Countertops, Cellphones and Cancer Risk
Lots of alarming news on the cancer front yesterday.
There was this report in the New York Times about granite countertops oozing cancer-causing radon. And this Associated Press story, featured in the Post and elsewhere, about a cancer-center head in Pittsburgh who's cautioned his staff to lay off the cellphones if they want to avoid brain cancer.
How alarmed should we really be?
According to Michael Thun, that question is not easily answered.
Thun, vice president for epidemiology and surveillance research at the American Cancer Society (ACS) -- and a spokesman not inclined to the 30-second sound bite -- explains that "The two stories are very different." As for cellphones, while the actual cancer risk is not well established (Thun says the 17 studies that have examined that risk "do not show a relationship [between cellphone use and brain cancer] except in 2 studies in which the methodology was weak), any potential risk can be easily obliterated simply by using speakerphones or wireless headsets, or simply by holding the phone away from your head.
"The fundamental advice is sound," Thun says. "If people are concerned, they can virtually eliminate risk" by adopting one of those measures.
As for granite countertops, while again the risk is poorly understood, Thun says it may well be "reasonable to regulate countertops so they don't give off a lot of radon," primarily by restricting imports of radon-rich granite for this use. "It's easily remediable -- except for those who have already installed countertops."
Hmmm. Not quite the calming message I'd anticipated.
Thun observes, however, that "There's always far more media attention paid to man-made chemicals and the exotic than to the factors that really cause most disease."
"People regard stories on smoking and obesity and bad diet and not getting appropriate screening as kind of old hat," Thun says. "The reality is that these stories are old hat for a tiny portion of the population and they are very relevant for most people" in terms of personal cancer prevention.
The take-home message? Worry about your cellphone and countertops if you will, but first make sure you've got your other anti-cancer ducks in a row. Here are guidelines from the ACS and the National Cancer Institute for reducing your cancer risk.
UPDATE: Sad news: Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University professor whose Last Lecture taught us about living life fully even in the face of a terminal illness, died of pancreatic cancer this morning at his home in Virginia. He was 47. Here's the news account of his death.
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