Life isn’t as risky as you might think

Hardly a week goes by without a news story alleging that some product or service poses a new risk for consumers. Anything from cellphones to baby bottles can cause cancer, we’re told. After a while, we become outraged, fearful or blasé about the warnings.

Now, the Associated Press has published a wonderful article putting risk assessment in perspective. You can find it here. Here are the first couple of paragraphs:

“You’re sitting in a freshly drywalled house, drinking coffee from a plastic foam 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, health experts say. Inactivity and obesity may pose a greater cancer risk than chemicals for some people.”

In the article, spokespersons for the American Cancer Society and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences both agree that for most of us, most of the exposures we have to items that are declared to be carcinogens – known, probable or possible – are too low to be of concern.

People assume that exposure to any item declared to be a carcinogen will cause cancer, and that’s simply not true. Remember the RITE rule: Risk Is equal to Toxicity times Exposure. It’s not enough to understand that something is toxic. You also have to know something about exposure. How big a dose have you been exposed to? How long have you been exposed? How frequently have you been exposed?

I live in Arizona, and my doctor has advised that twice a week, I should be in the sun without a shirt on for 10 minutes each time. One reaction would be that he’s trying to cause me to have skin cancer. Actually, he wants to make sure that I’m exposed to the sun often and long enough to stimulate vitamin D production. He understands that the dosage and time levels he’s recommending will lead to a positive, not a negative, effect.

Don’t be shaken every time you hear a news story declaring a link between cancer and something you do, own or use. Dig a little deeper into the story to learn the underlying assumptions about exposure. You’ll often find that you have no cause for concern.

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