Crying wolf on carcinogens

When a suspected cause for a devastating illness begins to slip away, there is often frustration and turmoil, paranoia and nihilism. In a short story by Lorrie Moore, the mother of a toddler with cancer rattles off a list of potential causes of her child’s illness — “giant landfills, agricultural run-off”; “lurid water”; “toxic potatoes”; “Joe McCarthy’s grave.”
 
The trouble with this kind of grasping is that it is indiscriminate. In truth, many substances of modern life do not — cannot — cause cancer. Some do, and it’s absolutely critical to identify and reduce exposure to them. Others don’t, and it’s absolutely worthwhile identifying these, so that we can focus on the real carcinogens around us.
 
If we lump everything into the category of “potentially carcinogenic,” from toxic potatoes to McCarthy’s grave, then our scientific language around cancer begins to degenerate. The effect is like crying “wolf” about cancer: the public progressively numbs itself to real environmental toxins and becomes disinvested in finding bona fide carcinogens.
 
-From Do Cellphones Cause Brain Cancer? by Siddhartha Mukherjee in the New York Times

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Posted on April 26, 2011, in Health, Quotes and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this. Thank you.

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