Group Names Top Health Hoaxes of 2008
Remember the commotion last year about radioactive granite in our kitchen counters?
That story's just one of 10 health stories from 2008 identified as "hoaxes" by the American Council on Science and Health, a nonprofit group of scientists and physicians that advocates a common-sense approach to maintaining good health.
ACSH insists that claims about the health impact of products, chemicals and other substances and practices be supported by sound science, preferably published in peer-reviewed journals. If the science seems shaky -- by dint of ineffective study design or data failure to establish a cause-and-effect relationship, for instance -- ACSH is skeptical.
"Don't believe everything you read in newspapers or see on TV about health threats from this or that" substance, says Gilbert Ross, ACSH's medical/executive director. (Because someone's sure to bring it up, I include here a discussion of Dr. Ross's conviction for his participation in a health-clinic Medicaid scam nearly 20 years ago.) "A lot are based on ideology or agenda," he adds, and are "trying to scare people."
Among the other top health stories that ACSH lists as hoaxes: fears that phthalates in soft-plastic toys may harm infants who put such toys in their mouths, that Bisphenol-A (BPA), a component of hard plastic used in such items as water bottles and baby bottles, may cause disease in those who drink from those bottles, that prescription drugs entering our water supply may adversely affect our health, that cellphones cause brain cancer and that common childhood vaccines can cause autism.
ACSH debunks these and more, often on common grounds. In ACSH's reckoning, rodent studies don't cut the mustard; nor do studies that, while appearing to establish relationships between exposure to substances and particular health outcomes, don't demonstrate that those substances actually caused those outcomes. And ACSH is ever-mindful of quantities: In none of these cases, the group argues, has the substance in question, at levels to which people are actually exposed, been shown to do damage to humans. One of the ACSH mantras, in fact, is "The dose makes the poison."
Technology today allows us to detect tiny amounts of chemicals in drinking water, commercial product and in our bodies, Ross notes. "If you're going to measure amounts down to parts per billion, you can find anything," he says. "The fact that you have chemicals in your body doesn't mean anything," in the absence of solid research demonstrating otherwise.
In the case of BPA, the folks at ACSH are unmoved by a study in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association linking elevated levels of BPA in adults' urine to heightened risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes; the study didn't establish a causal relationship between BPA and those illnesses, ACSH notes. In any case, should BPA be banned, ACSH argues, "any replacement chemical will not have been as thoroughly studied and scrutinized as BPA has been, which may result in actual safety issues in the future."
The ACSH report implicates the media in promulgating these stories, citing instances in which reporters -- including those at the Washington Post -- have offered inflammatory and unbalanced accounts of the latest health threat. (The Checkup has covered the Bisphenol-A story, the vaccine/autism link, and cellphone cancer risk and radioactive granite counters. But here's one we somehow missed: A small European study reportedly suggested that drinking coffee shrinks women's breasts! As ACSH illustrates, that was a mountain made of a molehill.)
As a reader of science reporting, I take this as a welcome reminder to not be swayed by sensational news stories. And as a member of the media, I'm a bit chastened by this reminder to always do due diligence in my reporting while maintaining my own healthy skepticism.
Of course, we health reporters are part of the process by which science progresses: Each study, by virtue of its own findings or the subsequent research it spurs, brings us closer to the truth, and we report as that process unfolds.
And while I'm all for a healthy give-and-take between research and its debunkers, I'd feel more at ease with ACSH's stance if the organization would reveal the names of its funders. Nowhere on its Web site -- including the annual reports published there -- are ASCH's donors listed. Nor will Ross name them. "We accept charitable donations from anyone who will donate to us," he says, noting that donations are only taken from donors who accept the group's "no strings attached" policy. "Our positions are all based on peer-reviewed science," he adds. "When we're challenged on our funding, we always respond, 'If you have a problem with any of our reports as far as the facts, please address them.'"
Do you appreciate the media's calling attention to potential health threats, even if science ends up not bearing them out? Or do too many stories fan fears needlessly?
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