Folk Epidemiology Part II: It All Started With Godzilla
by Craig Nelson
In the previous post the phenomenon of Folk Epidemiology was described. This is the principle that clusters of cancer, autoimmune diseases and other disorders are caused by some sort of environmental/industrial pollutants. It is a commonly held belief that we are living through an epidemic of cancers, the cause of which is pollutants in our water, food and air. But when these disease clusters are investigated it turns that that they are rarely, if ever, caused by pollution, contamination or any other residue of modern life. But despite the overwhelming contrary scientific evidence the belief in folk epidemiology persists. Why? It all started with Godzilla.
Japan suffered two horrific health events in the past century. The first was, of course, the atomic bombing. Prior to thebombings there was no real awareness that there might be some long-term health effects from radiation. But following the instantaneous destruction of the bombing, we began to observe the medium-term and long-term effects of radiation poisoning. It was horrible, and that horror was thoroughly documented and integrated into the consciousness of Japanese society.
Quite deliberately Japanese filmmakers began incorporating this event into their films. The first of these was the 1954 movie Godzilla. The monster Godzilla arose from the sea as a result of the post-war atomic bomb testing in the Pacific, so the story goes. Shortly after this movie was released a second health disaster occurred which only confirmed these anxieties about our health in the modern industrial world. This was the Minamata Bay disaster. Beginning in the 1930s, a chemical plant discharged enormous quantities of methyl mercury into Minamata Bay. The mercury was absorbed by and concentrated in shellfish and the shellfish eaten. The result was grotesque and permanent neurological damage. You have probably seen the poignant and heartbreaking photos of children with “Minamata disease,” originally published in Life magazine. Unlike recent examples of folk epidemiology the Minamata Bay contamination did cause widespread disease.
Other monster movies followed: Rodan, Gamera, Mothra, Anguirus, and more. Each of those came to life as a result of man’s technological hubris, caused by some form of radiological or chemical pollution. As kids we thought these movies were great fun, and they were, but the filmmakers were quite earnest in their message: You cannot despoil the earth without causing great harm. This film genre reached its apotheosis with the 1971 release of Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster. In that film, Godzilla was allied with the human race to defeat the Smog Monster, a creature created entirely of pollutants.
We in America absorbed those messages as well. Along with the diet of Japanese horror films, two other events of the early 1960s drove our own chemical phobias. First was the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. That book, credited by many as inspiration for the modern environmental movement, documented the harm to wildlife resulting from indiscriminate pesticide use, particularly DDT. But Carson also claimed that it is not just songbirds and salamanders that are harmed, but humans as well, particularly in the form of cancer. Carson states:
Today we find our world filled with cancer-producing agents. An attack on cancer that is concentrated wholly or even largely on therapeutic measures . . . will fail because it leaves untouched the great reservoirs of carcinogenic agents which would continue to claim new victims faster than the as yet elusive “cure” could allay the disease. [Silent Spring, pages 214-5]
The second event was the 1964 publication of the Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health. That report explicitly and correctly identified the causal link between cigarettes and lung cancer. While cigarette smoking is certainly a different mode of pollution than industrial pollution, that report confirmed and reinforced the notion that pollutants that we take into our bodies can cause cancer. Soon a new world entered the common lexicon: Carcinogen. The Age of Contamination had begun.
If we look at these four events that gave rise to the Age of Contamination we come to the valid conclusions that atom bombs, methyl mercury, cigarette smoking, and indiscriminate pesticide use and are terribly dangerous. (Carson correctly identified the environmental harms from the pesticide use. She was incorrect regarding human cancers.) But we concluded that these hazards are typical of what other risks are likely to represent. But they’re not typical; they are profoundly atypical. Nothing else in our environment comes close to equaling the hazards represented by these specific factors. Nevertheless, in the Age of Contamination we have come to believe that our antiperspirant will give us Alzheimer’s disease (it’s the aluminum in the deodorant) and our lawn fertilizer will give us MS. But they will not.
The first public policy manifestation of the Age of Contamination occurred in 1969. In that year a study was published which found that the artificial sweetener sodium cyclamate increased the risk of bladder cancer in laboratory rats. The cyclamate dosage given the rats was the equivalent of drinking 350 diet sodas a day. The Food and Drug Administration’s regulations had been amended to read:
“The Secretary of the Food and Drug Administration shall not approve for use in food any chemical additive found to induce cancer in man, or, after tests, found to induce cancer in animals.”
With this mandate the FDA banned cyclamates for human consumption later that year. This became the model for subsequent studies and regulations of potential toxins: Enormous quantities of a substance would be fed to lab animals and their effects extrapolated to human health. But this methodology turns out to be a very unreliable predictor of human health effects. Indeed it turns out to be a very unreliable predictor of laboratory animal health effect—subsequent studies have failed to replicate the results of the original cyclamate study. Today in most of the rest of the world cyclamates are used as artificial sweeteners but they remains banned in the US.
