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An investigative reporter investigates
May 11, 2013 3:11 PM   Subscribe

Did my wife's cosmetics give her breast cancer? During her first round of chemo in 2009, some volunteers at the hospital came calling with a little red bag [from the Look Good Feel Better program] that contained products from Clinique, Estée Lauder, and Del Laboratories. Upon reviewing the contents of her bag, she realized that several of the products contained parabens — chemicals that mimic estrogen and that according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics are linked to cancer. (previously, previouslier, previousliest in AskMe)
posted by spamandkimchi (38 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Did a lifetime of using cosmetics cause or contribute to Kathleen's breast cancer? We don't know.
And thus the writer invokes Betteridge's Law of Headlines 4 graphs in.
posted by now i'm piste at 3:35 PM on May 11, 2013 [24 favorites]


It would be helpful if there were some statistics in this, like "cosmetics increase your risk of breast cancer by x%". There are a huge number of things that may slightly increase your cancer risk from rice to deoderant to cellphones (which I guess have been completely ruled out at this point). There are like a million things.

Just saying and makeup might be one of them isn't really that helpful.
posted by delmoi at 3:48 PM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


We had banned soda pop and anything with high-fructose corn syrup from our house more than a decade before. We tried to eat organic food, we were transitioning to more vegetarian fare, and she did yoga and took regular walks. We didn't even have cable.

While the point that the regulation of the cosmetic industry is fucked up is a good one , the tone of the first couple of paragraphs makes me annoyed. Also does cable give us cancer.?
posted by Harpocrates at 3:50 PM on May 11, 2013 [13 favorites]


Cable? Wouldn't be shocked.
posted by edgeways at 3:59 PM on May 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Obviously what we need is more extensive animal testing.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:09 PM on May 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Also does cable give us cancer?

You mean in addition to making us stupid?
posted by DU at 4:16 PM on May 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


If he's such an investigative reporter, I wonder why he didn't include if she'd taken hormonal birth control pills, how old she is/was, and if she was in menopause, was she using hormone replacement therapy? All of those questions would leap to my mind before worrying about lipstick. But then he wouldn't have a piece.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:29 PM on May 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


Harpocrates: "Also does cable give us cancer.?"

Not in the basic package.
posted by krinklyfig at 4:38 PM on May 11, 2013 [22 favorites]


The real ripoff is On Demand Cancer. They always jack up the prices on the latest carcinomas, and you can only get like three-quarters of the tumors for free.
posted by Etrigan at 4:41 PM on May 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


The European Union bans nearly 1,400 chemicals from personal care products because they are carcinogenic, mutagenic, or toxic to reproduction. But in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration entrusts safety regulation of cosmetics to a private entity that is housed and funded by the industry's trade association. To date, this entity has found only eleven chemicals to be "unsafe for use in cosmetics."

No, actually, this is a really frightening topic and I think it's entirely plausible. God only knows what we're smearing on our faces every day. I don't wear makeup (partially for this reason, partially for self-esteem reasons) but every time I buy another bottle of moisturizer I wonder what I'm really doing. I know it seems like kind of a weird victim-blamey or perhaps non-scientific thing to think, but with regulation like the kind in the above quote, I don't think so. Also accounts of people with serious illnesses like cancer make me very scared.
posted by bleep at 4:47 PM on May 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


If she had reason to be nervous about her Clinique and Shisheido, what in God's name do you suppose is in the Cover Girl and Wet 'n Wild?

I'm suspicious of the tone of offended virtue here, referring to their immaculately greenwashed lifestyle; it reminds me of the old, bad idea that cancer is something that you somehow deserved. Still, I know the reporter is hurting, and somebody has got to ask these questions.

To be honest, though, I'm not sure how much my behavior is going to change until I see some harder evidence -- possibly not even then. Life is strange and the world is bad, and I am not particularly anxious to prolong my stay with further unhappiness. I misspent my youth in long study, so aging is a constant source of unhappiness to me. The daily use of moisturizers and sunscreen slow the visible approach of death. All in all, I guess I'll keep taking my arsenic wafers.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:02 PM on May 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


I am highly skeptical that the levels of these chemicals one would absorb from cosmetic usage would be high enough to make any impact. I suspect it's far more likely that the environmental factors are due to problems like pollution in our air, water, soil etc that are not really prone to being solved by lifestyle choices.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 5:12 PM on May 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's possible that there's a relationship there but correlation and causation are not the same thing. We don't know what causes breast cancer, or most cancers. I understand the desire to point to something and say, that's why I'm sick, but I don't think the science is there yet.
posted by kat518 at 5:28 PM on May 11, 2013


All in all, I guess I'll keep taking my arsenic wafers.

