A glut of news items lately have trumpeted a report issued by the CDC.
According to the report, everyone's favorite herbicide/scapegoat glyphosate has been found in the urine of a majority of samples tested by the Centers for Disease Control. Everyone from Newsmax to CBS News has gotten in on the action. The headlines or first paragraph usually includes a mention of the fact that the chemical has been linked to cancer.
The headlines are alarming. What's more alarming is that ostensibly fair, unbalanced, we-report-you-decide, objective, (insert your trustworthiness indicator modifier here) news outlets would fall for the old trick of using scary headlines to get clicks.
Notice I wrote "alarming," not "surprising."
After all, we've been here before. Black coffee, grape skin extract, carbohydrates in diets, and various other substances have all had their moment in the sun. They cause/prevent cancer. They can elevate/reduce your risk of heart disease. They can make you live until the heat death of the universe. They can shorten your life to a long weekend.
What you won't find in any of these articles, at least not yet, is an explanation of how, exactly, glyphosate causes cancer.
When we talk about cancer in this context, we should be clear. We're talking about non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. That's a cancer of white blood cells that's idiopathic, which is fancy medical talk for "we don't know what causes it."
It's also no joking matter. The survival rate for a diagnosis ranges between 54% and 90%, depending on the type and stage of diagnosis, according to the American Cancer Society. In America's healthcare system, even surviving a condition like a lymphoma could incur a crippling expense.
What is clear is that the chemical has been labeled a "probable carcinogen" by a subsidiary agency of the World Health Organization. That's an epidemiological designation, not an explanation. In other words, health agencies, physicians, researchers and others should look at this designation and begin the sometimes decades-long process of figuring out what a mechanism would be, and whether or not glyphosate exposure coincides with other factors that could potentially cause cancer.
The EPA has in the past insisted that glyphosate does not cause cancer, though I wouldn't trust the EPA to catch a cold, and I'd bet most farmers wouldn't, either.
So be aware. Be careful. Leave the panicking to the professionals. That's why they have Youtube influencer channels in the first place.
As every science teacher and college professor and economist I've ever spoken to continually emphasizes, correlation is not causation. The analysis that lead to the designation was statistical, not explanatory.
Which brings me back to micturation and the headlines.
Glyphosate as a chemical is widely used, both in agricultural and (up until it's swapped out for something else) residential settings. It's so widely used that weed species have developed resistances to it.
Of course it was going to show up in urine samples.
It's an old joke, but if I told you that dihydrogen oxide, an odorless industrial solvent with a known and understood link to drowning, shark attacks, crop damage, and slip 'n'/or sliding was also found in 100 percent of all urine, you might freak out. Dihydrogen oxide is, of course, H2O. Water. Agua, if you're feeling spicy.
Science doesn't yet know for certain how or if glyphosate causes the idiopathic disease non-Hodgkin's lymphoma It knows that there appear to be some statistical links between exposure and increased appearance of the disease. There are no tigers in my office, but I'm pretty sure my stapler doesn't keep them away. My tractor calendar does that.
A media figure opines here on other media figures. Big deal, right? Everybody's got something to sell nowadays.
What headlines and reporting like this do is make it harder to distinguish signal from noise, especially in the information-saturated 21st century.
In the event that a non-tenured ramen-fed grad student in a backroom laboratory somewhere does figure out exactly what these headlines foretell by implication, I'd hate to think we might miss it.
I'd also hate to think that if that same grad student found out it was something else glyphosate-adjacent that caused the lymphomas instead, we might scuttle a tool that has fed and could continue to feed millions because we thought it was a wolf.
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