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Paracelsus to Parascience:
The Environmental Cancer Distraction

by Bruce N. Ames and Lois Swirsky Gold
September 7, 1999


Entering a new millennium seems a good time to challenge some old ideas, which in our view are implausible, have little supportive evidence, and might best be left behind. In this essay we summarize a decade of work, raising four issues that involve toxicology, nutrition, public health, and government regulatory policy.

  1. Paracelsus or parascience: the dose (trace) makes the poison.
    Half of all chemicals, whether natural or synthetic, are positive in high-dose rodent cancer tests. These results are unlikely to be relevant at the low doses of human exposure.
  2. Even Rachel Carson was made of chemicals: natural vs. synthetic chemicals.
    Human exposure to naturally-occurring rodent carcinogens is ubiquitous, and dwarfs exposure of the general public to synthetic rodent carcinogens.
  3. Errors of omission: micronutrient inadequacy is genotoxic.
    Other than smoking, the main causes of human cancer are not man-made chemicals, but rather dietary imbalances, hormonal factors, inflammation due to infection, and genetic factors. Insufficiency of many micronutrients, which appears to mimic radiation, is a preventable source of DNA damage.
  4. Damage by distraction: regulating low hypothetical risks.
    Putting huge amounts of money into minuscule hypothetical risks damages public health by diverting resources and distracting the public from major risks.

Article reprinted from Mutation Research Frontiers, 7 September 1999

Revised April 23, 2015