9. Doll and Peto, “The Causes of Cancer,” 1192–308.

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