Pickled vegetables and coffee also on WHO's "possibly carcinogenic" list

There was a lot of fuss yesterday about the World Health Organization classifying cellphone use as possibly carcinogenic (PDF). Top marks for fear-mongering go, for example, to the Daily Mail, which described it as "an authoritative verdict" on the dangers of cellphone use. Also on the WHO's list of possible carcinogens: pickled vegetables and coffee. [Bad Science]


  1. …So what I’m hearing is that coffee and pickles are as dangerous as cell phones!?!? Holy crap, I drink coffee all the time! Even decaf…? Pickles I’m already staying away from because of the sodium, thank goodness!

    1. that’s not true. Nor does the study say cell phones cause cancer any more certainly than firefighting, pickles, drinking coffee, and dry cleaning solvents do.

      If you think those all pose equal risks then you are truly a winner.

      1. What it says is that the category’s so broad and vague as to be completely meaningless.

        From reading the study, it seems that the biggest possible flaw is with interpretation of the statistics.

        A recent XKCD is called to mind. http://xkcd.com/882/

        1. No, it isn’t so broad and vague to be meaningless. It’s so broad and vague to be -useless- to people who don’t understand the dose/response relationship and toxicology in general.

          But the people who use this list… for them it is quite useful.

          The problem is that you’re using it wrong.

  2. So, eating pickles dunked in coffee while doing carpentry in a dry-cleaning shop is the new danger thrill?

    The list also contains “magnetic fields (low energy)” but I couldn’t work that in…

    1. There are probably plenty of low-energy magnetic fields in the dry-cleaning shop, especially if you’re using power tools to do your carpentry. Or if you’re doing your carpentry in a dry cleaning shop on the planet Earth, which has a low-energy magnetic field…

    2. That’s why I stopped living on Earth years ago; the planet’s magnetic field is giving all you suckers brain cancer.

  3. I have no concerns about the casual use of cell phones. If you keep one glued to your ear all day, might be a risk. But my main concern has always been children and teens who are going thru their growth spurt and tend to spend hours on the phone. I would tend to err on the side of caution with them. We don’t have any solid science on this at the present time. If there is a real problem it’s going to involve cumulative exposure.

    1. Nothing wrong with erring on the side of caution.

      But we *do* have solid science on this: the science says that we don’t know of a way that cell phones could cause cancer, and the majority of studies suggest that it’s not happening. Given that we’re trying to prove a negative, that’s pretty good going!

      I admit it could be better yet. For example, one study actually shows that cell phone usage *reduces* the cancer risk; that can’t be right, surely…

  4. Other sources of IARC Group 2B carcinogens include: apples, mangoes, plums, pears, lettuce, celery, carrots and potatoes.

    1. pick on the cell-phone study all day long, but picking on the list of probable carcinogens because you disagree with one item on it (and don’t have the chops to challenge the cell-phone study with SCIENCE) is not a winning technique.

      Besides, what do you care if other people use their phones less, or differently? What’s the offense?

      1. You got all that from my post? I haven’t seen someone pull out so many incorrect inferences from so little source material since I last flipped through one of those What Nostradamus Meant type books for lulz.

    1. it might, and if you read the reasoning, coffee contributes to bladder and kidney cancers.

      This was not the world being absurd, this was your ignorance showing.

  5. also included in list 2B are

    Carbon tetrachloride
    Tetrafluoroethylele (Teflon)

    So, there IS a there, there.

  6. I was annoyed by the number of people (and some news and blog sites) trying to use this as “definitive” proof that cell phones cause cancer. Take a moment and read the damn report instead of just creating hyperbole around what you “want” it to say..

    1. Does it annoy you when people interpret these studies as “cell phones cannot possibly ever cause cancer YOU FLAMING ANTI-SCIENCE MORON!!!!!”

      My favorite is some posters’ argument that since they aren’t imaginative enough to dream up a mechanism whereby cell phones might possibly harm you, that proves it can never happen. I love that one; it’s like claiming that ignorance will protect you from laser beams.

  7. Reductio ad absurdum: potassium-40 is a beta emitter and can reasonably be expected to cause cancer. Pretty much all foods, with the exception of purified fats and similar highly processed foods, contain appreciable quantities of potassium-40. Fruits, vegetables, grains, meat: they all cause cancer.

    There. Can we go home now.

  8. I long for the good ol’ days, when miniskirted stewardesses would ask, “Coffee, Tea, or Heptachlor?”

  9. The pickled vegetable thing is regularly taught in medical schools. It’s one of the rationales for why the incidence of gastric cancer is much higher in Japan than in the US (along with smoked fish, whose carcinogenic properties are attributed to hydrocarbons from the smoking).

    “It begins to appear that almost everything one does to gain a livelihood or for pleasure is fattening, immoral, illegal, or, even worse, oncogenic.” – Robbins and Cotran’s Pathologic Basis of Disease

  10. It seems sometimes that it would be easier (or at least faster) to compile a list of what WON’T give you cancer. I suspect it would be a pretty short list. All we can do is try to decide how much risk we are willing to accept.

  11. Uh… isn’t the prudent thing to actually avoid cellphones? I hear people on this site go on about how it’s not really a danger. Maybe some of those unexplained cancers out there where caused by pickles and coffee.

    No fear mongering is needed, (and I realise that’s the point of this post) but to just ignore or belittle warnings, especially about something as unknowable as cancer is hubris.

  12. You experience over a million mutagenic events in every skin cell exposed to UV light over the course of an hour of exposure, even with sunscreen.

    People need to sack up and accept that life is a dangerous endeavor. Barbecue is absolutely jam-packed with potent carcinogens and mutagens relative to other foods, but I will never give up the taste of hardwood-smoked brisket in the summer.

    Use common sense: Don’t smoke, wear sunscreen. But don’t fear chemical exposure as if somehow total isolation will help you live forever. Drink coffee, eat pickles, make phone calls, use a non-stick pan. Life’s too short, and avoid the newest hot button carcinogen-of-the-week won’t stop you from dying in a car accident or of a heart attack.

  13. okay, sure, cell phones I could understand. because really, a cell phone does emit radiation. would you stick you head in a microwave oven?
    pickled vegetables…? I don’t know about that. rather odd…
    but I tell ya one thing, you can have my coffee if you can pry my coffee cup from my dead cold hands.
    no one gets between me and my coffee!
    besides, where do you think Java (the programming language) got its name from? computer programmers beverage of choice =)

    Wired Buddha
    the Tao of Technology

  14. Just last night, CBC’s As It Happens interviewed Dr. Jerry Phillips, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He’s done research on cell phones’ radiation and their biological effects.


    Click on “Part Two” and skip ahead to the 10:00 mark for the interview. I won’t spoil it, but listen to the interview all the way to end, please.

    /what’s with all the ‘anons’?

  15. How about an empirical principle that was around even before modern science was invented?

    “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.”

    Substance AND circumstances of administration, including quantity and time periods. Say that some substance is a carcinogen=meaningless statement. Need more data. At what doses? At what usage? Is it cumulative? How?

    Something likely to be experienced by a significant sample of the population, or yourself, significantly increases odd of illness? Okey, it’s bad for you. No? Incredibly higher doses/exposure for significant increase of risk? STATEMENT IS PURE, UTTER BS and headline grabbing!

    Should we be impressed that some substance IS a carcinogen at doses orders of magnitude higher than a laboratory animal’s mass, over a few months? I am not, sirs!

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