The Unrepentant Individual

...just hanging around until Dec 21, 2012

July 16, 2006

Water Causes Cancer!

It’s true, scientists says so!

It turns out that they fed 1000 rats only distilled water for 2 months. By the end of those two months, 996 of the rats were dead. Finding no known cause of death, the scientists surmised it must be cancer!

Of course, I jest. I’ve used that scenario to make fun of the near-constant scares hyped by the media for years. But it’s not far from the truth. Reading John Stossel’s book, Give Me A Break, I was taken aback when I saw how close I was to the truth:

So scientists began seeking ways to determine which chemicals caused cancers and other problems. Animal tests using proportions of chemicals that arenormally consumed in real life wouldn’t work because they’d need a million rats or guinea pigs to get significant results (not every animal gets cancer from the carcinogen, and a third of the animals get cancer just from living). The scientists got around that by feeding the animals huge doses of the carcinogens, then waiting up to two years to see if the animals got cancer, and the tests often cost more than $1 million.

Then California biochemist Dr. Bruce Ames came up with a brilliant solution. “Instead of testing animals,” he said, “test bacteria to see if the chemicals damage DNA. You can study a billion bacteria on just one petri dish. Bacteria reproduce every 20 minutes.

The Ames test proved fabulously successful. It was hailed as a major scientific breakthrough, and became the standard test to see if chemicals cause mutations. Its first use in the ’70s showed there were mutagens in hair dyes and in fireproof materials in children’s pajamas. Ames helped get the chemicals banned.

But then, Ames told me, “People started using our test and finding mutagens everywhere, in cups of coffee, in plants we eat, in broiled hamburgers. Most mutagens turned out to be carcinogens. I started getting a more realistic view of the world.”

Ames and his colleague Lois Gold concluded that the popular assumption that man-made chemicals are more likely to be carcinogenic than natural substances are wrong. Ames told us that in “high-dose animal cancer tests, half of all chemicals tested, whether natural or man-made, are carcinogens. Exposure to man-made chemicals that are carcinogens is minuscule compared to the exposure to natural carcinogens in our diet. Thousands of new chemicals have been introduced over the past forty years. If they were giving people cancer, then there should be an epidemic of cancer in this country, but there isn’t.”

Half of all chemicals ever tested cause cancer. At least, if you shove obscene amounts of them into small mammals, of course. Doesn’t that put a little bit more perspective on these “scientific studies”? In fact, I find only one use for these studies, and that’s rationalizing my own behavior.

Of course, I can be accused of being a bit dismissive of risk. After all, I need to have a limb halfway hanging off before I’m willing to go see a doctor. When someone says “hey Brad, let’s go jump out of airplanes”, my first thought is to check my schedule to see when I have an open weekend. My wife is at the other extreme; when she has a few headaches over the course of a week, suddenly she becomes convinced she has a brain tumor and wants to go to emergency for a CAT scan… I’ll bet that a proper level of managing risk is somewhere in between.

But what I’ve never understood is why some people spend all their time worrying about the most arcane things like plane crashes, yet drive without a seat belt. Or they worry about getting cancer from grapefruit, yet they are 60 lbs overweight and smoke. Or they worry about the threat of terrorism, yet leave their doors unlocked and garages open every night.

It’s almost as if people subconsciously need something to worry about, but know that they can’t worry about their own behavior. After all, if they start worrying that their own behavior is dangerous, they’ll be hypocrites if they don’t change it. Worrying about what you can’t control is pointless.

I was thinking of this the other day, when contemplating my vacation. I’m going to be going to Hawaii for Labor Day weekend. North Korea is apparently taking aim at Hawaii. That doesn’t bother me, though. Let’s look at the chances. First, they’d have to choose the time I’m there to fire their missile. Second, the missile would have to work properly enough to even come close. Third, their guidance system would have to be good enough that they’d hit one of the islands. Fourth, they’d have to choose Maui, since that’s where I’ll be. Fifth, they’d have to have a sizable enough weapon to hit me. If all those things happen, and I go up in a mushroom cloud, I’m cool with it. I refuse to let that miniscule chance change my decision to go spend 6 days in a tropical paradise.

But again, I’m an odd case. I’m not worried one bit about cancer, because I’m relatively sure that by the time I reach an age where I’m likely to develop cancer, they’ll have cured it already. But I watch people consistently spending time making themselves miserable worrying about things that are unlikely to happen. If you spend your time worrying about the bad things that might happen, you’re not spending it enjoying the good things which do happen.

Bad things happen in the world, that much is fact. It’s smart to do your best to protect yourself from the likeliest of bad things to happen, at least when you can. But you should never let yourself be paralyzed by fear of things that are highly unlikely to happen.

InsureBlog linked with Cavalcade of Risk (4th Edition)
MedBillManager Blog linked with Cavalcade of Risk Number FOUR
Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 8:08 pm || Permalink || Comments (3) || Trackback URL || Categories: Books, Media, Personal Life, Science


  1. There’s a difficult balance to strike. It’s not just the likelihood of an event that’s important but also its severity. If a rare event is simply unacceptable, all effort should be invested in preventing it. Common events can more easily be shrugged off. Your point about worrying only things you can control is quite important though, however people do have more say about risks than they think they do.

    Comment by Daniel Collins — July 20, 2006 @ 2:15 am
  2. [...] Filed under – EVERYONE KNOWS THAT EVERYTHING CAUSES CANCER Brad of The Unrepentant Individual pokes fun at the recurring intersection of hypochondriac and over-zealous medical studies, but maybe there is some truth there…”It turns out that they fed 1000 rats only distilled water for 2 months. By the end of those two months, 996 of the rats were dead. Finding no known cause of death, the scientists surmised it must be cancer! Of course, I jest. I’ve used that scenario to make fun of the near-constant scares hyped by the media for years. But it’s not far from the truth.” [...]

  3. Cavalcade of Risk (4th Edition)

    I especially liked Brad’s post, over at The Unrepentant Individual, about putting risk, and risky behavior, in context.

    Trackback by InsureBlog — July 20, 2006 @ 11:14 am

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