You're sitting in a freshly drywalled house, drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup and talking on a cellphone. Which of these is most likely to be a cancer risk? It might be the sitting, especially if you do that a lot. Despite all the recent news about possible cancer risks from cellphones, coffee, styrene and formaldehyde in building materials, most of us probably face little if any danger from these things with ordinary use, health experts say. Inactivity and obesity may pose a greater cancer risk than chemicals for some people. “We are being bombarded” with messages about the dangers posed by common things in our lives, yet most exposures “are not at a level that are going to cause cancer,” said Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, the American Cancer Society's deputy chief medical officer. Linda Birnbaum agrees. She is a toxicologist who heads the government agency that just declared styrene, an ingredient in fiberglass boats and Styrofoam, a likely cancer risk.
“Let me put your mind at ease right away about Styrofoam,” she said. Levels of styrene that leach from food containers “are hundreds if not thousands of times lower than have occurred in the occupational setting,” where the chemical in vapor form poses a possible risk to workers. “In finished products, certainly styrene is not an issue,” and exposure to it from riding in a boat “is infinitesimal,” she said. Carcinogens are things that can cause cancer, but that label doesn't mean that they will or that they pose a risk to anyone exposed to them in any amount at any time. They have been in the news because two groups that periodically convene scientists to decide whether something is a carcinogen issued new reports. Last month, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, said there is a possibility cellphones raise the risk of brain tumors. “The operative word is `possibility,'” said Lichtenfeld, who among others has pointed out the thin evidence for this and the fact that cancer rates have not risen since cellphones came out.