My sister-in-law recently was looking at weightlifting equipment. She was surprised when she found a warning label saying it might cause cancer. She then asked me: Would this product really give her cancer? The short answer: it depends.
Back in 1986, California passed a law requiring manufacturers to put a warning label on products that contain carcinogens, or substances that are linked to the development of cancer. Even if you do not live in California, you may see a product online or in a store that has one of these warnings.
If you see one of these, first, you need to think about the product. What carcinogen is in the product? California maintains a list of chemicals that have been shown through various ways to cause cancer orreproductive harm. This list is created by an advisory board that relies on scientific information from a variety of sources, including federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration. The list is updated regularly. Once you find out which chemicals are in the product, you can check to see if the chemical is considered a carcinogen or has been linked to reproductive harm.
Next, you should consider what your exposure to the chemical will be. Let’s consider two older examples that have changed because of the health threat. One is a glass thermometer, which, as sold, is not very harmful. Glass thermometers used to contain mercury, which would expand or contract to indicate the temperature. Mercury is very dangerous to humans, especially to developing children. The mercury in thermometers, however, was inside the glass and thus posed little threat because humans did not have direct contact. But many thermometers had glass exteriors that could break and then expose users to the mercury. Because of this danger, newer thermometers do not contain mercury and are rarely made of glass.
Other products, such as lead paint, can be dangerous regardless of design. Lead paint was used in houses before the 1980s. As it ages, lead paint can chip or crumble into dust and then be harmful tohuman health. Once the deteriorating lead was found to create serious health problems, this paint was no longer routinely used by consumers.
The manufacturer of such a product should be able to provide adequate information about why there is a warning label. For example, available information should include which chemicals are in the product and your potential exposure. At what levels does the exposure threaten human health? Which groups of people are most vulnerable? These are questions worth answering before purchasing.
Finally, the causes of cancer are very complex. There are many factors that contribute to whether an individual will develop cancer. Some factors cannot be changed, like a person’s DNA or genetic background. Your family medical history is important in determining if you may be predisposed to the development of cancer. Other factors are tied to your environment, such as exposure to toxic chemicals. But a person’s chances of getting cancer can be hard to estimate. For example, if a heavy smoker develops lung cancer, it is likely that the smoking played a large role. However, it is almost impossible to say that if a person avoids a particular chemical, he will definitely not get cancer.
So what can you do to protect yourself? Get more information about the product that you are buying. What is in it, and what would be your exposure to any potentially dangerous chemicals? You can always take the information to your doctor for help in thinking about your particular risk of developing cancer. Then you can make an informed decision about which product is best for you. In the end, my sister-in-law opted for a different product that did not contain potentially harmful chemicals.