They're called rice cakes, dude.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:30 PM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


The insinuation is subtle and its target seems to me to be the woman who suffers cancer.

The second paragraph
Like many cancer patients, Kathleen also experienced a stranglehold of guilt. Was it something she did or didn't do that fed the tumor? Was it the meat in our diet? Our water? The air? Her genes? I assured her that we couldn't be at fault. We had banned soda pop and anything with high-fructose corn syrup from our house more than a decade before. We tried to eat organic food, we were transitioning to more vegetarian fare, and she did yoga and took regular walks. We didn't even have cable.
establishes Kathleen led a wholesome healthy lifestyle by eating unprocessed foods, choosing vegetarian fare, and exercising regularly. The last sentence though seems to be a bit of joke until one considers that the evidence being provided in the second paragraph is evidence that Kathleen lives a virtuous life, not just a healthy one.

So the author turns to something that can contradict the possibility that "we couldn't be at fault". That is, he finds a source of liability, of fault, in the fact that Kathleen had spent "a lifetime of using cosmetics", something she chose to do even without the influence of cable television in the home.

Whether the FDA-approved cosmetics Kathleen used increase the risk of cancer in people who use them over extended periods of time (which they very well may do) has nothing to do with why they are singled out in the article.

The cosmetics Kathleen has used for a lifetime are suspect not just because they may increase one's cancer risk, though certainly that too. Cosmetics are suspect because their use is a moral/healthful failing. In the context of the virtuous lifestyle of the victim, using cosmetics is a kind of vice comparable to eating HFCS and watching ESPN. As a lifelong habit, Kathleen's cosmetic usage provides the author a pathway to find personal accountability for her developing cancer.
posted by mistersquid at 6:10 PM on May 11, 2013 [57 favorites]


Sys Rq: it's the damnedest thing, I was eating rice cakes, right now. Quaker Quakes, specifically. And I'd missed that FPP, too.

Well, I finished 'em.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:15 PM on May 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm feeling uncomfortable with psychoanalyzing Wasik's motive for focusing on Kathleen's cosmetic usage, especially given the careful research he's conducted that points to the FDA's lax oversight of the cosmetics industry.

Whatever his motivations, Wasik is right to call attention to the troubling relationship between cosmetics companies and their support of cancer victims.

Wasik's article also strengthens my desire for stricter regulation of cosmetic ingredients, something I have felt is way overdue. I don't think these points should be lost in what might have been an unconscious desire to take responsibility for a circumstance that is essentially out of one's control.
posted by mistersquid at 6:22 PM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


establishes Kathleen led a wholesome healthy lifestyle by eating unprocessed foods, choosing vegetarian fare, and exercising regularly. The last sentence though seems to be a bit of joke until one considers that the evidence being provided in the second paragraph is evidence that Kathleen lives a virtuous life, not just a healthy one. ... sing cosmetics is a kind of vice comparable to eating HFCS and watching ESPN. As a lifelong habit, Kathleen's cosmetic usage provides the author a pathway to find personal accountability for her developing cancer.
Good point. The whole just-world hypothesis the idea a lot of people have that you're in control of your own life and if something bad happens you did something to deserve it.

I noticed a weird disconnect in the beginning of the article, there didn't seem to be any acknowledgement that cancer can just happen, for no reason, simply because human cells divide and mutate.
posted by delmoi at 7:30 PM on May 11, 2013 [20 favorites]


Tonight's top story: People don't want to believe bad things happen to good people and seek to demonize others.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:57 PM on May 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


FFS. I sometimes wonder if everyone should go through 2-3 years of a nonlethal chronic disease just to get over the self-blaming just-world fallacy nonsense. I was born with a chronic disease and I had to decide many years ago to manage it rather than indulge in idle fancies about causation. Once you have the disease, it just doesn't matter how you got it.

We are organisms that have evolved over an unimaginable span of time, through tiny incremental random changes. If you look at the genome, it is a complete mess from a human perspective. We only work at all because all of the other genetic roads led to death before reproduction. It is essentially a miracle that any of us can walk or talk, yet healthy people are continually amazed that SOMETHING WENT WRONG WITH ME/MY LOVED ONE and look for fault in random noise.

