Last week the World Health Organization (WHO) and their International Agency for Research of Cancer (IARC) released a statement classifying processed meats as Group 1 carcinogens. Numerous headlines covering this story reported “Processed Meats and Asbestos in Same Category.” Can this really be true? “Asbestos and hot dogs are not even in the same hazard universe – not even close,” says Dallas asbestos lawyer, Ben DuBose. “Asbestos has long been a Group 1 carcinogen,” says DuBose, “and now WHO has found processed meats to be a Group 1 carcinogen, but that does not mean they are equally dangerous.” Indeed, the Group 1 classification only describes that cancer has been associated with an agent – the classification does not assess the level of risk or potency presented by the toxin.
Brief, low level asbestos exposures have been established as causing asbestos-related cancer. NIOSH and other health agencies determined in the 1970s that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Even short, low dose asbestos exposures have been established to cause mesothelioma, an asbestos cancer.
In contrast, the WHO processed meat statement was based on review of scientific articles involving daily, prolonged consumption of processed meats, not the occasional sausage, bacon, or hot dog. Katie Wright, a senior manager of research communications with the Canadian Cancer Society’s Ontario division, stated that people who contract cancer from processed or red meat are “eating red meats or processed meats every day, for a long period of time.”
What needs to be kept in perspective with this announcement, is that the comparison to the toxicity of meat consumption versus tobacco use and asbestos exposure is at opposite poles of the spectrum. The WHO published their estimation of cancer death causes worldwide with the following numbers: Processed meats – 34,000, red meat – 50,000, pollution – 200,000, alcohol – 600,000, and tobacco – 1 million! In terms of toxicity, asbestos is even deadlier than tobacco.
The message is to eat sensibly – processed meats only occasionally and red meat only up to three servings a week. Quit smoking, and avoid exposure to environmental toxins – such as exposure to loose asbestos on the job or in household renovations. Buy local, organic, farm-raised meat and vegetables when at all possible to avoid pesticide poisons. Be aware of what you put in, on, and around your body as you endeavor to live a healthy life.