Potential Risk of Getting Cancer
Table II

At a workshop sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Tom Hayden (former husband of Jane Fonda) said that he hoped California would "lead other states down the path that will ultimately lead to legislation that will eliminate all carcinogens and toxic substances that the American people are subjected to." [161] Progressive environmentalists know that if Hayden's goal were achieved, people would die of starvation. As a result, the progressives favor more sensible goals.

Relative Risks
Figure VIII
More images …

Case Study: Cancer Risks. Based on experiments in which chemicals are tested at near toxic doses in rodents, carcinogens are everywhere. Without any help from man, they are present in apple, banana, broccoli, Brussels sprouts; cabbage, cantaloupe, carrot, cauliflower, celery, cherry, coffee (brewed), comfrey tea, eggplant, grapefruit juice, grape, honey, honeydew melon, kale, lettuce, mango, mushroom, mustard (brown), orange juice, parsnip, peach, pear, pineapple, plum, potato, radish, raspberry, strawberry, and turnip. [162]

In fact, the amount of man-made (rodent) carcinogens in a typical diet is trivial when compared to the natural (rodent) carcinogens to which we are routinely exposed.

  • There are more known carcinogens consumed by drinking a cupof coffee than the amount of potentially carcinogenic pesticide residues the average person eats in ayear. [163]

  • The amount of carcinogens in the browned and burned foods we eat in a day (carcinogens which are produced by cooking) is several hundred times greater than the amount we inhale when we breathe severely polluted air. [164]

At the microscopic level, nature is a virtual carcinogen factory. The plants in our diet contain tens of thousands of natural pesticides to kill off fungi, insects and predators. About 99.99 percent of the pesticides we eat are natural (10,000 times the level of synthetic pesticide residues) and half (27 of 52) of the natural pesticides tested in rodents have proved to be carcinogenic at very high dosage levels.

Yet, although fruits and vegetables contain natural carcinogens, eating them is necessary in order to combat cancer from other sources. Vitamin C and other antioxidants, as well as folic acid and the other micronutrients found in fruits and vegetables, are required as defenses against the carcinogenic oxidants that are generated as part of the metabolism in all cells. Diets that contain too few fruits and vegetables and too much fat create major health risks. Ironically, any regulation that increases the price of fruits and vegetables (such as pesticide regulations) are likely to decrease their consumption and increase cancer rates! [165]

Human beings also produce carcinogens through everyday activities. Baking bread, browning meat, cooking bacon and eggs – all of these activities cause chemical reactions that produce carcinogens. Allowing a sliced apple to become slightly brown involves an oxidation reaction that produces carcinogenic peroxides. Carcinogens also occur naturally inside the human body. For example: [166]

  • Isotopes of potassium, produced naturally in the body, expose us to natural radiation.

  • Our normal metabolism produces byproducts (oxidants, such as hydrogen peroxide and other reactive forms of oxygen) which are the same carcinogens produced by radiation.

  • Many common metal salts naturally present in our bodies are rodent carcinogens, including chromium, selenium and arsenic.

Arsenic is not only carcinogenic, it is a well-known deadly poison in large quantities. Yet in small quantities it is apparently essential to life.

How important is the risk of consuming carcinogens? An estimate of the relative risk from substances that may cause cancer is presented in Table II. This table, taken from a survey article by Bruce Ames and his colleagues, ranks possible cancer risks (based on rodent experiments) with ordinary human exposure levels. [167] In each case, the risk has been normalized for comparison with ordinary tap water, which contains a tiny amount of the carcinogen chloroform.

Note that all of the items listed in Table II, in the quantities indicated, are believed to create a trivial risk for human beings. The items are presented here only to help establish perspective.

Not long ago, it was widely believed that most foods we consumed and most chemical-containing products we used were completely safe. That has changed, in part because scientists can now detect trace elements of chemicals in amounts as small as one part per trillion. Scientists can also test these chemicals on rodents in large doses. For example, in one test on a decaffeinating agent for coffee, rodents were given the equivalent of 12 million cups a day. [168]

Of all known chemicals, only a tiny handful have been tested. Of the chemicals tested so far (both natural and synthetic), about half have proved to be carcinogenic at the high dosage level used. Moreover, there is every reason to believe that further tests will indict literally hundreds of thousands of additional synthetic and natural chemicals as rodent carcinogens.

What do these results mean? That's not clear. For example, about one-quarter of the tests that produced cancer in mice failed to do so in rats, or vice versa. Since rats and mice are biologically similar and both are dissimilar from humans, extrapolating to statements about risks for people is a considerable leap. More importantly, it is not clear what we can infer from high-dosage rodent- experiments about the risk faced by humans exposed to low dosages. [169] Many scientists think the high-dose tests mainly show effects which are unique to high doses.

In general, the risks of cancer from man-made chemicals are far smaller than one might gather from the impassioned rhetoric of some reactionary environmentalists and sensationalist news reports. A fundamental principle of toxicology is that "the dose makes the poison." Substances such as vitamins and minerals which are essential to human life in small doses are deadly in large doses. Also, what is a deadly poison to one species may be quite safe for another, even in the same dosage relative to body size. Rodents, for example, vary in their sensitivity to certain toxins by a factor of many thousands.

Case Study. Putting Cancer Risks in Perspective. How important is the risk of consuming chemicals, which are carcinogenic for rodents at very high doses, compared to other risks we face? Table III compares the relative risk of a number of everyday activities, indicating for each how it increases the probability of death by one in one million – a level often used by federal and state governments in setting required levels of safety. As the table shows:

  • The risk of getting cancer by drinking tap water for a year is less than the risk of cancer from increased exposure to cosmic radiation during two round-trip airline flights between Los Angeles and New York City.