Just treasure the time and health you have. There is a case to be made about lax government regulation and that the European standards should be adopted but this is not it.
posted by benzenedream at 8:13 PM on May 11, 2013 [9 favorites]


The Just-word hypothesis unquestionably is some of it. Another part, though, is the idea that if something bad happens, someone has to be at fault.

Entirely missing is the fact that sometimes shit happens, and no one is responsible.

In terms of mutagens and radiation exposure, one of the largest sources for most people is Potassium 40, which makes up one part in 8000 of natural Potassium. It's impossible to avoid, since potassium is an essential nutrient.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:19 PM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


delmoi, I agree. Pretty much all animals get cancer, and not because they're smoking 20 ciggies a day and drinking a bottle of gin. The few that are not known to, such as the naked mole rat, are notable and are studied intensively to understand why. I work with mammalian cell biologists and I'm constantly astonishing with the complexity of cellular processes and in particular cell division; that hundreds of types of molecule and proteins can be coordinated in space and time to duplicate a cell. The miracle is that it works at all. In fact, a lot of the time it doesn't and there are mistakes, but the body usually catches it and induces cell death. Every day there are bad cell divisions in our bodies. Fortunately, most don't get out of control and create cancers. Sure, there are many lifestyle choice that will reduce our chances of getting cancer, but there is a baseline we're not going to get past easily.
posted by drnick at 8:26 PM on May 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Also, in a just world we have overpopulation, because no one deserves to die.

Dude everyone dies of something and usually between the ages of fetus and 100. Nature doesn't care about your wife as an individual as to whether she gets 30 or 74 years. Spare us the recitation of your virtuous life. .
posted by spitbull at 8:41 PM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Bowhead whales do not get cancer. It's true. Look it up. They live hundreds of years.

Harvard geneticists are on it, fear not.
posted by spitbull at 8:42 PM on May 11, 2013


I found the angle and tone of the article saddening as well.

Here's an incredible demonstration, taken from a lecture given by Dr. Aude Fahrer, who is doing some pretty awesome work on cancer:

Each cell in the human body has a full complement of DNA at around 3x10^9 (3 billion) base pairs.

Each time the cell replicates, there is roughly a 1/10^9 - 1/10^10 error rate in DNA replication (1 in 1 billion to 1 in 10 billion), meaning that for every replication, there are an expected ~3 mutations.

But good news! Most of your DNA is non-coding, and mutations in non-coding regions won't affect anything (generally speaking). So we'll only consider genes.

If you take a pretty arbitrary, rough number and call your "average" gene 10^3 base pairs long, then the probability of any one gene getting a mutation in it (using 10^-9 probability overall) is 10^-6, or 1 in 100,000.

Okay. But you have roughly 10^14 cells in your body, and many of these replicate regularly. Let's call it something like 10^16 total cell divisions over a lifetime of ~80 years.

10^16 (total cell divisions) x 10^-6 (expected rate of mutation of any one gene) = 10^10 total mutations in coding genes over a lifetime. Every single gene in your body will most likely mutate many millions of times in different cells by the time you have lived 80 or so years. Without environmental interference of any kind.

Cancer is nobody's fault. =\
posted by po at 9:18 PM on May 11, 2013 [9 favorites]


Parabens as a class of chemicals, serve the manufacturer in that they, as a class of chemicals, prevent bacterial growth and increase shelf life. They don't make your eyes prettier or your hair shinier or your armpits fresher smelling. They merely dissuade bacteria from prospering in their product.
So here's why more and more people associate parabens with cancer:
Almost all deodorants have parabens in them as a preservative. Most everyone uses deodorant. Most breast tumors have higher levels of parabens in the tumor than in surrounding tissue and most (80% IIR) breast tumors are found in the breast quadrant closest to the armpit.
Lots of correlation, which as most mefites will be quick to tell you, doesn't equal causation.
Is that headline overl
posted by Fupped Duck at 9:59 PM on May 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


This seems perfectly logical to me: chemical filled goo that you smear on your face is probably something that a cancer patient looking to avoid advancement would want to steer away from.

Full disclosure: I have a very rare cancer, ocular melanoma. It's a melanoma (the nasty kind of skin cancer) that grows inside the eye, usually in the choroid, which is the blood layer behind your retina. It's the commonest eye cancer there is, but it's still bizarrely rare: 6 in a million people get it. I was diagnosed on Oct 3, 2012, and the primary tumor was treated with radiation (a very odd procedure in which a radioactive plaque was sewn onto the outside of my eyeball and left in for a week) from Nov 22-29. The tumor in my eye will eventually die; I'll lose the sight in that eye but the primary tumor will be gone. The tricky bit with OM is that it can spread.

