Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who for many years took great glee in voicing anti-American sentiments, died this week at the age of 58, following a long battle with "an unspecified cancer in the pelvic region." Just before he died, Venezuelan vice president Nicholas Maduro ejected two U.S. diplomats from the country and vaguely charged them with infecting Chavez with cancer, saying he was "attacked with this illness."
Notwithstanding the veracity of that claim, we wondered: is it even possible to infect someone with cancer, as an effective assassination tool? Let's ask some scientists!
We know, of course, that some things do cause cancer—the list of known human carcinogens numbers in the hundreds. And scientists do routinely give cancer to things: lab mice, for example, by actively implanting carcinogens or tumor tissues inside the mice.
But that does not answer our question. If the CIA, for example, wanted to assassinate Chavez using cancer, it would not be practical to expose him to secondhand smoke for 30 years, or to sneak into his palace at night and surgically implant a tumor in his belly. It would require weaponized cancer—some kind of carcinogen that A) acted quickly enough to make it a worthwhile weapon (something that takes years to kill someone is a pretty poor assassination tool), and B) could be given to the victim in a practical manner (sprinkled on their food, sprayed into their air, injected, perhaps, in a single shot).
There are tons of regular old poisons that meet those criteria. But does anything like that exist to give you cancer? We asked some cancer experts.
"No."—Vincent T. Devita Jr. MD, Amy and Joseph Perella Professor of Medicine, Yale Cancer Center.
"None that I am aware of."—Al Benson MD, Professor of Oncology, Northwestern University.
"Pure insanity."—Steven T. Rosen MD, Director, Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center, Northwester University. [He added, "Not even polonium," the radioactive isotope that has been used in political assassinations. Polonium poisoning resembles the end stages of cancer, but it does not kill through cancer per se.]
It seems unlikely. Sorry, Venezuelan conspiracy theorists.