Weighing cancer risks, from cellphones to coffee

Jun 15, 2011 By MARILYNN MARCHIONE , AP Medical Writer
A unidentified man uses a cell phone in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, June 14, 2011. Despite all the recent news about possible cancer risks from cellphones, coffee, styrene and formaldehyde in building materials, most people face little if any danger from these things, health experts say. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

You're sitting in a freshly drywalled house, drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup and talking on a cellphone. Which of these is most likely to be a cancer risk? It might be the sitting, especially if you do that a lot.

Despite all the recent news about possible cancer risks from cellphones, coffee, styrene and formaldehyde in building materials, most of us probably face little if any danger from these things with ordinary use, say. Inactivity and obesity may pose a greater than chemicals for some people.

"We are being bombarded" with messages about the dangers posed by common things in our lives, yet most exposures "are not at a level that are going to cause cancer," said Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, the American Cancer Society's deputy chief medical officer.

Linda Birnbaum agrees. She is a toxicologist who heads the government agency that just declared styrene, an ingredient in fiberglass boats and Styrofoam, a likely cancer risk.

"Let me put your mind at ease right away about Styrofoam," she said. Levels of styrene that leach from "are hundreds if not thousands of times lower than have occurred in the occupational setting," where the chemical in vapor form poses a possible risk to workers. "In finished products, certainly styrene is not an issue," and exposure to it from riding in a boat "is infinitesimal," she said.

Carcinogens are things that can cause cancer, but that label doesn't mean that they will or that they pose a risk to anyone exposed to them in any amount at any time.

They have been in the news because two groups that periodically convene scientists to decide whether something is a issued new reports.

Last month, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the , said there is a possibility cellphones raise the risk of .

"The operative word is `possibility,'" said Lichtenfeld, who among others has pointed out the thin evidence for this and the fact that cancer rates have not risen since cellphones came out.

Last week, the National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences - both of which Birnbaum heads - issued its report.

It adds to the list of known carcinogens formaldehyde, which is in building materials and some hair-straightening products, though Birnbaum said on-the-job exposure is the main concern. The list also adds a plant substance in some "natural" arthritis remedies, aristolochic acid. Six other things were dubbed "reasonably anticipated" to be carcinogens, including styrene and another herbal medicine ingredient, riddelliine (rih-DELL-een).

Since 1971, the international cancer agency has evaluated more than 900 substances. Just over 100 have been deemed carcinogens, 59 are called probable carcinogens, and 266 others are possible ones.

In this last category of possibles - besides the electromagnetic energy from cellphones - are coffee, engine exhaust and talc-based body powder. Talc in its natural form may contain asbestos, though products sold for home use since the 1970s have been asbestos-free. Again, most risk is thought to involve occupational or unusual exposure to natural talc.

The evidence on coffee has gone back and forth for years, with no clear sign of danger and some suggestions of benefit.

However, known carcinogens include alcoholic beverages, estrogen treatments for menopause symptoms, birth control pills, certain viruses and parasites, and even some drugs used to treat cancer, such as cyclophosphamide and tamoxifen.

"Most people would probably be shocked to see the number of things they interact with every day" on these lists, Lichtenfeld said.

Here's the problem: The agencies that pass judgment on a carcinogen don't regulate it or determine what levels or routes of exposure are a concern and for whom.

"People immediately assume it's going to cause cancer at any exposure level, and that's simply not true," said A. Wallace Hayes, editor of the scientific journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, and an industry consultant.

The rule is "RITE" - Risk Is equal to Toxicity times Exposure - and "they've left out half of the equation" by not saying how much exposure is a concern, Hayes said.

"The organizations that list these substances as possibly carcinogenic have to be conservative. That means if there's any reasonable evidence, way before it's a sure thing, they have to say, `Let's be cautious.' That's their job - to raise the flag," said David Ropeik, a consultant and author of "How Risky Is It Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts."

It's human nature to fear risks we didn't choose, such as hazardous chemicals, more than those we did, such as lack of exercise, poor diets or smoking, he said.

"A risk that is imposed on us scares us more than a risk we take voluntarily," especially if it comes from companies we don't trust, Ropeik said.

Styrene is an example: The government says it is a component of tobacco smoke and that is the biggest way most people are exposed to it. Smoking, of course, is the most easily preventable cancer risk.

To minimize risk, people can take reasonable measures to avoid exposure to possibly harmful things, experts say.

"If you walk into a room and you can smell , you probably want to vent the room before you spend a lot of time in it. That's just common sense," Birnbaum said.

If you're concerned about pesticides, you can peel fruit and vegetables or choose organics, though there is some evidence that organic products may be less safe in terms of germs like E. coli and salmonella.

