Technology, media hysteria befuddle cancer causation theories

On a typical day, the alarm on your phone wakes you up. You gargle with mouthwash, use deodorant and take a daily multivitamin to keep yourself healthy and hygienic. You may not know that there is an ugly beast lurking menacingly beneath the surface of these everyday tasks: that beast is the constant threat of cancer.

In recent months, the public has been told that cell phones, the electronics nearest and dearest to our hearts (and our ears), can cause cancer. Not only that, but various everyday products, such as mouthwash, deodorant, and even certain vitamins, have also joined the club.

The longer the list of supposed carcinogens gets, the more far-fetched they seem to be.

There appears to be much speculation in these claims. Is this simply a “cancer-causing” fad? How exactly are these studies conducted to find the results?

“In a couple ways,” said Steven Blanke, professor of Microbiology at the University. One of the methods used to evaluate the cancer risk in a product is conducted “epidemiologically, where one statistically evaluates the association of a particular risk factor.”

This method essentially involves observing humans and their affiliation with a certain product. It could possibly show a link between that product and a certain disease — in this case, cancer.

“The strength of such an approach is that you’re using actual human data. The weakness is that one can find an association but not necessarily a causality,” said Blanke. “Nonetheless, it can be … very suggestive.”

An important note to consider is all in the wording; what we may have previously attributed to “cause” cancer may simply “have an association” with the disease. A correlation, or association, does not always signify causation.

From the molecular standpoint, there is a second, more in-depth way to assess certain cancer-causing capabilities of a product.

“There are a lot of different cell-based studies and chemical assays that can be used as well as genetic analysis,” said Stephen Boppart, professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering, Bioengineering, and Medicine. “What you’re really after is to determine if a chemical … factor changes the genetic makeup of a cell in a particular way that would make it cancerous.”

While both methods of data collection — the public observation and the molecular experimentation — are distinct, it is best to use both “in concert,” said Blanke, for the conclusions to be more sound.

“There are many factors that involve cancer,” said Josh Lim, sophomore in LAS. It can largely vary from person to person, and from how much exposure someone gets, he said. It isn’t always appropriate to generalize for an entire population.

The environment and genetics are two significant factors which can determine how someone reacts to a cancer-causing product. Thus, one person’s risk of developing cancer will be different than another’s, even though they both may use their cell phones every day.

“It’s a really … complex process,” said Boppart, “It’s not just whether or not a carcinogen is present, but it’s also how is it in contact with the cells, are those cells healthy, can they fight that off, is the person susceptible to those.”

Despite the fact that some products are only associated with cancer (they do not “cause” cancer), there are a select few that do have significant evidence pointing to causality. Tobacco products, for one, have been directly affiliated with lung cancer in humans.

Strangely enough, bananas are actually proven to contain a certain radioactive isotope. According to a BBC article, bananas have been known to activate special radiation sensors near United States portal areas.

Also, a 12-year long study released on Oct. 12, 2011 in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that Vitamin E can increase the risk of prostate cancer in men.

As for the studies that point to potato chips and chocolate as causes of cancer?

“It’s media hysteria, really,” said Sam Estelle, pre-med sophomore in LAS. He says that while these alleged cancer-causing products may only be correlational, they do make a difference on humans — media-wise, not necessarily health-wise.