On Dec 14 I got the results of my gene expression test, and unfortunately I"m Class 2, which means my chances of metastases (spread) are very high -- the lucky 50% of patients who are class 1 rarely get metastases. I'm not in the lucky half.

If it spreads, there is no cure, and there is no systemic chemo that works (this is true for all melanoma). The drugs that exist are immunoboosters, and they don't work for everyone. If they do, they'll extend life by a good bit (years -- in the case of one wonderous OM superstar, 12 years -- not decades) but no treatment can yet get rid of metastatic melanoma, either cutaneous or ocular. Things are getting better on the treatment front, and are far better than they were a decade ago, but they're still not great.

To make things even more fun, the Canadian medical system assumes that stage 4 OM patients (you go right from stage 1 to stage 4) are just going to die anyway, so they don't do anything to treat you: if you develop mets they'll put you on painkillers and let you die, on the principle that anything which does not produce a complete cure but only an extension of life is pointless. Dying in 5 months and dying in 5 years are exactly the same outcome, right?

This is why I'm flying to Philly tomorrow to see a doctor who specializes in treating metastasized ocular melanoma: he does an adjuvent chemo and I'm going to beg him to put me on it, even though it might not work, and even though I'll have to pay 5K a month for it, because my provincial health plan won't pay for something that isn't approved. I'm also planning on having him as my doctor if I do get mets, because I'm fine with delaying the inevitable, even if it means I spend every penny I've ever had on out of country care.

I can tell you that in my situation, I'll happily modify my diet, life and behaviour to avoid developing mets: lots of cancer patients work as hard as they can to prevent a recurrence or development, and the usual suggestions involve eating organic, avoiding sugars and carbs, taking supplements (I take japanese mushroom extracts and vitamin D), exercising, meditating, and eliminating stressful situations, people and work from your life. There's anecdotal evidence for many of these behaviours, and certainly anything that combats the sheer unutterable terror and sense of helplessness may work to help the immune system (which usually works to eliminate cancer cells). It may do nothing, but it can't hurt. Stephen Jay Gould used knowledge of stats to do the same thing in the teeth of his own diagnosis: The median isn't the message.

So, in short: cancer patients are not eating healthy and exercising and avoiding certain foods and substances because they want to make people feel guilty or because they're annoyingly superior. They're doing it because they want to live, very much, and they'll do anything they can to facilitate that. Avoiding goo with chemicals that you smear on your face seems perfectly logical to me. I'm in the process of giving up hair dye for henna (or just grey). Still can't manage it.

I'm going to go pack now, as I have to get up at 6 to drive to Sea Tac.
posted by jrochest at 11:36 PM on May 11, 2013 [19 favorites]


chemical filled goo that you smear on your face

Your face is made of chemicals. The air is made of chemicals. All the food that you eat is made of chemicals. Your clothes are chemicals. Statements like this make no sense.

Breast cancer is a really hard problem. I know this because I've spent the last two years studying it. There are a number of things which clearly do contribute to cancer incidence across people, like obesity, smoking, hormonal stuff for breast cancer, genetics, but trying to figure out how it all fits together is still messy and difficult. Treatment is even harder because homeostasis does such a great job for various reasons, you push down one pathway driving cell division so the cells start to die and another one pops up to take over and restart the process. Scare stories about 'chemical goo', however, don't help anyone.
posted by shelleycat at 2:19 AM on May 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


Okay, it's 2:27 and I'm getting up in 4 hours, but seriously: cyanide is a chemical, and so is orange juice. They are not equivalent.

What's the harm in avoiding possible carcinogens, especially when they're (literally) purely cosmetic?
posted by jrochest at 2:32 AM on May 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


old, bad idea that cancer is something that you somehow deserved

I definitely saw this conclusion in this piece as well. As someone who as a terminal cancer, I have experienced an insanely large amount of unwarranted homeopathic/dietary/herbal/vitamin proposals from random friends and acquaintances that I never asked for and don't want to follow because I don't believe they will make any difference. It's an old idea, but has always continued, as far as I can tell.

And the implication is always that if I don't try x, y, or z, the continuation of my cancer is my fault, and I deserve it.
posted by miss tea at 4:34 AM on May 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


cyanide is a chemical, and so is orange juice. They are not equivalent.

What's the harm in avoiding possible carcinogens, especially when they're (literally) purely cosmetic?