People worried about cellphones can hold them farther from the head, text-message instead of talk, or use a headset or earpiece as Lichtenfeld does. He was returning from a major cancer conference in Chicago last week when a fellow traveler pointed at Lichtenfeld's Bluetooth earpiece and said, "Do you know that thing can cause cancer?"

"I said, `Yes, ma'am, I'm very familiar with the data and I choose to use Bluetooth,'" said Lichtenstein, who didn't tell her he was one of the biggest experts she'd ever meet.

"You can't live life in fear," he said. "You have to live life."

Explore further: CDC charges Johns Hopkins to lead development of Ebola training module

More information:
Carcinogens: bit.ly/aJI6ht

IARC: monographs.iarc.fr/index.php

NIH: ntp.niehs.nih.gov/go/roc12

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User comments : 10

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Mayday
4.3 / 5 (3) Jun 15, 2011
With so many people being afraid of there own shadows these days, I love the irony that the opposite is actually riskier.

Though the article failed to mention sun exposure as a common cancer risk. I personally refuse to talk on my cell phone in the sun while smoking.
Cave_Man
3 / 5 (2) Jun 15, 2011
This article is total pandering to the "everything is fine" mentality, when in reality your neighbor just dumped a bucket of benzene dust out their window and it's blowing your way.

Sure a single "infinitesimal" risk will not give you cancer but when you are exposed to an almost infinite amount of these risks every day, well, the effect may become quite large.

The fact is we are adding man made risks to a very large array of natural risks, hell we are constantly being bombarded by high energy particles from space all the time.
racchole
5 / 5 (1) Jun 15, 2011
Lol
Vendicar_Decarian
3 / 5 (2) Jun 15, 2011
"Smoking doesn't cause cancer." - Rush Limbaugh
"Smoking isn't addictive." - Rush Limbaugh

"in reality your neighbor just dumped a bucket of benzene dust out their window" - CaveTard

I haven't seen a bucket of benzene dust since I left my apartment on the minor planet Pluto.

Pluto is a pretty cool place. You should visit sometime.
Au-Pu
4 / 5 (1) Jun 15, 2011
One of Sydney's (Australia) top neuro surgeons has complained that something needs to be done about cell phone usage as he has seen a 100% increase in brain tumors in young people over the last 4 years.
He should know better than all the theoretical and often questionable studies that say they are safe because he has to surgically remove them.
We need only remember that for decades we were bombarded with counter claims that cigarettes were not harmful and that asbestos was also not harmful.
Now we have those same people with strong vested financial interests declaring that the cell phone is not hazardous to our health.
Listen to those who actually have to deal the problems.
Vendicar_Decarian
4.7 / 5 (3) Jun 15, 2011
Look, if a Conservative Radio DJ like Rush Limbaugh tells me that Smoking doesn't cause cancer, what am I to do? I have to believe him cause he has more money than me.

Besides. No one on Conservative Radio would lie. They are all God Fearing Christians. Just like George WMD. Bush.
Egnite
not rated yet Jun 16, 2011
I agree with Racchole!

On a sidenote, they forgot to mention Fluoride may make your teeth super clean and healthy while sharpening your reflexes, sweetners could actually reduce your risk of cancer or obesity and daily exposure to car fumes can clean the lungs while giving you extra stamina in the sack...
Javinator
5 / 5 (1) Jun 16, 2011
If you're concerned about pesticides, you can peel fruit and vegetables or choose organics


Organic farmers can still use pesticides. They're not allowed to use synthetic pesticides.
Javinator
5 / 5 (1) Jun 16, 2011
This article is total pandering to the "everything is fine" mentality, when in reality your neighbor just dumped a bucket of benzene dust out their window and it's blowing your way.

Sure a single "infinitesimal" risk will not give you cancer but when you are exposed to an almost infinite amount of these risks every day, well, the effect may become quite large.


What is a bucket of benzene dust? How is that reality?

Your comment is the other extreme which is total pandering to the "everything is going to kill you" mentality.

In your comment you speak of the "almost infinite" number of carcinogens you're exposed to, both natural and man-made. You know what it would mean if there were actually nearly an infinite amount of carcinogens you're exposed to? You couldn't possibly avoid enough to significantly reduce your risk of cancer.

In reality, there are lots of carcinogens, some being more obvious than others (ie. asbestos or UV). Minimize/avoid as you can and live on.
Spaceman_Spiff
5 / 5 (1) Jun 16, 2011
In reality, there are lots of carcinogens, some being more obvious than others (ie. asbestos or UV). Minimize/avoid as you can and live on.


A logical and pragmatic solution to a problem? WHAT HAS THE INTERNET BECOME??? I require more fact-less opinions and extremism!