Wednesday, July 29, 2009

An ecstasy of fumbling

Here's one of those bizarre AP comparisons that just invite hed writers to turn on the fear spout:

International cancer experts have moved tanning beds and other sources of ultraviolet radiation into the top cancer risk category, deeming them as deadly as arsenic and mustard gas.

I'm at a loss as to where the comparison comes from. None of the scientists in the AP story seem to be making it, and other news agencies seem a bit saner. Here's AFP: A World Health Organization agency announced yesterday it has elevated tanning beds to its highest cancer-risk category. (Its later contextualization" "Along with tobacco, asbestos and alcohol.")

CNN stumbles on the grammar a bit: Sunbeds pose a similar cancer risk as cigarettes and asbestos, according to an international cancer research agency.

And the Beeb: There is no doubt using a sunbed or sunlamp will raise the risk of skin cancer, say international experts.

Here's a bit of summary. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has been holding regular meetings to review what's known about human carcinogens. The June meeting was about radiation; the one in September will be about lifestyle risks. Five groups are used to categorize risks (this list comes from Medical News Today):
  • Group 1: The agent is carcinogenic to humans.
  • Group 2A: The agent is probably carcinogenic to humans.
  • Group 2B: The agent is possibly carcinogenic to humans.
  • Group 3: The agent is not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans.
  • Group 4: The agent is probably not carcinogenic to humans.
So at this meeting, the IARC affirmed the Group 1 status of some kinds of radiation, but the big news, understandably, comes from a meta-analysis on UV tanning beds -- in light of which "the Working Group raised the classification of the use of UV-emitting tanning devices to Group 1, 'carcinogenic to humans.'"

Why arsenic and mustard gas? Well, the March review looked at arsenic -- the sort inhaled at the workplace or gotten in the water supply, not the sort your dotty aunt slips into your elderberry wine -- and kept it in group 1 (this report appeared in The Lancet Oncology in May, though I don't recall any comparisons to mustard gas or noir thrillers then). Mustard gas appears to have been studied in connection with lung cancer for quite some time, but outside the occasional sheer randomness of the AP, I have no idea.

It seems sensible, if we're communicating risks to the lay public, to look for comparisons that make intuitive sense. The Hun isn't going to fire tanning beds into your lines tonight. Harry Mars's enforcer isn't going to make you drink a sunlamp. ("Risky" and "deadly" aren't the same thing, by the way.) If you have to be metaphoric with UV radiation, why not stick with things people are exposed to by choice or circumstance (say, tobacco and asbestos), not hostile action?

Please, consign this lede to the dustbin of history. And while we're at it? Try to avoid giving "objectivity" a bad name by including this sort of thing:

The classification of tanning beds as carcinogenic was disputed by Kathy Banks, chief executive of The Sunbed Association, a European trade association of tanning bed makers and operators.

Has the Sunbed Association run a better meta-analysis? No? Then tell it to go buy an ad.



Anonymous toronto julie said...

Wow, I had no idea tanning beds are this dangerous. Well, of course they are dangerous but I didn't think they could be put in the same category as asbestos, for example. Is tanning naturally any healthier?

Best regards, Julie.

2:31 PM, August 21, 2009  

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