Carcinogens Are Coming!   Carcinogens Are Coming!

Paul V. Hartman

      It is a common notion - a common error - that cancer rates are increasing because of exposure to synthetic chemicals appearing in air, water, food, and so forth. This is a matter of faith for most environmentalists and most media sources as well. A typical statement from the media would be that "it is now generally accepted that 90% of all human cancer is attributable to man made chemicals of various sorts." Agencies of the federal government have participated in this irresponsible effort to frighten people about their environment. Numerous publications - books, magazines, television documentaries - have appeared in support of this theme. The things all these sources share in common is to cross quote each other's errors, and to depend on junk science for their "evidence."

     The plain facts are as follows:

      1. Most of the cancer-causing substances in our environment have always been there - they are "natural". I am sorry to have to reveal this to you, but the food you buy at the health food store contains masses of chemicals. All plants produce toxins to protect themselves from insects and fungi - these are the "natural pesticides." An innocent looking leaf of cabbage contains at least 52 such natural pesticides, and more than half have produced cancers in rodents! Dioxin, a chemical claimed to be the most deadly entity ever created by man, has a natural analog in broccoli. Maybe that is why George Bush wouldn't eat it.

      2. Cancer rates have climbed for many reasons which have nothing to do with chemicals. When other fatal diseases are controlled, cancer rates go up simply because people that would have died of other things are still living. Certain new diseases have cancer as one of their features. For instance, AIDS, which is caused by a new virus, frequently has cancer appear as a terminal event.

       3. Laboratory rats and mice are the typical animal models in which chemicals are studied for carcinogenic action in man. This is done because rats and mice are considerably cheaper that primates such as chimpanzees, or human research. But the notion that data derived from rodents should be extrapolated to humans is the height of scientific nonsense. Some chemicals which produce tumors in rats will not do so in mice, and vice versa. So why should it be said that they will do so in humans?

      4. Chemical levels which produce cancer in rodents are typically extraordinarily high, far greater than any human could ever expect to be exposed to, and such doses climb very close to what would otherwise produce death in the rodents if they did not produce cancer. There is an old adage in medicine: "The dose causes the poison." (Some iron, arsenic, and digitalis has medicinal effect. Higher doses are trouble.)

      5. One of the great ironies of environmentally-guided research was the development of a new potato which would not require synthetic pesticides because it provided its own. It passed the rat tests - it was an environmental winner. Soon after it appeared on the market, it had to be withdrawn. It turned out to be particularly toxic to humans. The simple fact of the matter is that plants lack teeth and claws and immune systems. They must defend themselves with natural pesticides. We ingest 10,000 times more natural pesticides than synthetics. Think of that the next time you start worrying about DDT.

      6. Humans and other animals have developed a certain resistance to otherwise toxic chemicals at lower levels. Animals do not discriminate between those toxic chemicals which are synthetic and those that are natural. There is no evidence that synthetic chemicals are more toxic than the natural variety. Environmentalists appear largely driven to oppose synthetics BECAUSE they are synthetic. This possibly derives from the notion that humanity itself is harmful and so therefore must be it's creative products. A beaver can dam a river and that is natural. If man does so it is destructive. A beetle can destroy a tree and that is natural. If man cuts one down he is destructive. Blaming mankind comes "naturally" to environmentalists.

      7. The risk of dying from cancer through the foods we eat and the chemicals they contain has been estimated to be about 7.5%. Of this percentage, 99% of the risk comes from natural chemicals.

      The principal weapon of the environmentalist is fear, and each time fear is used inappropriately to elevate a condition to a higher level than it deserves, it means that some other entity has been pushed lower on the scale of fear priorities. Environmentalists have succeeded in elevating trivialities to a level at which true carcinogens like tobacco and alcohol are diminished. And at an enormous cost in dollars and misguided public concern.


      The case against dioxin as a threat to humans is based on the fact that small amounts of it kill guinea pigs, and it is presumed that small amounts would also kill humans. It turns out, even large amounts don't even harm hamsters, much less kill them, and this is another example of junk science: assuming that what happens in one species of rodent means it will happen in humans.

      Love Canal: a $500 billion mistake

      A community near Niagara Falls. The "canal" was a failed effort at building a canal, merely a large ditch. From 1942 to 1953 it was used as a dump for chemical wastes. In 1953 it was acquired by the local Board of Education. In 1976, residents began to complain of odors. In 1978 a local newspaper began to report the appearance of an immense variety of minor ailments which it attributed to the canal. One of the chemicals found in the canal was dioxin. The public had already been told that dioxin was the "most deadly chemical known to man." Reports of spontaneous abortions and congenital malformations began to appear after these news reports. In 1979 NY State began to evacuate families. Media geniuses like Ralph Nader stirred the pot. President Carter declared it a "national disaster", and 2500 people abandoned their homes in the re-location effort. The cost was in the millions. And the cost of "cleaning up" Love Canal was in the high millions.

      The "science" that was to flow in the Love Canal debacle would turn out to be typical. Self declared "epidemiologists" were given wide credibility. "Victims" were assumed to be experts in the diseases they claimed to have and how they got them. The shoddy "medical reports" would eventually be over-turned, but not before the hysteria and misery had run its course. The people merely had the usual variety of medical problems, which, encouraged by "spokespersons" and media, were attributed to a common "source" - the Love Canal. Some of them weren't even sick at all. Love Canal is a good example of mass hysteria created by the media.

      Agent Orange.

      Post hoc ergo propter hoc. "After this, therefore because of this." Agent orange was a myth created by a group of Vietnam protesters, seized upon by Vietnam veterans, and parlayed into a firestorm by the usual suspect: the media. It was junk science all the way.

     How to Spot A Smelly Argument:

      1. Has the source been reliable in the past? Best to ignore USA Today, People, and any of the women's magazines which favor "intuition" over knowledge.

      2. Consider what is Not being said as well as what Is being said.

      3. Consider that people being quoted have been selectively chosen.

      4. Beware of victims as "experts." What are expert's credentials?

      5. Are sources cited? If so, are they credible?

      6. Newspapers are generally more trustworthy than TV news.

      7. Ignore the "expert" opinion of movie stars.

      8. Are there logical fallacies: post hoc, circular reasoning, straw man, ad hominem, non sequitur, argumentum ad populum, shifting the burden of proof?

      You should always be sensible: wash vegetables to eliminate any surface chemicals; why consume any of them if it is easy to not do so? But it is not well to live in constant fear of getting cancer from earth, wind, and water. You need good information, and, unfortunately, what you get too much of is junk science served up by headline hungry media. Maybe that is why "the mainstream media" are in steep decline.

(The author is a cancer specialist)

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