Our chemical phobia reached its zenith, where else, in the state of California. In 1986 California passed a ballot measure, Proposition 65, intended by its authors to protect California citizens from chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, and to inform citizens about exposures to such chemicals. This measure has spawned a new industry—The Prop 65 warning sign industry. If you walk into virtually any public building in California you will find prominently displayed the following message:
WARNING: This Area Contains a Chemical Known to the State of California to Cause Cancer, Birth Defects, or Other Reproductive Harm
This is called a “Prop 65 Sign.” The size, the wording, the location, the font used in this sign have been exhaustively studied and evaluated by the Prop 65 warning sign industry to provide maximum protection against possible litigation that might arise when a pregnant women walks through the building and later has a miscarriage. What are these toxic chemicals all these buildings seem to contain? No one knows, and no one cares. These buildings have never actually been evaluated for toxic chemicals. The signs exist purely to provide some legal protections to the building owners. If pregnant women were to avoid all buildings displaying such signs they would be virtual prisoners in their own homes. They would also have to give birth at home as most hospitals also display their own Prop 65 signs.
The Age of Contamination continues to the present day and at the very highest levels. In May 2010, an entity known as the “President’s Cancer Panel” delivered a 240-page report titled “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now.” The report is alarmist:
“Environmental exposures that increase the national cancer burden do not represent a new front in the ongoing war on cancer. However, the grievous harm from this group of carcinogens has not been addressed adequately by the National Cancer Program. The American people—even before they are born—are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures.”
The authors then make an extravagant claim: “The true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.” But that gross underestimation is never really established in the report. In fact, even as they are declaring that we are living in a carcinogenic cesspool, the authors qualify their alarmist statements:
“The burgeoning number and complexity of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compel us to act to protect public health, even though we may lack irrefutable proof of harm.” [my emphasis]
That last bit is a clever dodge. “We can’t wait,” the authors would argue, for “irrefutable proof” before acting. To do so would be to potentially expose ourselves to incalculable harm while we go through the process of gathering the evidence. Sounds sensible, but this formulation—known elsewhere as the “precautionary principle”—is nonsensical. To follow the precautionary principle consistently is to surrender to unbounded fear and to invite a paralysis of any type of progress or change. With very few exceptions, there is no irrefutable proof about any potential harms (or benefits). We can never satisfy the precautionary principle and still move forward in any way. The panel could have made such a qualified warning about virtually anything. As my earlier posts discussed, we must consider degrees of certainty and uncertainty and probabilities of benefit and harm in order to make any rational decisions about our health.
For the most part, the mainstream media bought into the panel’s findings. In The New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote approvingly:
The President’s Cancer Panel is the Mount Everest of the medical mainstream, so it is astonishing to learn that it is poised to join ranks with the organic food movement and declare: chemicals threaten our bodies.
Other journalists followed suit, but for many in the scientific mainstream, the report was (surprisingly) too much. Michael J Thune, MD, wrote on behalf of the American Cancer Society, “Unfortunately, the perspective of the report is unbalanced by its implication that pollution is the major cause of cancer . . . ”
In most cases our chemical phobias are relatively harmless, at worst causing unnecessary anxiety, concern and regulation. Can we live without have cyclamates available for our diet sodas? Sure. But the Age of Contamination has also produced deadly outcomes. The anti-vaccination movement owes its existence to Folk Epidemiology. The primary scientific rationale for the belief that childhood vaccines cause autism is the fact that some vaccines use (they no longer do) the preservative thimerosol, which contains trace amounts of ethyl mercury. Ethyl mercury, a relatively harmless compound, is not to be confused with the deadly methyl mercury of Minamata Bay. This particular manifestation of scientific illiteracy has resulted in the death and disability of a significant number of children.
It is understandable and appropriate that in the wake of Hiroshima, Minamata, and studies on smoking and lung cancer, we have paused to examine our chemical environment. And having done so for the past 50+ years we’ve received some good news. We are not like canaries in a coal mine, ready to drop dead at the slightest whiff of a noxious chemical. It turns out that a pinch of arsenic, a dusting of molybdenum, and a dollop (a small dollop, to be sure) of some petrochemicals are not so bad. Not that we want to put them on our salad, but we really are somewhat more robust than the folk epidemiologists would have us believe.
The question is not whether, as a society, we should take pains to ensure that our industrial pollutants are properly disposed—of course we should. And we should probably err on the side of caution when doing so. Rather, the questions are these: Should we, as individuals, view our health as being under siege from our environment? And should we live in fear that we are going to get cancer or that our children will be harmed from the micro-contamination of industrial waste? Should we, individually, take extreme measures to protect ourselves from such contamination? The answers are no, no, and no. The science tells us that such fears are completely unfounded.