Monday, August 29, 2016

I Expose My Family to Carcinogens Everyday And So Do You

Last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate, a common herbicide, as a probable carcinogen. I've been asked how it is that I can ingest "a known carcinogen",
"The Globally Harmonized System sign for carcinogens,
 mutagens, teratogens, respiratory sensitizers
and substances which have target organ toxicity." Wikipedia
so I'm going to take the time to outline what the IARC does, the difference between the IARC's ranking and risk, and why I expose myself and my child to known carcinogens everyday (a shout out to @mommyphd for editing this post).


First, it's important to note that the IARC's categorization of glyphosate contradicts statements from many other organizations including the European Food and Safety Authority. Second, the IARC's ranking has been controversial due to potential conflicts of interest. Third, to explore the data behind the IARC’s categorization, I highly recommend this blog post by Dr. Andrew Kniss. For the sake of simplicity, I'm writing this piece assuming that the IARC's ranking is correct and ethical.

What is the IARC?

The IARC is an agency of the World Health Organization and it reviews data regarding a substance's carcinogenicity to identify hazards. Their job is to answer these questions: Is there any evidence that substance X causes cancer? How much evidence is there? Based on the strength of data, not the likelihood of harm (the actual risk), it categorizes substances as "probably not a carcinogen", "not classifiable", "possibly a carcinogen", "probably a carcinogen", and "a known carcinogen". The IARC has only ever classified one substance as "probably not a carcinogen". If you’re not sure about the difference between hazard and risk, here’s an extreme example: is a meteorite striking me a hazard? Yes… It is. I’d probably die or get injured if it struck me. Is it a risk? No. Apparently, there’s only a 1 in 1,600,000 chance that I’d get hit by a meteorite in my lifetime and die.


That is the extent of the IARC's role: to determine the level of evidence for whether a substance has the potential to cause cancer. It doesn't tell you the level of risk or what you can do about it. That's why the IARC's classification is so confusing: it lumps processed meat in the same category as smoking. But does that mean that your risk of getting cancer from smoking two packs a day is the same as your risk of getting cancer by eating a pastrami sandwich? No, it doesn't. Does it tell you if your risk is the same if you smoke a cigarette once in your lifetime or if you eat 3 pastrami sandwiches a day? No, it doesn't. For that, we need to assess the risk of the substance and that is often done by public health organizations.

The Carcinogens We Encounter Every Day
Whether you're aware of it or not, every day you're choosing to expose yourself to at least one known carcinogen. That's because UV rays from sunlight are carcinogens. One of my son's favorite lunches is a sliced ham sandwich. And that's a carcinogen. There are many other possible and probable carcinogens that we knowingly expose ourselves to: my husband and I have cell phones, we eat red meat and french fries (the latter have acrylamide), and some of our lotions have aloe vera extract. Even hot beverages that we drink were recently classified as “probably a carcinogen”.


But thanks to public health officials that have assessed the risk and provided guidelines on mitigating risks in my life, my kid uses sunscreen when he's out in the sun and we try to stay in the shade. We don't eat red meat every day, and there are no public health guidelines on avoiding aloe vera extract because the evidence for actual risk of carcinogenicity is weak.

What About Glyphosate? What Should I do?

In the case of glyphosate, the World Health Organization has stated that the amount of glyphosate residues found in our food is unlikely to be carcinogenic. In other words, the risk to my family is negligible. The risk to pesticide appliers may be higher and worker safety organizations may provide recommendations specific to pesticide application for such individuals to mitigate their risks.

So many things around us are potential hazards and could possibly kill us some way or another. However, it’s more important to understand the level of risk that something poses in making decisions about how to keep ourselves and our families safe. It’s also important to note that we cannot avoid hazards: even something as simple as eating a salad, be it organic or conventional, has the risk of a foodborne illness. What’s important is that we make informed decisions based on genuine risk, otherwise we live our lives unnecessarily fearing our environment and our food. We could live cooped up inside our houses, in a "chemical-free" bubble with UV-reducing windows or shut-out curtains, but that's not what our public health officials recommend. Following their recommendations ensures that we reduce the risk for the things that can harm us by using sunscreen, eating plenty of properly washed fruits and veggies, getting our vaccinations on schedule, using seat belts and having car seats installed properly, etc. We should focus our efforts on following guidelines put forth by our public health officials and medical institutions, rather than creating boogie-men out of low-risk items in our environment.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Farmers and Scientists Are People, Too

Last month was the spouse's 20th high school reunion in his home town of Plainview, Texas. I'd been to Plainview a few times to visit his family and friends, but never over the summer. He had always said that I wouldn't enjoy the heat, so we had always visited in December.

So it was my first time visiting the state in temperatures above 100ºF (for all you awesome metric people, that's about 40ºC). It was also my first time at a reunion. Before flying out, the spouse encouraged me a few times to try to organize interviews for my "Better Know a Farmer" series, however, it was not possible given the duration of my trip.

Needless to say, Plainview, Texas is very different from any place I've lived. There used to be a very large meat processing plant for Cargill, which shut down in recent years due to the difficulty of maintaining cattle in the increasingly dry climate. Currently, one of the largest employers is a Walmart distribution center. But agriculture is at the heart of the area: the ads in the airport were for field irrigation systems and for agricultural technologies. The dust bowl is more than just a chapter in history books.

View from our plane when landing in Lubbock, TX
I got to chat with people between the various events for the reunion. Many them held jobs associated with ag, ranging from farmers working the land to individuals repairing equipment on ranches. They shared their challenges and aspirations. They spoke about biotech crops and how these have helped them. They told me about the drought, how it has impacted them and what they've lost. It made me think a lot about how stress resistant crops could help such regions in the not-too-distant future, and how such crops will become increasingly more important.

To most of us, farming is a concept in a text book. It's the lyrics to Jason Aldean's "Amarillo Sky". But to the people I met, it's their livelihood and it's their day-to-day. It's a source of pride and a legacy that has been handed down to them and they hope to pass on to their children.

I was recently reminded of Mommy, PhD's "#ScientistsArePeople" campaign, which launched to highlight that we scientists are diverse, everyday people: we aren't drones intent on taking over the world, motivated exclusively by money. Sweeping statements that paint scientists as a uniform group of evil individuals couldn't be farther from the truth. Similarly, painting farmers as a group of individuals who are intent on poisoning the earth and dousing crops in pesticides couldn't be more inaccurate.

I'm not naive enough to believe that everyone follows the rules or that everything is rainbows and unicorns. I've worked with people that have been genuine douchebags and whose car tires I dreamed of slashing. But such individuals are far from being the majority. Most people I have worked with want a job where they can make a contribution to society and earn fair pay. I believe scientists and farmers are generally no different.

I want you to think carefully about your home: how you want to keep it safe, how you want to pay off your mortgage or your lease, and how you want to have a healthy environment for you and your kids/pets/friends. Would it make any sense for you to use chemicals that are not designated for household-use in this space or use more than instructed? Would it make any sense for you to introduce compounds that would knowingly damage the building you're handing down to your kids? Then why on earth would you believe that a farmer would do this to the lands where they work and live? As kids ran around at the roller-skating rink at the family event for the reunion, I wondered why anyone would believe that a farmer is any different than themselves.

There are different fora where you can engage with farmers and ask questions. I recommend Food and Farm Discussion Lab and Ask The Farmers (both are on Twitter). I encourage you to ask questions, rather than making assumptions about their practices and work.