Was Linus Pauling Off by One Letter?


Connoisseurs of unintended consequences will appreciate this Globe and Mail story, which suggests that public health officials in Canada and the U.S. may have inadvertently caused more cancer deaths than they prevented by advising people to stay out of the sun when possible and to cover up with clothing and sunscreen if they absolutely must go outside on a beautiful summer day:

In June, U.S. researchers will announce the first direct link between cancer prevention and the sunshine vitamin [i.e., vitamin D]. Their results are nothing short of astounding.

A four-year clinical trial involving 1,200 women found those taking the vitamin had about a 60-percent reduction in cancer incidence, compared with those who didn't take it, a drop so large—twice the impact on cancer attributed to smoking—it almost looks like a typographical error….

Those studying the vitamin say the hide-from-sunlight advice has amounted to the health equivalent of a foolish poker trade. Anyone practising sun avoidance has traded the benefit of a reduced risk of skin cancer—which is easy to detect and treat and seldom fatal—for an increased risk of the scary, high-body-count cancers, such as breast, prostate and colon, that appear linked to vitamin D shortages.

The paper reports that researchers also "are linking low vitamin D status to a host of other serious ailments, including multiple sclerosis, juvenile diabetes, influenza, osteoporosis and bone fractures among the elderly." I hope some of this speculation turns out to be well-founded, because it would be nice to have an easy way to prevent so many diseases and deaths. If that can be achieved only by embarrassing the nagging know-it-alls who've been telling us to avoid sunshine, that's a cost I can live with.

[Thanks to Mark Lambert for the link.]