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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 2nd July 2011

Today, mobile phones are safe to use. At least, that is the tone of the coverage of the latest scientific work on the subject.  But this comes only a month after mobile phones were unsafe after a different study.

There seems to be one key difference between the second report, published by the UK Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) based on work undertaken by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) Standing Committee on Epidemiology, and the first from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organisation (WHO). That difference is the application of common sense.

At the end of May, the IARC issued a press release saying that a working group of 31 scientists had concluded that radiofrequency electromagnetic fields are ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ based on classifying the evidence of an association as ‘limited’. Though there has been criticism of some of the work they considered because it involved asking people with brain cancer about their mobile phone use when those people were aware that there has been much talk about a possible link, the media tended to up the ‘possible based on limited evidence’ to ‘may cause cancer’ with some headlines even saying ‘Mobile phone raises brain cancer risk’.

On the other hand, the ICR concluded that ‘Although there remains some uncertainty, the trend in the accumulating evidence is increasingly against the hypothesis that mobile phone use can cause brain tumours in adults’. This is being widely reported as showing that it is ‘unlikely’ that phone use could cause cancer.

The interesting thing is that both reports draw on the same recent study as well as many others. So, how does the IARC reach one conclusion from the Interphone Study and the ICR reach a different one?

The answer is that the ICR has applied what I call the Jerry Maguire Test. In that 1996 film the Cuba Gooding Jr. character famously demands that Tom Cruise ‘Show me the money’. In addition to looking at all the studies and considering their strengths and weaknesses, the ICR said ‘Show me the tumours’. That is to say they have looked at the massive increase in mobile phone usage and said that there should, by now, have been an increase in brain tumours but that hasn’t happened.

Ilex aquifolium, holly

I apply the Jerry Maguire Test whenever someone writes about how dangerous poisonous plants are. It is tempting, because it fits into people’s expectations, to bang on about how terrible plants are and how it is important to remove them from the garden and avoid any contact with them. I have one book where the American author says that Ilex aquifolium, holly, should not be brought into the house at Christmas because of the danger it poses. My response to this is to scream ‘Show me the bodies’.

The idea that poisonous plants pose a huge threat to mankind is undermined by the tiny numbers of people who die as a result of accidental plant poisoning. Another American book draws attention to the over 60,000 a year incidents of possible plant poisoning dealt with by Poison Control Centres but fails to explain that fewer than one hundred of those produce serious illness and less than five deaths result.

Those people who, after becoming concerned by reading about the terrible things plants can do, clear their gardens of every possible threat would be much better advised to throw out all their cosmetics and cleaning products because those items are responsible for many more deaths.

There’s another area where the Jerry Maguire Test is relevant; cannabis use. The UNODC 2011 World Drugs Report says that between 125 and 203 million people used cannabis at least once in the 12 months covered by the study. That figure has been at around that level for a good few years now and cannabis use first became widespread in the 1960s. So it is reasonable to say ‘Show me the psychotics’. If cannabis is a cause of mental illness then, by now, there should have been an explosion of psychosis.

Most of the studies of cannabis and psychosis take people with mental illness and look for cannabis use. If they find it they claim a causal link. But, if you take cannabis use and look for psychosis you cannot establish a direct link.