Roundup, probable cancer, and high health literacy load.

Glyphosate (Roundup as we know it) is the most used herbicide in the world. In March 2015 the WHO (World Health Organization) released a report that listed glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”


“Probably”: when a simple word just isn’t. It may be a simple (4th grade reading level) but the semantic load of “probably”  (meaning in this context – what is assumes the reader understands) requires a high degree of health/science literacy.

WHO states:“Group 2A means that the agent is probably carcinogenic to humans. This category is used when there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. Limited evidence means that a positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer but that other explanations for the observations (called chance, bias, or confounding) could not be ruled out. This category is also used when there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and strong data on how the agent causes cancer.

The health/science literacy load of “probably” is high: Understanding something about risk and hazard is necessary for a consumer to begin to work with the newest evidence about Roundup. Understanding  is made even harder because the language used to explain the evidence is complex and often linguistically tortured. ( We don’t have time to attend to that right now).

Back to the risk-hazard distinction: ( one simplifier).

I often use the following in my classes:

Hazard – is the possibility that something could go wrong.

But until that thing goes wrong, we live in the world of risk.

Risk – is the probability of something going wrong.

Example:snarling dog

Walking by a growling dog is hazardous.

Taunting the dog as you’re walking by is risky.

And if the dog has a history of biting people it’s even riskier still.

Reasonable suggestion: If we want the public to appreciate new science evidence we should be focusing on teaching these foundational health and science concepts as we communicate.

Check out our Introduction to Risk Communication Lesson at the Health Literacy Lab   

Additional recommended viewing:PBS   Field of Weeds 11/15/15


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