Distortions: The broad category of “Class 1 Carcinogen”

In the ongoing discussion of links between alcohol consumption and cancer, we hear this statement: Alcohol is a known class one carcinogen.

That sounds pretty scary.

I’m not about to dismiss the seriousness of cancer (although as Susan Sontag did, I am concerned about how it is framed). What I do want to discuss today is the power of these cancer claims, and the challenges of challenging it.

First, it’s useful to know what a “Class 1 Carcinogen” is. It sounds like it’s the top level of carcinogens, most virulent, scariest, leading to the most deaths and so on. As if “Class 2” are lower incidence, less lethal, and so on.

That is not the case, and understanding the meaning of the term can illuminate how it is used to distort and sow fear.

According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is the cancer research arm of the WHO, labeling something a Class 1 (also called Group 1) carcinogen means “the agent is carcinogenic to humans.” Check out their information document here.

This does not capture how much you need to be exposed, or eat, or anything like that, just that there are studies that convincingly link it to cancer. So if someone developed colorectal cancer from consuming processed food like bacon, this would meet the “class 1” level. Just as much less exposure to intense radiation from, say, a nuclear meltdown would also cause cancer. So bacon and radiation are in the same class since they can cause cancer in humans. They are joined by things like asbestos, diesel engine exhaust, leather dust, air pollution, radon, and wood dust. You can download the document classifying the type of carcinogen here.

Each of these causes cancer at different exposure levels and over different periods of time.

The IARC is clear about this in the document I linked above: (p3) “the classification does not indicate the level of risk associated with a given level or circumstance of exposure. The cancer risk associated with substances or agents assigned the same classification may be very different.” (emphasis added)

Yet when people looking at restrictions or restrictive guidelines on alcohol talk about it, they don’t offer nuances. It is just “a C lass 1 Carcinogen” because, well, as we noted, it sounds pretty dire.

Consider this when looking at things like the CCSA guidance on low-risk drinking, their experts discussing alcohol and cancer, and the push by Senator Patrick Brazeau to have cancer warning labels on booze. He repeatedly calls alcohol a “Class 1 Carcinogen” without explaining that there is more to it than a classification and uses language like “these labels will save lives” and repeatedly refers to “deadly cancer” (which is unlike the non-deadly kind I guess). He ramps up the panic language to achieve his own evangelistic aims (I don’t mean evangelistic with its religious meaning, but rather in the sense of a militant, crusading zeal).

Cancer is a terrible disease. It killed my father when he was 49. I never even got to have a pint in a pub with him. It killed others whom I loved very much. I personally live in constant fear of cancer. I drive my physician crazy with my neurotic pointing at something on my body and thinking cancer has got me. So I’m hardly insensitive to this issue.

However, using cancer fear as a bludgeon to terrorize citizens only to satisfy your own personal, or political, or career-focused agenda is immoral.

(c) 2023 Dan Malleck

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