  • The risk of getting cancer from the saccharin in 30 diet colas is equivalent to the risk of cancer from living two months in Denver.

  • Virtually all of the dietary cancer risks are trivial compared to the risk of driving to work each day.

Table IV presents a number of risks from occupational, sporting and other activities from a different perspective. Combining it with Table 11, note that many voluntary human activities such as hunting, boating and farming arc hundreds of times more dangerous than consuming pesticides.

The scientific evidence cited above is not secret. It is available to all, in the scientific literature. Yet federal and state legislators often give little weight to these facts. Instead, the outrage of citizens, uninformed about toxicology and swayed by articulate rhetoric condemning each potential danger – usually without regard to the problems of alternative courses of action – has led from the Love Canal tragedy to the Superfund fiasco, and from largely phantom carcinogenic chemical threats in California to the passage of Proposition 65.

Case Study: California's Proposition 65. Drafted by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Sierra Club, introduced by Tom Hayden, and backed by his former wife, Jane Fonda, and other Hollywood celebrities, Proposition 65 is the most sweeping chemical regulatory law ever enacted by a state government. Among other provisions, Proposition 65 requires warnings for individuals exposed to chemicals "known" to cause cancer or reproductive harm in rodents at very high doses. [170]

Those accused of a failure to warn bear the burden of proving that a chemical exposure did not put anyone at significant risk – a burden that is scientifically impossible to meet. What Proposition 65 does is produce a lineup of suspects doomed to remain just that – suspects. Lacking viable ways to prove their innocence, businesses will tend to compound the problem by posting unnecessary warnings. This has already happened in the housing industry, where many builders post warnings on all new houses.

Yet if everything is labeled, especially if all labels contain the same warning, then warning labels lose their value. Warning labels affect behavior only if consumers can distinguish the few, especially dangerous risks from the thousands of minor risks they take every day. (See the accompanying chart.) The worst feature of the California law, however, is the wording of the required warnings. The statement, This product contains a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer, is very different from the statement, There is one chance in 100,000 that a lifetime of consumption of this product will cause cancer.

The first statement is the warning Californians see. The second is the standard California currently uses to decide whether a warning is required. The first statement implies certain danger. The second implies a very low-probability risk, based on hypothetical consumption patterns.

If the goal is to convey useful information, a better warning would relate the risk in question to risks associated with everyday activities. In most cases, the risk of consuming a product is lower than the risk of driving to the store to buy it.

Case Study: Why Safety Regulations Often Make Us Less Safe. As regulators respond to the latest media blitz, or to uninformed public rage about a specific chemical, no one should be surprised when the resulting new regulations make the world less safe. Nor is this phenomenon confined to the regulation of pollutants and food additives.

Out of a concern for the environmental effects of fuel consumption, Congress has mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for U. S. automobile manufacturers. Starting in 1989, U. S. automobiles had to average 26.5 miles per gallon. However: [171]

  • In order to comply with CAFE standards, automakers are producing smaller cars, which are less safe for occupants when accidents occur.

  • By one estimate, for the 1989 model year alone, the standards may have caused between 2,200 and 3,900 additional annual fatalities.

  • Over the next decade, existing CAFE regulations may cause as many as 20,000 additional deaths, and there are Congressional proposals to increase the the current standards by more than 50 percent by the end of the decade. [172]

The regulations of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are notori­ous for systematically depriving Americans of lifesaving drug therapies in the name of safety. In a recent episode: [173]

  • The FDA delayed for two years the sale of Streptokinase to treat heart attack victims, despite the drug's potential to save 11,000 lives per year.

  • This foot-dragging by the FDA may have cost as many as 22,000 lives.

In the area of transportation, there has been mounting pressure to re-regulate airlines to improve passenger safety. Yet not only has there been no noticeable increase in fatalities among airline passengers since 1978, greater access to air travel has substantially reduced the use of the automobile and, therefore, motor vehicle accidents: [174]

  • On the average, because of airline deregulation there are 66,000 fewer automobile accident injuries each year and 1,700 fewer deaths.

  • Overall, airline deregulation has saved more lives each year on our highways than the total number of lives lost in domestic airline crashes in the last 12 years.

Safety regulations often make us less safe because politicians want to be seen as "doing something," and because action is often believed to be better than inaction – even if it turns out that the action was wrong: [175]

  • As a result of the Clean Air Act, many local power plants were required to build smokestacks 1,000 feet or more in height in order to disperse the pollutants. Later, the government maintained that this dispersal was contributing to acid rain.

  • After banning EDB as a fumigant, the EPA approved the use of methyl bromide phosphine gas as an alternative. Yet phosphine and methyl bromide are more poisonous and have contributed to far more worker accidents than EDB.

  • Asbestos is virtually harmless as long as it remains in walls and is not being dispersed as dust that can be inhaled. Yet asbestos re­moval programs make asbestos dust airborne and often create far more hazardous conditions than if it had been left alone.

  • Because of safety fears, the use of whooping cough vaccine has dropped in a number of countries. This has resulted in outbreaks of the disease in Sweden, Britain and Japan – where a whooping cough epidemic killed at least 40 children.

  • In the Silicon Valley, the semiconductor industry was required to place storage tanks for solvents underground as a safety measure in the 1960s. Yet this made leaks in tanks more difficult to detect, and solvent residues are now showing up in drinking water.

  • In the early 1970s, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) required that children's sleepwear be treated with the fire-retardant chemical TRIS. Later it was discovered that TRIS is highly mutagenic and possibly also carcinogenic.

Not all safety regulations make us less safe. But all too frequently regulators forbid one activity and insist on another with no knowledge of the consequences. Small wonder these regulations often do more harm than good. As noted above, regulation in the name of health, safety and environmental protection also has made us less safe in another way: it has lowered workplace productivity and workers' incomes.