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IARC and meat

Dear Reader,

It has come to my attention that the international body which considers the evidence regarding the question of is agent X a carcinogen in humans has decided that red meat is probably carcinogenic to humans while processed meat is carcinogenic to humans. Now I imagine that lots of people have visions of doom in their mind, rather than looking at a nice beef burger or another meat ite m as a nice meal they might feel rather nervous about it. This terror is increased by comments such as those made in the Guardian which seems to equate meat eating with smoking and asbestos. I hold the view that the headline on the Guardian article is the product of either ignorance, laziness or some ideological desire to demonize meat eating.

The problem is that the IARC classes do not represent the level of the threat, they relate to the degree of scientific confidence regarding the question of “is agent X carcinogenic in humans” and not the question of “how carcinogenic is agent X”. This might to some people seem like an attempt to divide hairs but it is an important question.

We should consider some menacing IARC class one carcinogens, I will not go through all of them but here are some.

Estrogen (This is needed by women to maintain healthy bones)

Alcohol in drinks (This is a well known street drug but it is considered safe in small / moderate doses)

Sunlight (Well do not overdo it, while moderate exposure is unlikely to be dangerous it is best to wear sunblock if you will expose large areas of skin to daylight.)

Tamoxifen (this is an anticancer drug)

Now while these four substances I listed which are all class one, I can hardly say that they are all clear menaces to health and society. Maybe as another writer has commented it is time for the IARC to change the way they communicate with the outside world.

The problem is that to get into class one one of the best ways is for an agent to cause a rare form of cancer which can be spotted with ease. This form of cancer might result in very little human suffering is it is a very rare cancer, on the otherhand a more powerful carcinogen which causes a common form of cancer or a large number of common cancers will be much harder to spot. The reason why DES (Diethylstilbestrol) was spotted as a carcinogen was that caused a distinctive and rare form of cancer. It is interesting to note that in Sweden berylium (IARC class 1) is not strongly regulated under the carcinogen law while dimethyl sulfate and diethyl sulfate (IARC class 2a) are very strongly regulated by Swedish law.

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