Is a ham sandwich as bad for your health as a pack of cigarettes? Processed meats have been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the WHO. Here’s a look at what else makes this list, and why some experts are calling the report irresponsible. (Photo: Getty Images)
Hot dogs, ham, bologna and other processed meats now rank alongside tobacco, alcohol and around 100 more substances on the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s list of Group 1 carcinogens.
The agency, which is a research division of the World Health Organization (WHO), announced Monday that they’ve classified processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen to humans, in the same category as smoking tobacco and asbestos exposure. However, the agency did clarify that, just because two things are categorized as a Group 1 carcinogen, it does not mean they are equally dangerous. Rather, it means that each has a “sufficient” body of evidence of carcinogenicity in humans.
In 2012, 14.1 million new cancer cases were diagnosed and 8.2 million cancer deaths were recorded, according to the IARC. Here’s a look at some of the other things we encounter in daily life that the Lyon, France-based agency has found can cause cancer.
ALCOHOL: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program lists consumption of alcoholic beverages as a known human carcinogen. According to its Report on Carcinogens, an estimated 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths in the U.S. in 2009 (about 19,500 deaths) were alcohol related. Another report found that people who consume about 3-and-a-half drinks per day have at least a two to three times greater risk of developing head and neck cancers than nondrinkers.
SMOKING: Tobacco smoke was added to the National Toxicology Program’s 9th report in 2000. The IARC links tobacco smoking with lung, bladder and lip cancers as well as stomach, liver and kidney cancers, among others. Tobacco kills around 6 million people each year, according to The World Health Organization.
SUNLAMPS: Exposure to sunlamps or sunbeds is known to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence from studies in humans, according to the NTP. Studies show exposure to sunlamps or sunbeds increases the risk of malignant melanoma. In addition, the longer the exposure, the greater the risk, especially in individuals exposed before the age of 30, the NTP says.
AIR POLLUTION: Outdoor air pollution was added to the IARC’s list of carcinogens in 2013. The agency said there is sufficient evidence that exposure to outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer, and it also noted a positive association with an increased risk of bladder cancer. The agency said that in 2010, 223,000 deaths from lung cancer worldwide resulted from air pollution.
Other culprits include: Arsenic, asbestos, formaldehyde, Hepatitis B, C and D, HIV Type 1, HPV virus types 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59, leather dust, plutonium and Chinese-style salted fish. Here’s a full list.
Anton Bilchik, MD, chief of medicine and gastrointestinal research at California’s John Wayne Cancer Institute, told Yahoo Health that the new declaration is extreme. “To suggest that all red and processed meat is going to cause cancer and should be put in the same category as asbestos and smoking is irresponsible,” Bilchik says.
Unlike cigarettes or asbestos, Bilchik says there’s nutritional value to eating red meat — in moderation. Bilchik acknowledges colon cancer’s link to processed- and red-meat consumption but also says the cause of the disease is complex. “Diet may play a role, and there may be a genetic component,” he says. “As of now, we just don’t know which group of people should eat less red meat than others.”
- with additional reporting by Korin Miller and The Associated Press