"Chemicals" != "carcinogens" is, I think, shelleycat's point. It gives scientists the agita when people use "chemical" as a scare tactic.
posted by Etrigan at 5:05 AM on May 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


but every time I buy another bottle of moisturizer

And sometimes the connection to one's action and the outcome is not direct.

If that bottle has little plastic beads for abrasion, those beads can end up in the biosphere/ocean where the plastic has an affinity to PCBs thus boosting the PCBs in the small things that eventually get into the fish that you get to eat.

The application of the plastic beads to your body just adds that much more small bits of plastic to the food chain and that addition could cause you cancer or perhaps diabetes.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:36 AM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Miss tea, Jrochest, sending positive thoughts your way. Cancer sucks.

I also see late stage cancer medicine up close and personal on a regular basis for reasons I won't detail here. The amount of offensive victim-blaming and scientifically illiterate bullshit from well meaning (not really) alternative-culture types who really do seem to believe you can choose not to get cancer or die from it is bizarre.

Cancer chooses you. It strikes little children and vegetarians and hardened criminals and sweet mothers and big strong men. It is insulting as all fuck to tell someone dealing with it that it's their fault for not shopping right.
posted by spitbull at 6:18 AM on May 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


"Chemicals" != "carcinogens" is, I think, shelleycat's point. It gives scientists the agita when people use "chemical" as a scare tactic.

The anti-flouridation proponents in Portland are using this very tactic right now and it is disgusting. It completely disregards the use of chemicals in everyday water treatment and it only increases people's misperceptions re. how the selective use of chemicals has improved all of our lives in significant ways. Sure, the rates of cancer have gone up in our lifetimes, but so have median lifespans as well as population numbers.

That said, I probably won't be eating mouthfuls of parabens anytime soon.
posted by tmt at 9:42 AM on May 12, 2013


The amount of offensive victim-blaming and scientifically illiterate bullshit from well meaning (not really) alternative-culture types who really do seem to believe you can choose not to get cancer or die from it is bizarre.

Yeah, the scientific illiteracy is what really bugs me. I am too polite to say it, but I always want to ask whether any of those people have heard of scientific investigation and how the outcomes for those with a variety of illnesses, treated or untreated, are variable, and not because of BS homeopathy etc.

Some doctors don't seem to get that, either, unfortunately. (Such as recommending certain chemotherapies, or other treatments, that have low response rates and high side effects, without specifying any of that to the patient.)
posted by miss tea at 11:00 AM on May 12, 2013


Super fascinating to get the science-side and not the consumer-side. The just-world fallacy is exactly what I should have been thinking while reading the article.

That said, I think there are threads worth pursuing
- What happens when our primary mode of interacting with society is through buying shit (or proudly not buying shit)? Do we think the only way we can fix things that have gone wrong in our lives is by buying the correct shit?
- Mistrust of any given "chemical" might be an emotional overreaction (fluoride) or a reasonable response (thalomide). What is the layperson to do when trust in the oversight process is broken?

I mean, I'm a humanities kid turned social science grad student, and rooting around in Google Scholar totally pushes the panic button for me.

The presence of intact paraben esters in human body tissues has now been confirmed by independent measurements in human urine, and the ability of parabens to penetrate human skin intact without breakdown by esterases

Daily sperm production and its efficiency in the testis of all groups receiving propyl paraben significantly decreased. The serum testosterone concentration decreased in a dose-dependent manner and the decrease was significant in the group that received the highest dose. The exposure level at which this effect was observed is the same as the upper-limit acceptable daily intake (10 mg/kg body weight/day) of parabens in the European Community and Japan.

Notwithstanding the major public health issue of the causes of the rising incidence of breast cancer in women, this call for further research may provide the first evidence that environmental factors may be adversely affecting human health by endocrine disruption, because exposure to oestrogenic chemicals through application of body care products (unlike diffuse environmental chemical exposures) should be amenable to evaluation, quantification and control. The exposure issues are clear and the exposed population is large, and these factors should provide the necessary impetus to investigate this potential issue of public health
. (pdf)
posted by spamandkimchi at 3:00 PM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


anything which does not produce a complete cure but only an extension of life is pointless

Is this really how they view it? What a ridiculous mindset. Any treatment is "just" an extension of life, cure or no. Cure one thing and something else will just kill you later.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 7:59 PM on May 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ah, here's a possibility for "making science more open and reliable" though it doesn't really get at the problem of scientific literacy.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:31 AM on May 13, 2013


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