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Did the Chemical Industry Cause Cancer?

October 2, 2018

I have known for a long time that some people avoid some chemicals that are used in some cosmetic products because they worry about getting cancer from them. I first came across this as a real and present fear with the paraben scare, no, SCANDAL of 2004 but of course  the fear existed before then and persists to this day.  That was the first time it really stuck in my head, that people actually thought like that.  However, as I wasn’t bothered by what, to my mind, was a small pimple of a risk on the bottom of the elephants arse hole that was my life I let it go.  To my mind the biggest risk sitting between me and that 100 year birthday telegram from the Queen was a) that the Queen would be dead before me and would have probably been replaced by a lizard or cockroach queen from another galaxy by then that wouldn’t value such trivialities or b) my ADHD would get the better of me and I’d absent mindedly cut or acid burn off my own hand in the lab, fall down a mountain while admiring the view (this is still plausible) or die of chocolate and sugar poisoning after a particularly sweet and uncontrolled bout of feasting. It seems I was one of only a few to be so nonchalant to the big C…

So what’s the deal with cancer then? Did science and chemicals  invent it?

Cancer seems to me to be just one of the many natural things that can happen to a complex being whose cells divide and multiply – mitosis (non reproductive cells) and meiosis (reproductive cells).

On any given day our cells, around two trillion of them are dividing away while we work, drink coffee or play fortnite  on the Playstation.  Sometimes shit happens and this process goes a bit wrong, these errors usually have a trigger,  that trigger can be anything from a  gene malfunction through to an injury, virus, other microbe or  environmental pollutant.  Sometimes our good little soldiers can clean it up before we notice and sometimes they can’t.  Our own little soldiers get a bit tired and slow sometimes and can become more easily overwhelmed at other times,  this can lead to times of heightened cancer risk and times when our risk is lower.  The biggest risk factor, outside of literally doing all the bad things to excess,  is living a long time.  It’s fair to say that if you live long enough you’ll probably get some form of cancer although it may not grow fast enough or be aggressive enough to kill you.

I know this isn’t very exciting or comforting, that by just being alive we can get cancer but that’s the way it seems to be.  There are things we can do to place more odds in our favour such as not smoking, drinking only in moderation if at all, eating a healthy diet, sleeping and resting well, avoiding too much sun and being mindful of the air quality in our environment but none of that guarantee us a cancer free existence and that’s exactly why some people who seem to do all the right things get cancer regardless.  It’s just one of the many ways we are reminded that we are not perfectly able to control our destiny, even if we do feel we deserve better than we get and even if we rack up thousands of frequent buyer points at our whole food coop in the process.

So how do we know that chemists and the chemical industry didn’t create it? 

Ever the defensive (evil) chemist I have long-held the desire to not be responsible for all the toxicity in the world and so I went looking to see if I could pass the Cancer buck onto someone or something else.  Lo and behold I found my answer in the palaeontology store and some mangy old dinosaur bones.

The simple answer is because even dinosaurs got it. 

It turns out that a team of scientists found 29 tumours in bones from the skeletons of 97 individual herbivorous Duck Billed Dinosaurs who lived in the Cretaceous period.   In addition, a 700,000 year old skull of a person named ‘Kanam man’ (or woman) was found to have a tumorous jaw bone. An ankle bone tumour was also found on Swartkrans man from 1.8-1.2 million years ago plus a rib bone tumour on a 120,000 year old Neanderthal skeleton.  Now that might not seem like a lot of cases compared to what we experience these days but keep in mind that there are not that many dinosaur skeletons left and that the only types of cancer that would register would be those affecting bones and not any soft-tissue origin tumours.

Yes guys, even dinosaurs got cancer so it wasn’t my fault!

So what does that mean for chemists and the chemical industry?

There is no doubt in my mind, as a reasonable person who values the earth, clean water and fresh air, that us chemists should always strive to be and do better.  It is true that there have been many chemicals produced that do severely increase the risk of people getting cancer and it is perfectly reasonable for people to seek information on those and to avoid them where possible.  But it is also fair to say that there are many naturally occurring carcinogens too that we would be wise to be aware of and take precautions around. A materials origin doesn’t determine its carcinogenicity.  Go figure…

In many ways the cosmetic industry is just the ‘low hanging fruit’ of this ‘toxic/ cancer scare’ argument. It is an easy target because it is fuelled so readily by emotion and, due to its more trivial nature, light on much of the scientific scrutiny that other industries enjoy(and sometimes abuse).  That said, it is something, it does come with some risk attached and its chemistry should be approached with long-term, joined-up safety in mind. I’m just not convinced that it deserves quite the frenzied fear storm that it tends to generate.

So what’s next?

Keep calm and carry on I guess.   I mean, the only way you can stop your cells from multiplying is to die and that’s not really a sustainable option now is it?   Other than that you should participate just as much as it makes you happy as after just being alive, being alive and stressing over it is probably the next most likely way to get sick and we don’t want that do we?

Cancer, 100% natural god damn it.


One Comment leave one →
  1. October 14, 2018 11:35 pm

    BWHAHAHA! Good lord woman, you do have a way with words! I am now stuck thinking about about a pimple of a risk on an elephants backside.

    It is great to see in black and white people saying that cancer is 100% natural. So are bear bites. And being injured by someone who kicks you and refuses to cut their toenails. Ew. Another bullseye for those that say 100% natural is the only way to be!

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