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If you have a headache, chances are you’ll reach for that packet of paracetamol in the cupboard – unless you’re an ibuprofen devotee, that is. But if you’ve seen the headlines in today’s papers (‘Paracetamol ‘link’ to blood cancer’ in The Telegraph and the strikingly similar but somewhat less snappy ‘Paracetamol found to have link to blood cancers’ in The Daily Mail) you may well have thrown away your painkiller stash already – at least, if you’re a riskfactorphobe, that is.

Well, it does sound pretty scary. Blood cancer – the two words together hammer fear into any riskfactorphobe’s heart. And it’s definitely not good news for paracetamol manufacturers, who are used to selling hundreds of billions of packets every year worldwide (at least, that’s the figure according to The Mail).

But wait a minute. Let’s look at the evidence. The study, which was carried out by researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle (and no, I don’t know if it has even been published yet, there is no source stated in any of the newspaper accounts I’ve read), suggests that if you’re over 50 and you take paracetamol four times a week for at least four years, your risk of developing a blood cancer is double what it is normally. Double – that doesn’t sound good, does it? Well it depends on what your risk is already, and apparently the average person of 50+ years has a one percent risk of developing a blood cancer. One percent. So double that and you’ve got a two percent risk. Forgive me for feeling distinctly underwhelmed by that statistic (a two in 100 chance sounds like pretty good odds to me).

Then of course you have to fulfil the criteria for the higher risk – that is, you have to take paracetamol at least four times a week for at least four years. If you ask me, anyone who takes that amount of painkillers is already suffering from some kind of physical or emotional disorder. Well it’s hardly normal usage, is it?

Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research’s scientific director, Dr David Grant, is also underwhelmed by the findings. Quoted in The Telegraph, he says that such a numerical association doesn’t prove a causal link (it never does, but most people jump to that conclusion anyway), and that there’s no known mechanism for paracetamol to cause cancer. Ad anyway, an increase from one to two percent over 10 years is hardly a great risk either.

Hear, hear.  Thank goodness for your voice of reason, Dr Grant. Let’s just hope everyone sees your remarks at the bottom of the newspaper report (which is where reasonable remarks are usually found in these cases).