Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Group lists top unfounded health scares of 2004

Group lists top unfounded health scares of 2004
by Andi Atwater

A scientific consumer education group has compiled the Top 10 Unfounded Health Scares of 2004, a list of some of the scariest but least scientifically accurate health findings propagated by the media last year.

The American Council on Science and Health is a nonprofit board of 350 physicians and scientists who review media coverage, scientific research and public policy to, the group says, add reason and balance to debates about public health issues.

Some items on the list will upset people, particularly those who believe strongly the information is true and that it affected their lives. Other items will make people shake their heads in disbelief, much like those who often debunk those abundant urban legends perpetuated on the Internet.

At the very least, the council hopes readers take away one valuable lesson: Put things in perspective.

"The real reason we're so concerned about these unfounded scares is because they distract us from the real measures we know we can take that actually protect our health," council spokesman Jeff Stier said. "The take-home message is that consumers need to use common sense, be skeptical and pay attention to the things that matter."

Things such as exercising, eating healthy, quitting smoking, wearing a bike helmet and fastening seat belts — actions everyone knows for a fact enhance lives, Stier added.

He said most of these incomplete or sensationalized media reports were based on small studies with very limited information not proven accurate or, in some cases, scientifically valid. The real risk, if any, is very small, he said.

"If you're concerned about your health, there are a lot of things you can do to protect and improve your health," Stier said. "Running after scares is not one of them."

Following is a summary of five of the council's top 10 scares. To view the entire list and much more detailed explanations, visit the council's Web site at

• Pediatric vaccines and autism

The Scare: Autism is a complex developmental disorder that generally appears in the first three years of life and is estimated to occur in two of every 1,000 children. In the last decade, suspicion arose about a link between pediatric vaccines and autism.

The Scoop: A small 1998 study in a respected medical journal suggested that in some children the MMR vaccine provokes inflammation of the intestines, which then causes toxins to leak into the bloodstream and then the brain, where they cause the damage that manifests as the clinical symptoms of autism. The overwhelming majority of scientists have declared the vaccine/autism link nonexistent.

• Cell phones cause brain tumors

The Scare: Since the Larry King show presented claims of a link between cell phone usage and cancer in 1993, various concerns over this supposed connection have surfaced. Most recently, media claims have highlighted reports that cell phones cause acoustic neuroma, a benign tumor on the acoustic nerve.

The Scoop: In September 2004, researchers in Sweden released their findings in a study of 750 subjects who had used cell phones for at least 10 years, 150 of whom were diagnosed with acoustic neuroma and 600 of whom were neuroma-free. The researchers who conducted the study were quick to point out that it is one study — small and retrospective — and has not been replicated. In general, scientists don't consider new findings to be reliable until they have been demonstrated several times, in studies conducted by different groups of researchers.

• Night lights and leukemia

The Scare: Leukemia is the most common form of cancer in children in the U.S., affecting 3,000 children annually and accounting for 30 percent of all childhood cancers. At a 2004 conference, several presentations alluded to an unproven hypothesis that increased light at night, (not night lights specifically), may contribute to the rising incidence of leukemia in children.

The Scoop: Speculation that an as-yet-unidentified environmental factor plays a major role in the development of childhood leukemia has fueled the desire of medical experts and worried parents alike to get to the bottom of it. As such, even the most preliminary study findings result in a media maelstrom. The latest leukemia-related example drew not on a scientific report, but on discussions held at a conference. Ultimately, however, the nature of the reporting resulted in one of the most unfounded health scares of 2004: "Night Light Found to Increase the Risk of Leukemia."

• Plastics cause cancer

The Scare: Many newspaper articles claimed that phthalates, known rodent carcinogens, could be leaching into our food from plastic food containers and cling wraps when those plastics are heated or frozen.

The Scoop: These chemicals have never been shown to cause any sort of adverse health effect in humans, particularly at the low doses that might potentially come from plastic food containers or water bottles. Most importantly, people should keep in mind that even if plastics were leaking animal carcinogens into our food, that food probably already contains far more carcinogens that are naturally occurring. Thousands of foods naturally contain chemicals found to cause cancer in rodents but which have not been shown to be carcinogenic in humans.

• Deodorants, antiperspirants cause breast cancer

The Scare: One study suggested a causal connection between shaving, antiperspirant use and breast cancer. Another study examined samples of breast cancer tissue and found preservatives in deodorants and antiperspirants, as well as other cosmetic products. The authors concluded that the presence of these chemicals provided support for the hypothesis that they might have caused the breast cancer.

The Scoop: There were flaws with both of the studies, which undermined the findings. They were either poorly designed or too small to be meaningful in and of themselves. Because breast cancer is the second most frequent cause of cancer deaths in American women, it is understandable that any possible factor contributing to its occurrence garners much media attention. Unfortunately, some reports of potential causes do not reflect solid scientific consensus, and thus are alarmist rather than informational.

The council addressed other hyped topics as well, which can be found on its Web site, including reports about PCBs in salmon that cause cancer; chemicals in cosmetics; mercury in seafood causes neurological problems in humans; cheeseburgers and cardiovascular disease; antibiotics cause breast cancer; teflon causes health problems in humans; and soda causes esophageal cancer.

[highlighting - PL]


Here are hyperlinks to the original sources:

Pediatric Vaccines and Autism
PCBs in Salmon and Cancer
Cell Phones Cause Brain Tumors
Nightlights and Leukemia
Chemicals in Cosmetics
Mercury in Seafood Causes Neurological Problems in Humans
Cheeseburgers and Cardiovascular Disease (CVD)
Antibiotics Cause Breast Cancer
Teflon Causes Health Problems in Humans
Soda Causes Esophageal Cancer
Dishonorable Mention
Deodorants, Antiperspirants Cause Breast Cancer
Plastics Cause Cancer