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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?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  January 5, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  General Health  
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Comments

I love to hear about new studies, but they need to be put in context, not sensationalized (see: anything by Anys Shin). A single study can and should bring up questions about safety, but there should not be calls for product bans based on one study. Precaution is nice, but as you say precaution is also using something we know the effects of rather than switching willy-nilly to something that may be worse.

Posted by: byte1 | January 5, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

DO I??? I love them. BRING THEM ON!!!!
They make nice bed stories for children and grown-ups, specially on the dark.

Posted by: opita | January 5, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Agree with byte1. It's important to alert the public to interesting research and findings, but it's the responsibility of the media to alos provide readers with practical take-away messages based on expert opinion on the research.

Posted by: mediajunky | January 5, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Umm, who are these guys exactly who feel they have the right to pass judgement on whether a story is real or a hoax? The BPA story is something everyone should be worried about right now. No causal link has been established between BPA and heightened risk of disease, but a correlation HAS been established. The same think is true about cholesterol -- nobody can tell us whether high cholesterol is a cause or merely a symptom of cardiovascular disease. Yet these "doctors" aren't telling everyone to stop taking their cholesterol medication.

The story about the high levels of a variety of prescription drugs in our drinking water are downright scary. These drugs build up in the system because our current water treatment approaches don't filter them out. And this anonomously-funded group just wants you to think that we're all a bunch of hysterical overreactors.

My guess is that, when all is said and done, you will find that the "anonymous" funding sources for this propaganda campaign are BPA manufacterers, drug companies, etc. This is just another example of our health issues being treated as just another profit center. This report is complete GARBAGE...

Posted by: jerkhoff | January 5, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

one of the reasons for reading a newspaper is to get information on the latest discoveries in science (including medicine), so bring on those cutting edge articles. as to the american council on science and health, until they divulge their finances, they should be regarded as a quack/special interest group and their "findings" should be regarded with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Posted by: bnglfn | January 5, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

hoax - def. something intended to deceive or defraud

The irony of the ACSH calling those health stories "hoaxes" is that, in doing so, they themselves are engaging in inflammatory and biased reporting. Certainly, the BPA and phthalates stories are not "hoaxes". That is, they were not intended to deceive and, in fact, we still don't know exactly what effect they have on humans. Thus, the ACSH goes to the other end of the spectrum, being inflammatory in the opposite way.

The ACSH sounds like an industry-funded group that will require the ultimate demonstration of cause-and-effect in humans. Unfortunately, true experiments in humans with chemicals in the environment are incredibly rare and, ethically, often impossible to conduct. Would you participate in a study in which the experimenters said that your child may receive any number of doses of BPA and then be monitored for potential harmful effects over the next 20 years? Of course not.

In other words, ACSH sets a standard that is impossible to realistically meet, allowing them to claim that all chemicals, additives, etc., are safe and that any claim that they are dangerous is a hoax (i.e. a lie) perpetrated on the public by an inflammatory media.

Posted by: rlalumiere | January 5, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

When chemical and drug companies do the studies and find products safe????? THen the FDA accepts the study.... BUY NOTHING FROM CHINA

Posted by: kkrimmer | January 5, 2009 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Sloppy reporting! It didn't take me more than 3 minutes of perusing the ACSH website to see that it is a biased, pro-industry shill site. ACSH doctors claims that you can improve your health and lose weight by eating nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days. The website refers to Marion Nestle as the "leader of the food police." They include a blurb about how McDonald's has opened its factories for tours to prove to moms that it serves "real food." And this, from another page within the site: '"...fast food is disproportionately blamed for high obesity rates," says ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross. "We wish McDonald's and other businesses that are targeted in the U.S. would speak out in a similar way."' And then on another topic, requiring kids to wear helmets while riding bikes, they manage to work McDonald's into the subject yet again: 'Following that logic, Dr. Whelan wonders, "If the police can take away bikes from riders without helmets, why shouldn't the government also be able to seize a Big Mac from someone who is obese?"'
Gee... ya think maybe Mcdonald's might be one of those "anonymous donors?" Shame on WaPo for lending unearned credibility to this propaganda.

Posted by: theotherWA | January 5, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

Wait. Is this the same American Council on Science and Health supported by the right-wing Heritage Foundation? Perhaps it is the same ACSH that is funded by the ultra-conservative, small-government, anti-regulation Scaife Foundation and the John M. Olin Foundation?

Perhaps this is the same ACSH that the "Washington Post's" own media reporter, Howard Kurtz, exposed in a 1990 "Columbia Journalism Review" article as anti-environment -- downplaying risks from DDT, dioxin, asbestos, and a host of other polluting chemicals?

No, wait! I'm sure this is not the same ACSH that draws about half its budget from the food, drug and chemical companies that have a vested interest in downplaying health risks.

Perhaps this is the same ACSH led by Dr. Elizabeth Whelan who gave the highest praise and endorsements to one of the worst books ever written about AIDS, "The Aids Cover-up? The Real and Alarming Facts About AIDS," by conservative Christian activist Gene Antonio.

Jennifer Huget writes: "As a reader of science reporting, I take this as a welcome reminder to not be swayed by sensational news stories." I'm taking this blog as a reminder that I should not be swayed by uncritical reporters who recycle contrarian press releases without checking who the source is and what their biases are. Ms. Huget likes to think that, after an article in which she takes all of ACSH's claims at face-value and applauds them wildly, it saves her neutrality by questioning in the mildest tones ACSH's funding and biases.

No need to wonder, Ms. Huget. ACSH's former administrative director, Nicholas Martin, says that foundation's industry donors routinely interfere in the research it does (see http://www.mindfully.org/Industry/ACSH-Employee-View.htm).

Posted by: Timmy1965 | January 5, 2009 7:01 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Huget, after reading the comments about the background and funding of the ACSH (particularly those by theotherWA and Timmy1965), I would suggest that you look into this and post a follow-up. You owe your readers more than a cursory regurgitation of this organization's press releases. Otherwise, you are merely acting as a shill for an industry with an axe to grind. Looking forward to your follow-up article investigating this organization's funding in greater depth...

Posted by: jerkhoff | January 6, 2009 12:35 AM | Report abuse

I agree with the comments by timmy1965, theotherwa and in particular jerkhoff. I don't know anything about Ms. Huget's training or background, but when your blog appears in a major national newspaper, you have the responsibility to do at the very least the research that timmy1965 pointed out about the financial and philosophical ties the ACSH has with industry. Anyone can do a blog from his/her house by cutting and pasting from an industry front group; the hard part is doing the actual research, fact-checking and analysis that makes your contributions worthy of being read and heard. The WaPo bears responsibility for this shoddiness as well. What sort of training in journalism and journalistic ethics do they require? Shame.

Posted by: mokesmith | January 6, 2009 3:30 PM | Report abuse

just to support rlalumiere, the headline of this post is misleading. these aren't hoaxes. a legitimate study that raises concerns that are picked up by the media isn't a hoax. the criteria that ACSH uses to identify a "hoax" tend to the same criteria the industry uses to fend off calls for further study and possible regulation. the author should have recognized dissonance between the hype word "hoax" and the stories being assigned that label. i was hoping the BPA story was really a hoax, but it isn't. It is exactly what I recall from reading articles about it.

Posted by: cmkaz | January 7, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

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