Mistaken belief in “mythical” causes of cancer, such as drinking from plastic bottles and microwave ovens, is rife among the public, according to UK researchers.
They warned that relatively recent new information sources, like the internet and social media, were driving “fake news” around cancer causation, when people should be focusing on lifestyle changes.
“It’s vital to improve public education about the causes of cancer if we want to help people make informed decisions”
The new research, jointly funded by Cancer Research UK and published today in the European Journal of Cancer, involved researchers at University College London and the University of Leeds.
They surveyed 1,330 people in England and found that 43% wrongly thought that stress caused cancer and 42% erroneously thought food additives were a cause.
In addition, around 35% incorrectly believed that electromagnetic frequencies was a risk factor and, similarly, 34% thought eating GM food was one too.
Meanwhile, 19% thought microwave ovens and 15% said drinking from plastic bottles caused cancer, despite a lack of good scientific evidence, said the researchers.
Among the proven causes of cancer, 88% of people in the survey correctly selected smoking, 80% picked passive smoking and 60% said sunburn.
Belief in mythical cancer causes did not mean a person was more likely to have risky lifestyle habits, said the study authors.
But those who had better knowledge of proven causes were less likely to smoke and more likely to eat larger quantities fruit and vegetables, they said.
“It’s crucial we have the right information to help us separate the wheat from the chaff”
Dr Samuel Smith, from the University of Leeds, said: “It’s worrying to see so many people endorse risk factors for which there is no convincing evidence.
“Compared to past research, it appears the number of people believing in unproven causes of cancer has increased since the start of the century which could be a result of changes to how we access news and information through the internet and social media,” he said.
“It’s vital to improve public education about the causes of cancer if we want to help people make informed decisions about their lives and ensure they aren’t worrying unnecessarily,” he added.
Clare Hyde from Cancer Research UK said: “Around four in 10 cancer cases could be prevented through lifestyle changes, so it’s crucial we have the right information to help us separate the wheat from the chaff.
“Smoking, being overweight and over-exposure to UV radiation from the sun and sunbeds are the biggest preventable causes of cancer,” she noted.
She added: “There is no guarantee against getting cancer but by knowing the biggest risk factors we can stack the odds in our favour to help reduce our individual risk of the disease, rather than wasting time worrying about fake news.”