Ten Odd Health Stories

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The first half of 2004 has brought some weird health news. Whether good, bad, or ambiguous, these items are all worth noting:

1. Measures of pesticide exposure aren't always so empirical. Our friends at http://NutritionNewsFocus.com noted in their May 25 e-bulletin that a study in the April 2004 issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention that whether or not people with non-Hodgkin lymphoma were reported in surveys to have been exposed to high levels of insecticide and herbicide depended to a surprising degree on whether the people were answering the surveys themselves or had relatives answering the survey for them. Says NNF: "Farmers who responded themselves about chemical exposure were not more likely to be diagnosed with NHL." We often assume survey respondents are objective about such things (and we are naturally forgiving when they aren't), but perhaps relatives of cancer sufferers are more likely to assume evil chemicals got their loved ones than the facts warrant.

2. NY vs. GSK. GlaxoSmithKline faces accusations of fraud from New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer for reportedly disseminating negative studies about its antidepressant Paxil less vigorously than it did a positive study. The case will be an interesting test of how far the definition of fraud stretches, since the "negative" studies reportedly were revealed to medical journals, scientific meetings, or regulatory agencies and mainly just showed that Paxil had ambiguous effects on children (while being primarily meant for use in adults).

3. CSPI vs. Soy. Well, maybe not explicitly, but the Center for Science in the Public Interest is quoted in an article that notes, ironically, that the craze for "health food" is finally being recognized as a source of unhealthy exaggerations: it now takes very little in the eyes of regulators to justify making a claim on your product's labeling about the product's purported health benefits -- such as the oft-exaggerated benefits of soy -- and the ease of making such claims is something CSPI and ACSH can agree is shady.

4. Eco-Regs Stopping More Oil-Refining Than You'd Expect? A May 28 New York Times article by Simon Romero has a brief, telling aside about how big an impact environmental regulations have on the vilified oil industry:

"We haven't built a new refinery in this country for three decades," Lee Raymond, the chairman of Exxon Mobil, the nation's largest energy company, told reporters this week after the company's annual meeting. "Refineries historically haven't made money, and I don't see a lessening of environment restrictions." As a result, the United States now imports about 10% of its refined gasoline, mainly from Europe and South America. But many foreign refineries have struggled to adapt as many states have switched to requiring cleaner-burning blends of gasoline this year...

5. "Senior convicted of assault requests longer sentence so he can smoke." Lifestyle choice or evidence of addiction? According to Canada's National Post:

An elderly Manitoba, Canada man convicted of aggravated assault this week requested a longer sentence so he would be sent to a federal penitentiary and would not have to give up smoking. Angelo Foti, 73, was sentenced to twenty months in a provincial facility for the May, 2000, shooting of two men who were trying to repossess a snowmobile from his backyard. Foti, who smokes more than a pack a day, would have had to serve his sentence in a provincial facility where smoking is prohibited.

6. Court rules dairy campaign violates farmers' free speech. A federal appeals court, reasonably enough, ruled that organic farmers can't be taxed to pay for the non-organic "Got milk?" campaign -- though it'd be nice to see the same reasoning applied to the legally-mandated use of student activity fees at state colleges to fund Naderite Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) and their campaigns for things like "hormone-free milk."

7. Biotech was feared, now it's envied. Reuters' always-interesting reporter Robin Pomeroy notes that the U.N. is now concerned that biotech is being used mainly to alter crops of interest to wealthy countries and is not advancing much in poor ones. If regulators and non-governmental organizations that oppose biotech will stay out of the way, I'm sure biotech companies will be happy to bring the benefits of their ingenuity to everyone everywhere very soon.

8. All the conspiracy theories are connected! Reasonable people can disagree about foreign affairs and the proper role of the military, but I can't help noticing that, for instance, the vocal "9/11 Truth" activist Michael Kane, who believes the Bush administration consciously engineered 9/11 (and secretly demolished World Trade Center building 7 with explosives) and who also sends mass e-mails spreading fears about implantable microchips, writes about his belief in the spread of illnesses via vaccines (including a government-planned "doomsday bug" to thin human herds) and warns readers about the use of government crop-dusters to spread mind control gas. When not organizing protests, he also promotes events like one:

Dr. Emoto will be speaking on his scientific evidence that water has a consciousness. The most profound scientific work of the 21st Century, and perhaps the doorway to the Evolution humankind must walk through to avoid annihilation.

Also speaking...

Susan McLain Friedman will speak about the unique message that is hidden at the core of each water crystal

Sunshine Eagle, a Peruvian shaman, will open the evening with a water blessing ceremony that connects us to the heartbeat of Mother Earth.

Just something to keep in mind the next time someone tells you they heard from a reliable authority that vaccines are dangerous. (For a more sober evaluation of vaccines, see ACSH's report, and the short version especially for parents.)

9. Kid vs. Union of Concerned Scientists. An Oregon State University grad student picks an amusing fight with the Union of Concerned Scientists, arguing that they are a tad too concerned about stray genes from biotech crops.

10. New York Times confesses its lack of self-control. It's always a sad thing when a decent joke is rendered obsolete because it is outpaced by the absurdity of real life. Economists used to joke that blaming the free market for customers' bad taste was as absurd as blaming waiters for customers' overeating yet now we see straight-faced experts on TV blaming food companies for our national girth, and that led the Times editorial board to moan on March 8 that McDonald's decision to eliminate "supersized" options was a necessary step, since customers cannot, after all, being expected to fight this fat war on their own. It's admirable that McDonald's is responding to public health concerns, but we live in strange times when companies earn praise by offering us less.

11. That's right, this top ten list comes with a bonus item. If you found the year so far silly and frustrating, fear not: you can retroactively alter history! That, at least, was the claim of a study in the British Medical Journal -- one ill-supported by the evidence according to CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) -- that praying for randomly-chosen people in the present who were recently ill is statistically correlated with shorter hospital stays for them in the past. That's right, you thought retroactive changes to the course of history only happened in sci-fi films and comic books, but if the people touting this study are correct, we may yet be able to undo every dumb thing that happened so far this year. If you click back on this article in a few months and find that it's shorter than you remember, you know what must have happened. Let's just hope it doesn't have some unforeseen side effect, like the Axis winning the war or my head cold from the end of last year being replaced by a broken ankle.