Friday, July 23, 2010

New research on chemicals and breast cancer

It was sure a sexy headline: "Cleaning products linked to breast cancer." Imagine all the late-night jokes about that one ("Honey, I won't be cleaning anymore!")--well, maybe if late-night comics were women.

When I read the article, I was dumbfounded. The research sounded like a joke. It's a self-report survey in which women say how much chemical exposure they've had, and that is compared between women with and without a history of breast cancer. It sounded extremely weak.

But with the Shirley Sherrod debacle fresh in mind, I decided not to stop there. I clicked the link ("suggests") to get to the Science Daily description of the study, somewhat more in depth. It said that the study comes from an open-access journal called Environmental Health. Well, that's not great because it suggests that the study wasn't strong enough to be published in a regular, peer-reviewed, restricted access journal.

But OK. I then went to the study itself. Here it is. And it's not really too bad, as preliminary evidence goes. I won't be throwing out all the cleaning products in the house, but this is enough of a signal that other researchers should now do some deeper digging.

What I really want to say, though, is this: It is so important to evaluate the quality of the science behind any of these findings. There is breast cancer news every single day: eat this, don't eat that, Avastin doesn't work, don't clean your house. (OK, that last is a stretch.) Some of these findings are coming out of really important and rigorous research. Some are absolutely bogus and should not be listened to. And then there's the substantial middle, in which this study resides, where there are suggestive findings but so much potential for fear-mongering or knee-jerk reactions. Take a deep breath and read the study. Check it out. Don't take the news article's word for it.

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