Babies, Breasts, and MCS

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If you've finally become numb to the constant health warnings from activists and the media, it's easy to forget just how steady the drumbeat of doom is and how often its rhythms are calculated to frighten us about things near and dear to us such as food, babies, and breasts.

—How else to explain something like the campaign by Greenpeace and INFACT Canada to "warn" the public about genetically-engineered (g.e.) baby foods? After several years of activist hysteria, Greenpeace and company still have no evidence whatsoever that genetically- engineered foods are harmful nor any plausible scientific account of why they might be and are forced to fall back on warnings that the new and unknown may hold hidden, inexplicable dangers — though despite hype from anti-biotech and pro-biotech forces alike, a tomato is still just a tomato after having one or two genes moved around, and corn is still corn. (See ACSH's booklet Biotechnology and Food).

How disgraceful, then, that the Greenpeace/INFACT campaign warns of unforeseen variations in the nutritional value of g.e. foods, frightening parents at a recent protest in Toronto by displaying baby dolls with funnels in their mouths, saying children are being force-fed dangerous food. Holly Penfound, Greenpeace's anti-g.e. campaign coordinator, said stores should be "making and selling baby food that is safe. Instead, they are knowingly pushing g.e. food to our children."

Luckily, here in the U.S., consumers remain largely unalarmed about biotech, with even the eco-friendly voters of Oregon this week rejecting a referendum that would have mandated labeling of g.e. foods, with the anti-labeling position garnering some 73% of the vote (Oregonians also sent a radical plan for socializing medicine in Oregon down to similarly humiliating defeat).

—For all their hysteria, even the greens aren't the _most_ paranoid anti-tech voices in society, though. People claiming to suffer from "multiple chemical sensitivity" — believed by many to be severe hypochondriacs with a general aversion to the modern world — have been found to have a much higher than average tendency toward anxiety, according to a study in the October issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, as reported by Reuters Health. This is hardly surprising, since an earlier psychological experiment found that people claiming to have MCS will react in substantially the same way (coughing, sweating, etc.) whether sprayed with man-made chemicals or with what they merely believe to be chemicals. I learned that while working on one of John Stossel's ABC News reports on the topic — one of the more skeptical treatments MCS has received from the press. I also learned firsthand while working on that piece that "MCS sufferers" are very selective about which odors they deem harmful.

One weary-sounding MCS activist explained to me that the camera crew I was working with couldn't enter the MCS conference she had organized unless they were okayed by "sniffers" who would check for any soap, perfume, or cigarette odors — and even then some MCSers might react negatively to the presence of electronic TV equipment due to their purported sensitivity to electric and magnetic fields. While explaining all this, the organizer began waving her hands in the air, then apologized and explained that she had just had, uh, an episode of flatulence. Luckily for her, I did not go into convulsions or attempt to organize a second conference — but then, flatulence is "all natural," so it just doesn't inspire the same paranoia as man-made chemicals.

—The repetition of scare stories by activists and media can have a profound negative impact on the psyches of the MCS sufferers, who do not need to be reaffirmed in their beliefs. More widespread and more mainstream miscalculations about health priorities can occur, though, simply because the media hypes one legitimate disease risk out of proportion to another. That may be the case with breast cancer.

Breast cancer is undeniably a very real, very serious problem. It is, after all, the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women and the cancer responsible for the second largest number of cancer deaths among women (lung cancer being first, at about 66,000 female deaths per year in the U.S. to breast cancer's 40,000). Still, it is odd that popular magazines, especially those aimed at women, are much more likely to report on breast cancer than on heart disease, according to a study from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. The magazines may be misdirecting readers' attention, women stand only a one in eight chance of getting breast cancer but approximately a one in three chance of developing heart disease (see the HFAF article "Women's Hearts"). According to Reuters Health, the Mount Sinai researchers responsible for the media study say that this discrepancy may account for the common misperception among women that they are at a greater risk for breast cancer than heart disease. That misperception may in turn diminish the likelihood women will take steps to reduce heart risks, such as quitting smoking and treating high blood pressure and cholesterol. (See ACSH's reports on other trends in magazine coverage and health, focusing on nutrition and smoking — and look forward to new reports coming soon.)

While Greenpeace assembles its baby dolls, the MCS crowd wrap themselves in protective tin foil, and perfectly reasonable magazine readers hope for a breast cancer cure, the more mundane threats of hunger, hypochondria, and heart attacks may be ignored.