Health News Digest

June 13, 2011

Are Current Risk Assessments Worth The Risk?


By  Michael D. Shaw

By the mid-1980s, most serious hazards to the environment in the First World had been addressed. As such, government agencies around the globe faced a big problem. What could they now focus on, to maintain—or even increase—their mission and budget?

And suddenly, the inspiration came, perhaps as a direct revelation from Gaia herself:  The agencies would now focus on the risks (mainly of getting cancer) created by thousands of common chemicals.

The brilliance of this strategy cannot be overstated. People are afraid of cancer, and with good reason. In the United States, 44.29% of males and 37.76% of females will contract the disease some time in their lives, with 23.20% of males and 19.58% of females dying from it. Thus, labeling a chemical as “carcinogenic” is sure to garner plenty of attention, and make those Congressional budget reviews so much easier.

Igniting this cancer/chemical fear is the excellent work started in 1948 by then medical student Ernst Wynder (at Washington University in St. Louis), which would be augmented by British epidemiologist Richard Doll, proving a dose-response connection between smoking and lung cancer. Doll’s work was especially conclusive in that he surveyed a large cohort of physicians, detailing their smoking habits. He then followed up over time, checking to see which of them developed lung cancer. Of course, they were virtually all smokers.

It is now fairly common knowledge that 90% of lung cancer cases occur in smokers.

Wynder and Doll were both praised effusively—as they should have been—for saving countless lives. Yet, the tremendous success of this endeavor did spawn one significantly negative result: Despite the fact that no risk factor for cancer has ever come remotely close to accumulating the weight of evidence as did smoking, a carcinogen fear industry—supported by countless billions of dollars in government and private support—has been thriving for at least 50 years.

Rachel Carson, patron saint of the modern environmental movement herself asserted, quite absurdly, that DDT causes cancer. Call me cynical, but I’m confident that the unfortunate groundswell of popular opinion against DDT had much more to do with cancer than with peregrine falcons, sparrowhawks, and golden eagles. It didn’t hurt either that her Silent Spring was released in the wake of the Thalidomide tragedy.

In an era of quick sound bites, few will look beneath the surface to see that most carcinogen claims these days are essentially a travesty, even if many official organizations support them. After all, why shouldn’t they support the claims, since their sole reason for existence lies in perpetuating these fears?

I could cite cases in which naturally occurring endogenous levels of chemicals, such as formaldehyde, are deemed to be hazardous. More than that, deaths at these “danger” levels are extrapolated and forecast. Tellingly, our own EPA ignored the results of a paper, named as best of the year by the Society of Toxicology, in which the supposed role of airborne formaldehyde as causing leukemia was effectively destroyed.

Far too often, scientific studies are simply cherry-picked, to find results that confirm existing biases. In other cases, such as the German BekGS 910, new methods for quantifying risk are basically created out of whole cloth, so that for ethylene oxide—an essential sterilant—allowable atmospheric levels would be lowered now to 0.1 part-per-million, and in 2018, be further lowered to 0.01 part-per-million.

That there is no feasible way to actually measure such low levels matters not.

No doubt, the regulators feel empowered by the so-called Precautionary Principle, which holds that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action. In the European Union, it is a matter of law.

However, we must ask why the other side of the same Principle is never invoked. If the use of a time-proven sterilant is effectively banned, shouldn’t the regulators have to address the potential consequences of that? Given the deafening silence that occurred in the face of millions of malaria deaths once DDT was banned, though, don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer.