By Elizabeth Baldwin
The title of the essay is “Paracelsus to parascience: the environmental cancer distraction.” I had to look up Paracelsus to make sure I understood the reference. He was a Swiss-German scientist who is credited as the founder of toxicology and he said:
“Solely the dose determines that a thing is not a poison.”
And that’s the point of the essay. It’s a short enough thing and while it’s got some tables and charts and footnotes that will make the layman’s eyes glaze over, it’s easy enough to follow. In short, when a chemical is designated as a carcinogen, it’s almost certainly because it was tested on rats.
However this essay argues we’re inappropriately basing government regulatory policy and public health decisions (as well as many personal decisions) on the idea that these chemicals cause cancer when the methodology of testing itself is flawed. The rats are basically being overdosed on the chemical to the point where cancer is almost guaranteed as a cellular response.
The researchers state that “half of all chemicals, whether natural or synthetic, are positive in high-dose rodent cancer tests. These results are unlikely to be relevant at the low doses of human exposure.” And they conclude with a warning we should all consider seriously, that “putting huge amounts of money into minuscule hypothetical risks damages public health by diverting resources and distracting the public from major risks.”
They devote a portion of the essay to a specific example—the war on pesticides. The conclusion is that (according to over 200 independent studies) a healthy diet full of fruit and vegetables is that one of the best defenses against developing cancer. And that without the use of pesticides in our farming, fresh veggies are going to be a lot less available and much more expensive—people will eat less and the occurrence of cancer, particularly in the lower income society, will increase.
All of this made perfectly logical sense to me. Just as many people have an instinctive leaning to believe that organic is better, I have a natural bent towards the idea that we CAN have better living through careful chemistry and that “organic” isn’t automatically better, be it for a specific human or humanity as a whole.
So while this article did reinforce my natural leanings, here are some statistics pulled out of the article which may shake someone committed to going all natural. The following come from the section on pesticides and the fact that so many are designated through testing as “rodent carcinogens,” doesn’t immediately mean that eating an apple—organic or otherwise—is going to hurt you. See, we will put chemicals on plants—but that’s nothing compared to what the plants themselves create:
- No diet can be free of natural chemicals that are rodent carcinogens… Naturally occurring pesticides that are rodent carcinogens are ubiquitous in fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices.
- The amounts of synthetic pesticide residues in plant foods are insignificant compared to the amount of natural pesticides produced by plants themselves. Of all dietary pesticides that humans eat, 99.99% are natural: they are chemicals produced by plants to defend themselves against fungi, insects, and other animal predators.
- Cooking foods produces about 2000 mg/person/day of burnt material that contains many rodent carcinogens and many mutagens. By contrast, the residues of 200 synthetic chemicals measured by FDA, primarily synthetic pesticides, thought to be of greatest importance, average only about 0.09 mg/person/day
- Americans eat about 1500 mg of natural pesticides per person per day, which is about 10,000 times more than the 0.09 mg they consume of synthetic pesticide residues.
- In a single cup of coffee, the natural chemicals that are known rodent carcinogens are about equal in weight to a year’s worth of synthetic pesticide residues that are rodent carcinogens, even though only 3% of the natural chemicals in roasted coffee have been adequately tested for carcinogenicity.
Read the article. It won’t take much time and you can skim the tables and still appreciate the science. And consider the words from over 400 years ago: “Solely the dose determines that a thing is not a poison.” It may not be “solely,” but it’s got to be a major factor to consider.
Oh, and by the way, this article was written in 1999 at Berkley. It’s hardly a right wing backlash against the organic movement or a puff piece by the chemical industry. Nor unfortunately, did it seem to have much impact then, as we’re still letting reports of rodent carcinogens dictate policy and the rules we live by.