While the Internet provides a rich repository of data on everything from the best new film releases to the hottest holiday destinations, when it comes to finding sound medical advice, it can be a dangerous and confusing place. Though 80 percent of Americans report having searched for health advice online, only an estimated 43.5 percent of the information they find is accurate. And this is particularly the case when it comes to popular misconceptions about how to prevent and manage cancer – a disease for which there is common consensus over known risk factors like smoking and alcohol consumption, but much murkiness over what other substances might pose health risks.
Cereal in peril?
Most recently, for instance, headlines have been warning that parents risk serving their children traces of an allegedly carcinogenic weed killer along with their Cheerios or Lucky Charms. The source of the uproar is a report recently published by the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group (EWG), which said it had found traces of the commonly used herbicide glyphosate in over 40 popular breakfast cereals, oatmeal, and granola bars.
Though a cursory look at the headlines might prompt many parents to ban their kids from eating cereal until further notice, there’s more to that story than meets the eye. Most importantly, the EWG based its report on its own internal determinations of what constitutes ‘safe’ levels of glyphosate – more than 100 times higher than the limit recommended by the EPA, hardly a corporate shill itself. And contrary to EWG’s alarm-raising report, the EPA confirmed in its most recent draft human health risk assessment that the herbicide is not likely to be carcinogenic. Nonetheless, the surge in media coverage and common misunderstanding of the science behind the headlines means that there are doubtless now thousands of Americans who have been turned off breakfast for good.
Questions over baby powder
A number of popular misconceptions over potentially dangerous substances – ungrounded in scientific fact – have even withstood judicial scrutiny in some recent high-profile cases. Earlier this summer, for instance, a Missouri jury awarded 22 women $4.6 billion in a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson over claims that the company’s talcum powder caused their ovarian cancer. Yet the science behind their assertion is mixed, at best. Some confusion stems from the fact that the mineral talc, in its natural state, may contain the proven carcinogen asbestos. Talcum products, however, have been asbestos-free in the United States since the 1970s.
Many of talc’s attackers point to the International Agency for Cancer (IARC)’s determination that talc use is “possibly carcinogenic to humans” as proof that the hygiene product is responsible for their disease. Unfortunately, IARC’s scientific credibility is on the line after several of its assessments of other chemicals – including glyphosate – were discredited, and the agency has even been called to testify before a US Congressional committee to answer for its “affront to scientific integrity.”
Cancer in your coffee?
The hype over what kinds of everyday substances may cause cancer has even extended to one of the world’s most popular beverages: not liquor, but coffee. Earlier this month, California backtracked on a ruling that would have forced cafés across the state to serve their coffee with cancer warnings. The reversal comes less than six months after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that state law required coffee to be labeled a possible carcinogen due to the presence of acrylamide, a byproduct formed during the roasting process that is present in most foods cooked at high temperatures. The basis for the ruling is California’s Proposition 65, a law that requires companies to warn consumers if they might be exposed to potentially hazardous chemicals, and has been responsible for the proliferation of cancer warnings on products from tooth fillings to vinyl couch cushions.
Originally passed in 1986 in order to warn consumers about possibly tainted drinking water, however, the law has since ballooned far beyond its original purview, raising questions about the extent to which it has raised false alarms and desensitized consumers about possible health risks. The law is already subject to criticism from federal legislators and lawsuits. And while the state has wisely backtracked on labeling coffee a carcinogen, lawyers continue to push forward with efforts find potential violators of the law, sending litigation notices to firms for selling products from bedsheets to kombucha to chocolate. Clearly, the law continues to veer off the rails – causing minimal benefit, if not outright harm, to consumers.
Cutting through the confusion
It’s important to keep in mind that, while low doses of most chemicals and moderate amounts of many activities are widely recognized as safe, there are some others that are undisputedly risky and should be avoided – for instance, cigarette smoking, obesity, alcohol consumption, and sun exposure. An estimated 60 percent of cancer cases, however, can’t be neatly traced back to identifiable risk factors. The best thing to do for laypeople is simple: avoid products and activities that are known to be harmful, and let the rest go.
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