California Mulls Warning Against Tylenol Over Cancer Risk

Officials in California have scheduled a meeting in the spring to decide whether a common ingredient in pain relief medications should be added to the state’s list of chemicals that can cause cancer. A panel of scientists will help look into evidence of the potential effects of acetaminophen, also known as paracetamol in other countries.

Acetaminophen is present in more than 600 prescription and over-the-counter medications in the U.S., including Tylenol, Excedrin and Midol. If confirmed, the chemical will be added to the nearly 900 chemicals considered carcinogenic in California, USA Today reported.

There are over 100 studies available in peer-reviewed journals that explored the effects of acetaminophen. However, there has been a growing debate between health experts and government officials over its link to cancer due to conflicting results of different experiments. 

In the 1990s, the International Agency for Research on Cancer led two reviews of the acetaminophen. Both efforts did not find the medication as cancer-causing, a finding also backed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

"With the data the way it is, I would be surprised if they added it," David Reeves, an associate professor at Butler University in Indianapolis and a clinical pharmacy specialist at a local hospital, said. "It depends on what the makeup of the committee is. If you have healthcare professionals on that committee, people who understand these studies, I would think they’d probably be hesitant to put that type of scarlet letter on acetaminophen."

Johnson & Johnson, manufacturer of Tylenol, issued a statement saying there is little scientific evidence of the cancer-causing effects of the product. The company said “epidemiologic, genotoxicity and animal carcinogenicity studies do not support a conclusion that there is a causal relationship between acetaminophen and cancer.”

However, in 2011, a group of scientists reported that there was enough data suggesting intake of acetaminophen could cause the disease, according to Sam Delson, spokesman for the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Aside from cancer, the medication was also found causing liver damage.

Reeves noted that adding acetaminophen to California’s carcinogen list would have a significant impact on the public. People may lose effective options since other available painkillers like ibuprofen or naproxen are not viable alternatives for some patients.

"If you can’t take those and you can’t take Tylenol and you have something like arthritis, where you have frequent pain, your next option is going toward the opioids," he said. "And with the opioid epidemic the way it is … I don’t know if the consequences are worth it."

Tylenol Acetaminophen is present in more than 600 prescription and over-the-counter medications in the U.S., including Tylenol, Excedrin and Midol. Deborah Austin/Wikimedia Commons