Getting Cancer at San Francisco Airport

Last week, on my way back to Seattle, I came across a peculiar sign posted next to Gate 62 at San Francisco Airport. (See photo.)

I refer not to the maximum occupancy sign, which is itself a bit strange considering there are no well-defined boundaries for Gate 62, but the one next to it: This area contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

So, I looked around. There was a sandwich shop, a few trash cans, and several tired passengers in the waiting area. No cataclysmic carcinogens there. The carpet looked clean. Was the sign referring to carpet cleaner? Or was it referring to the jet bridge, where you might get a brief whiff of jet fuel? The absurdly ominous and vague sign left the threat entirely to your imagination.

Who put the sign there? The people of the State of California. Back in 1986, they passed Proposition 65, an attempt by environmental do-gooders to create a carcinogen-free utopia. In accordance with the law, the governor must publish a list of “known” carcinogens or chemicals capable of causing birth defects. The 23-page-long list (PDF) includes such terrifying molecules as aspirin, alcohol, ganciclovir (an antiviral), metronidazole (an antibiotic), nickel, rifampin (another antibiotic), testosterone, tetracycline (a very common antibiotic), and wood dust. The fact that testosterone made the list is particularly problematic, since every human being alive produces testosterone. According to California, we’re all doomed.

However, properly informed citizens know that the dose makes the poison. Carcinogens are everywhere. Many of them are natural compounds. But the vast majority of them are not at concentrations high enough to worry about.

The foolishness in California is the inevitable consequence of a chemophobic society that wields the evil twins of regulation and litigation as weapons in a fruitless effort to achieve the impossible: a life completely free of any risk whatsoever. And while it’s easy to point and laugh at California, the truth is the vast majority of Americans favor another equally absurd policy: The labeling of GMOs.

But, just like Proposition 65, the outcome of any GMO labeling law is entirely predictable: Because most (up to 75% of) food at the grocery store contains at least one genetically modified ingredient, the GMO warning label will appear everywhere. And warning labels that appear everywhere are meaningless and absurd, just like the airport cancer sign.

Yet, there are two other pernicious effects to a proliferation of warning labels: First, people start ignoring them. That is not a good thing. Some products, such as cigarettes and drain cleaners, really are toxic and dangerous. Will people ignore warning labels on all products? Second, warning labels encourage manufacturers to seek alternatives to alleged “carcinogens.” Unfortunately, the alternatives are often less studied and potentially more carcinogenic.

The irony, of course, is that in their struggle to make people safer, the world’s chemophobes may be achieving the exact opposite.

(Photo: Alex Berezow)