Five Decades of Health Panics Surveyed by Science Group

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New York -- October 2004. From the great "Cranberry Scare" of 1959 to the present-day fear of chemicals in salmon, the public has been subjected to increasingly frequent warnings about the safety of the food supply and environment. However, such panics are almost never based on good scientific evidence, reports the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH).

In the fourth edition of its publication Facts Versus Fears, ACSH explains the usually scanty or non-existent data that sparked each of the great health panics of our times, the media and government reactions, and the eventual outcome -- often expensive new regulations or class action lawsuits.

Panic sometimes exacts a toll greater than dollars and cents, though:

>The campaign against the insecticide DDT that helped spawn the modern environmental movement in 1962 culminated in the banning of that chemical -- and in the deaths of millions of people from mosquito-borne malaria in the decades since.

>Fear of toxic waste at Love Canal in 1978 led to the relocation of thousands of residents, though no significant health effects were ever demonstrated.

>In 1982, the entire town of Times Beach, MO was abandoned, its residents relocated at a cost of some $33 billion, over minor exposure to the chemical dioxin -- an entire community lost to unnecessary fear.

It appears that some activists, reporters, and regulators have learned little from past panics, though. If anything, scares have accelerated in recent years -- even as the public slowly becomes numb to them. New chapters in this edition of Facts Versus Fears describe recent paranoia over PCBs -- whether they are found in trace levels in food or at the bottom of the Hudson River -- the chemical acrylamide in French fries and other high-carbohydrate foods, and the chemical thimerosal in childhood vaccines, this last unfounded scare being particularly tragic as it has caused many concerned parents to reject life-saving vaccines for their children. Despite repeated studies by major health authorities demonstrating no connection between vaccines and autism, an ongoing fear of vaccines was sparked by one small study by a British doctor working for a plaintiff attorney representing families who claimed to have children with vaccine-induced autism. The scare continues to contribute to a lower-than-optimal vaccination rate in England and the U.S. As is the case with all too many scares, cautious citizens are driven away from minuscule or non-existent risks only to increase exposure to very real, more conventional risks, such as potentially fatal childhood diseases (witness recent whooping cough outbreaks).

As the conclusion of Facts Versus Fears notes, even as scare campaigns "convince people that the increased use of chemicals and new technologies are increasing their health risks, the scientific evidence is demonstrating that technology is, in fact, helping to make the world a better -- and safer -- place." The American Council on Science and Health hopes this volume will help both the general public and people who inform the public on health matters in "considering the facts rather than falling for media hype," putting matters "into proper perspective the next time a scare appears on the horizon."