What if you were told, on good authority, that drinking a glass of diet Cola is a serious cancer hazard? The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health organization, has, in effect, done just that. It announced that Aspartame, the artificial sweetener widely used in diet drinks, including Diet Coke and Pepsi Max is a cancer hazard– a class-2B carcinogen.
What the news doesn’t tell you, of course, is that class-2B carcinogens are ten a penny. Aloe vera extract, coffee, and caffeic acid found in tea and coffee have all been classified as such at various points by the IARC, no matter how flawed or scarce the supposed evidence of carcinogenicity. That’s because the IARC measure hazard, not risk. For instance, being struck by lightening is a deadly hazard – but the risk of going outside is incredibly small, especially if there’s no storm. Likewise, the “hazard” of aspartame, whether it exists or not, would only obtain after drinking gallons of the stuff every day.
The public reaction, to this, thankfully, seems to be complete disregard, just as it “disregards” IARC indictments on red meat as a class 2A carcinogen, which is worse than class B. But how the pendulum of public opinion swings in each case is impossible to predict.
The IARC hit headlines in 2015 when it classified the herbicide glyphosate sprayed on thousands of hectares of farm land the world over, as a class-2A cancer hazard. Glyphosate formulations are probably the most widely used herbicide in the world. The global reaction to this was beyond belief. A crescendo of fear-mongering and multiple litigations hit herbicide manufacturers.
In 2018 a California jury awarded 249 million US dollars in damages to a school groundskeeper diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, allegedly caused by his use of a glyphosate formulation. Hundreds of class-2A and many class-I carcinogens (e.g., alcoholic drinks) are commonly used so the court indicted the manufacturers for “inadequate labeling” of a product’s carcinogenic hazard.
Vendors continue to sell unlabelled red meat and beverages containing class-I carcinogens and yet no court has convicted a butcher for selling red meat, a class 2A cancer hazard. Merchants sell wine containing 11% alcohol, a class I carcinogen with no labeling, but the presence of 0.000051 percent glyphosate in wine has led to thousands of litigations. The temperamental attitude to risks is irrational at best, and dangerous at worst.
What should a merchant’s label say? That glyphosate is a cancer hazard but not a risk? The IARC cries “wolf” at hazards that aren’t risks, but we can’t ignore that there are hazards that are real risks. The US Environmental Protection Agency, Health Canada, European Food Safety Agency and the UK Health and Safety executive, have all approved glyphosate as a safe herbicide with negligible risk of causing cancer.
The key to turning routine chemical classifications into hot-button scandals is to play on public fears with pseudoscience.
Opportunist politics is a popular way to get something banned. Although the effort to ban glyphosate in EU countries failed, other benign herbicides like atrazine have been shot down by European politicians, where the promise of a “green deal” of food grown without toxins, has been alluringly sold to voters seduced by claims that its more ‘natural’.
If pesticides can kill bugs and weeds, could they not also kill humans? Shouldn’t they be “banned” as a “precaution”? Politicians prey on these fallacies, lobbied by companies peddling alternative herbicides.
The same is often true of fertilisers. Small traces of cadmium and other heavy metals found in mineral fertilizers have been claimed to build up and toxify soils and the food chain. However, it is now clear that this claim of a “build up” of toxins in the soil would take millennia, and may not happen at all. What has been forgotten is the century-old wisdom of the Swiss physician Paracelsus: “All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.”
In Sri Lanka, this bad-faith research led to agrochemicals being falsely linked with an epidemic of chronic kidney disease. Swept up in the fervour, Sri Lanka banned glyphosate in the wake of the IARC’s pre-announcement in 2014. The misinformation propelled a new government fresh from the polls to go the whole hog. It banned all agrochemicals in April 2021.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, the then president of Sri Lanka, announced at the Glasgow climate summit that his country was heading for “100% organic”, and received glowing accolades. To the surprise of nobody, Sri Lanka suffered collapsed harvests and farmer uprising that would be used by his opponents to oust him.
Banning safe chemicals with large benefits is bound to cause damage to people’s wellbeing. In the case of Aspartame, banning it would deprive consumers of an alternative to sugar – which causes early death through obesity, gum disease and diabetes. It would also deprive them of products like chewing gum, which offer benefits to dental health as well as mental health. The costs to society from disinformation is huge.
That’s why It’s critical that scientists are able to call out the sensationalists and pseudoscientists, while organizations like the AAAS should stop rewarding alarmism.
Opinions expressed in the op-ed section are solely those of the individual author and do not represent the official stance of our newspaper. We believe in providing a platform for a wide range of voices and perspectives, even those that may challenge or differ from our own. As always, we remain committed to providing our readers with high-quality, fair, and balanced journalism. Thank you for your continued support.Sincerely, The Brussels Morning Team