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How Do We Know If Something Is Carcinogenic?

How Do We Know If Something Is Carcinogenic?

You have probably seen a lot of news reports and newspaper articles that this and that is carcinogenic, with bacon and red meat being the most recent shocking reveals. But what does that even mean? Who and how determines what is carcinogenic or not?

There are numerous companies which are involved in cancer research. Some are interested in finding the cause of it, others, like are developing cancer medications, while there are those who test whether some substances are carcinogenic or not.

The Degrees

Before we delve deeper into the process itself, we should define more closely the term ‘carcinogenic’. In essence, it means that the substance can lead to cancer, but it is not as simple as that. There are several degrees of carcinogenic potential. Different organizations have different names and definitions, but they all boil down to these 5 categories.

  1. Carcinogenic to humans
  2. Very likely carcinogenic to humans
  3. Maybe carcinogenic to humans
  4. Unknown whether they are carcinogenic to humans
  5. Unlikely to be carcinogenic to humans

The categories are self-explanatory, but here is an example of each. Ionizing radiation of any kind is in category one – definitely carcinogenic. The once ubiquitous pesticide DDT is now in group 2, and is banned in the USA. Isoprene is an organic compound found in natural rubber and other places, but is also a byproduct of some industrial processes. It is classified as a potentially carcinogenic compound and placed in the 3rd group. The corticosteroid prednisone is placed into the 4th group where it is unknown or not applicable to determine whether it is carcinogenic. Finally, the last group are substances which are reasonably safe for humans, like water.

Check the Sources

Whenever a news report breaks out about something being carcinogenic, you should always check their sources. If they aren’t disclosing the source, chances are that it is nothing more than a shock journalism tactic. It is important to note which category the substance in question is in, because category 1 is much more serious and dangerous than a category 3.

The Process

If you want to determine whether something is carcinogenic or not, there are several different methods you can use.

Lab Studies

The first method is conducting lab studies on cell cultures to see whether there are carcinogenic changes to the cells after exposure to the substance. However, this method cannot test for all kinds of cancer, so there are also lab animal studies. Mice and rats are the most commonly used animals, but there are others as well. These studies can help us understand how some substance affects a living being and different organ systems.

The downside of lab experiments is that they cannot always accurately predict how a substance will affect humans. Furthermore, it can be tricky to figure out whether the effect is same when the substance is ingested vs inhaled.

People Studies

There’s another way we can get data on cancers, which is human studies. Naturally, people are not given toxic substances and studied like tissue samples and lab animals. Rather than that, these are epidemiological studies, where people who already have cancer are studied to determine which factors lead to cancer.

However, you can probably see the major problem with this kind of studies – we don’t live in controlled condition, which makes these studies less reliable. Since we cannot exclude any outside factor, we can only claim that there seems to be a correlation, rather than giving bold claims.

Companies developing cancer medication use complicated and long processes to determine whether something is carcinogenic, followed by an even longer trial process for any new medication. This is one of the reasons why cancer medication takes so long from being discovered to being commercially available.


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