On June 10 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released its 12th Report on Carcinogens. Started in 1992, these reports are mandated by congress and originally were supposed to be annual, but politics got in the way.
According to the New York Times, the ninth report in 2000 listing secondhand smoke and tanning bans as carcinogens led to a big controversy that stalled future reports. The 11th report came in 2005, and also sparked controversy by listing a chemical commonly found in mothballs as a carcinogen.
The 12th report, published by the National Toxicology Program, is also sparking controversy as it lists formaldehyde as a carcinogen and styrene as a possible carcinogen. Formaldehyde is commonly found in home building products such as plywood and particle board, but is also used in mortuaries and salons. Styrene is commonly used in the manufacturing of rubber and plastic, including many disposable coffee cups. Additionally, styrene is one of many chemicals found in cigarette and cigar smoke.
The main risk is for industrial workers exposed to higher concentrations of these substances over longer periods of time than the average Joe drinking his average cup of joe. Nonetheless, this news is still disturbing for many people, especially when one recalls countless cups of hot coffee in styrene containers. With the list of carcinogens and possible carcinogens increasingly long, does this information help people develop a fatalistic view of cancer — we are all bound to get it, so why even bother trying to prevent it?
A recent article in the Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives points out that when news articles include scientific “hedges” (i.e. including the limitations of the study in the article, as well as information that scientists are not usually completely sure of the mechanisms or meanings behind their results), audiences are less likely to develop fatalistic attitudes about cancer. The more fatalistic someone is, the less likely he or she will actively try to behave in a way that could help prevent cancer.
Research like this helps demonstrate the need to teach science and research literacy to all journalism students. One never knows when the designated health reporter will be on vacation and need a substitute journalist. With continuous developments in environmental and cancer research, there will no doubt be many more reports such as these detailing more and more causes of cancers. There is more at stake in health reporting than just a source of ad revenue for news outlets.