An apple
02 March 2016

These 3 Products Contain Carcinogens. How Much Is Too Much?

Yes, formaldehyde can cause cancer, and it’s true that many household products contain the chemical preservative. But so do many fruits and vegetables, including apples and cauliflower. Until recently, Johnson & Johnson’s “No More Tears” baby shampoo also contained formaldehyde. It doesn’t anymore, thanks largely to public outcry, spurred no doubt by an inflammatory paper published by the Environmental Working Group.

20 Of Your Favorite Fruits & Veggies Contain Formaldehyde An apple

But the outcry, and even Johnson & Johnson’s response to that outcry, are missing the point, according to Matthew Hartings, a chemist at American University. Speaking with Slate in 2014, Hartings said: “unfortunately, all molecules are potentially toxic. Toxicity is not just about the molecule but is about the molecule and its concentration.” Thus Hartings summed up a principle long-known to toxicologists: it’s not just what you’re exposed to, it’s how much.

 

The broader point is that we shouldn’t surrender immediately to every public health scare, even when the chemical in question is a known carcinogen. One molecule of even the most lethal chemical is unlikely to have any effect – and you’re not going to stop eating apples, are you?

When it comes to formaldehyde, studies have only linked the chemical to cancer in people who are consistently exposed to large quantities for long periods of time. Morticians, for example, are more likely to die of leukemia the longer they’ve been embalming bodies. Industrial factory workers seem to be at similarly increased risks, but only after working around formaldehyde for years.

40 Million Baths In A Single Day

Baby shampoo doesn’t work like that. California currently has the strictest standards on notifying consumers about potentially-harmful chemicals. Still, you would have to wash your child’s hair over 40 million times in one day to reach the level of formaldehyde considered dangerous to human health in California. We bet you wouldn’t do that, and we bet you won’t actively avoid these 20 fruits and vegetables known by the World Health Organization to contain formaldehyde:

  • Apples
  • Apricots
  • Bananas
  • Beetroot
  • Bulb veggies, like onions
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Cucumbers
  • Grapes
  • Green onions
  • Kohlrabi
  • Pears
  • Plums
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Watermelon
  • White radish
  • Shiitake mushrooms

Despite the natural ubiquity of formaldehyde, Johnson and Johnson still decided to remove the chemical from “No More Tears.” The company’s response (over-zealous when you take actual health concerns into account) is illuminating. As a business enterprise, Johnson and Johnson doesn’t respond to science; it responds to public opinion.

Almost Every Can Of Food Contains BPA

Bisphenol-A, or BPA, may tell a different story.

A known endocrine disruptor, BPA is a chemical that can impair your hormone system. It’s also a fundamental building block in most plastics and resins, materials used to build everything from the lenses in your glasses to children’s toys. It lines the inside of cans and many drinking bottles.

 

Unfortunately for humans, BPA has been linked to increased rates of cancer, especially breast and prostate tumors, by decades of solid research. Take this 2012 study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, which found that BPA alters gene expression in ways that promote the growth of breast cancer cells. In 2005, a review of 115 peer-reviewed studies on BPA found that almost 82% of the papers confirmed the chemical’s toxicity.

For Dr. Ana Soto, a biologist at Tufts University, that’s more than enough evidence. “To me,” she told Medscape Oncology in early 2015, “we’ve passed the point with BPA.” Some European countries have, at least. France and Denmark already have legislation on the books that will eliminate BPA from the manufacture of food packaging. But most world health organizations haven’t followed suit, and still support the use of Bisphenol-A at very low concentrations. The US Food & Drug Administration, for example, says that “BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in foods.”

Unlike formaldehyde, the medical community is still split on how much BPA is too much. That ambiguity has allowed most manufacturers to continue using the chemical, despite evidence of its cancer-causing power. It’s likely, however, that market forces will take care of this debate before too long. Toys R US and Walmart phased out baby bottles containing BPA in 2008, and many “eco-conscious” companies, like Nalgene, have promised to stop using it, too.

Processed Meat Is Now A Known Carcinogen

Evidence has been building for decades that people who eat large amounts of processed meats (meats that aren’t sold fresh, but cured, smoked or preserved in some other way) and red meats get bowel cancer more than people who don’t. But in October of 2015, the world’s health community made it official.

After 22 cancer experts from around the globe reviewed years of scientific research, the International Agency for Research on Cancer formally classified processed meats as “carcinogenic to humans,” and said all red meats are “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

 

Eating 50 grams of processed meat every day will increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer by 18%, the experts determined. Strong links to pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer were also observed. How much is 50 grams? Not much, as it turns out. Around two slices of thick-cut bacon, and two-and-a-half of packaged baloney.

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