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Real risk and perceptions of risk

I started reading about cancer because people kept pestering me about electro magnetic radiation from mobile handsets and towers. Siddhartha Mukherjee is the best writer on cancer. But I have to admit I have yet to read his Pulitzer winning “The emperor of all maladies.”

In Ohio, where I lived for over a decade, they took asbestos really seriously. Buildings were condemned because of asbestos. But here in Sri Lanka they were still selling the stuff. I asked, and was given all sorts of justifications. It’s outside the house; it’s not in heating ducts like in the US and so on.

Formaldehyde was recently named a carcinogen by the WHO: Category 1, together with cigarettes and asbestos. I barely heard a peep in the local media.

But you should see the fuss over electro magnetic radiation from towers and handsets: I used to get email from people saying it had been named a cancer-causing agent by the WHO. It was in category 2B, along with pickles and coffee. The least risky.

So when I heard last week that the WHO had “promoted” diesel fumes from Category 2A (e.g., second-hand smoke) to Category 1, I tweeted “Diesel fumes more carcinogenic than 2nd hand smoke & mobiles: http://press.iarc.fr/pr213_E.pdf. Let’s see what media in #LK say.” That was June 13th. I waited. Then unable to bear the silence any longer I wrote my column, published June 18th. So, I, not even a journalist, was the first to report this news in a column. Says much about Sri Lanka journalism.

I can sort of understand ignoring formaldehyde. Unless you’re in Chemistry lab or you’re a mortician, you don’t really think much about formaldehyde. But there were stories about fish vendors using formaldehyde to make fish more presentable.

But diesel fumes in Sri Lanka? In your face diesel fumes? Government subsidized stinky fumes? How can this not be important?

And then we have the odd characters alleging that water could be carcinogenic, that this is all a Western plot. Do I live in the same universe with these people?

1 Comment to Real risk and perceptions of risk

  1. June 19, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    Rohan,

    Many thanks for your vigilance and for raising this very important public health issue. Your tweet was my first alert on the latest WHO classification. I’ve been following up and gathering to write more. Being a columnist in English and Sinhala newspapers, my timelines are a bit different from news reporting, but be assured I will return to this topic which I’ve been writing and broadcasting about in Sri Lanka’s public media for a decade.

    Most recently, I touched on this in my Ravaya column on 20 April 2012. Full text at: http://tiny.cc/DieSL Excerpt:
    “ලෝක සෞඛ්‍ය සංවිධානය දැන් ඞීසල් දහන දුමාරය පිලිකාකාරයක් ලෙස සළකන බවත්, ඞීසල් නිසා ඇති වන වාත දුෂණය, පෙට‍්‍රල් වාහනවලට වඩා බෙහෙවින් වැඩි බවත් CSE ආයතන දත්ත සහිතව පෙන්වා දුන්නා. මෙරට වාත දුෂකයන් වන සල්ෆර් ඩයොක්සයිඞ් හා pm10 අංශුවලින් 96%ක් ම පිට වන්නේ ඞීසල් වාහනවලන්. මේ නිසා ඞීසල් ඉන්ධන පවිත‍්‍ර කර ගැනිම හා ඞීසල් වාහන එන්ජින් නඩත්තුව ගැන වැඩි අවධානයක් යොමු කළ යුතු බව දැන් පිළි ගැනෙනවා. වැඩි විස්තර සඳහා බලන්න http://tiny.cc/Gasp සහ http://tiny.cc/Gasp2

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