The Top Ten Unfounded Health Scares of 2006

By ACSH Staff — Dec 15, 2006
Introduction Since its founding in 1978, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) has been dedicated to providing scientifically sound health information to American consumers. As part of that mission, ACSH has frequently countered misleading and alarmist health news in print, broadcast, and online media. In a classic ACSH publication, Facts Versus Fears: A Review of the Greatest Unfounded Health Scares of Recent Times,(1) ACSH evaluated 27 of the greatest health scares of modern times, reviewing the basis of each, describing their presentation in media, and presenting scientifically accurate information on each topic. The current publication, The Top Ten Unfounded Health Scares of 2006, is organized along similar lines. Unfortunately, old scares seem neither to die nor to fade away some of these that garnered media attention in 2006 are replays of earlier scares, sometimes with a new twist.Unfounded stories, or those based mainly on hyperbole, focus attention on hypothetical risks and divert attention from real problems. While we acknowledge that media coverage of health stories is, of necessity, brief and cannot take all nuances of scientific and medical research into account, there is considerable room for improvement in health reporting particularly when it comes to sorting out health facts from health hype.We are not alone in this position. A poll by the Canadian Medical Association in 1999 found that 66% of Canadian physicians believed that news media coverage of medical health information was inaccurate.(2) Since that poll was taken, coverage has apparently not improved, according to a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine.(3) Specifically, Dr. Edward Campion, author of the editorial, noted that because most health reports are based on research findings from expert scientists, the public tends to place a lot of trust in what they read in health stories in the press and other media. He cautions, however, There is a tendency for health reports to describe events as exciting, major advances or as immediate, threatening dangers. This characteristic, especially combined with anecdotal reports of amazing cures or newly discovered risks, can mislead consumers about the relevance of a particular story to their lives or health. And the reach of the stories can be vast. For example, Campion notes that one research report led to over 340 news stories.(4)In reviewing 2006 health stories for this report, we found several characteristics that made many much less than reliable:
  • Ignoring the basic toxicological principle that the dose makes the poison. Some stories suggest that the tiniest dose of a chemical or toxin is a significant threat to human health. The incorrect implication is that the only way to deal with the supposed risk is to completely eliminate the targeted substance from food, air, water, and toys or other consumer products.
  • Misunderstanding or misinterpreting a statistical correlation to mean that a causal connection is present between an observed condition and a risk to health. A good example is the flurry of concern about the possibility that the increased prevalence of obesity is due to increased consumption of the sweetener high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). As we explain in this document, the fact that both HFCS consumption and increased obesity rates are correlated does not have to imply that one causes the other. Further, the possibility was stated as a hypothesis, but to read some of the headlines one could easily believe it had been proven in numerous studies which is not true.
  • Assuming that if large doses of a substance given to animals cause cancer or reproductive harm, then even trace amounts of that substance will cause the same result in humans. ACSH has repeatedly pointed out the fallacy of predicting human cancer risk based on animal studies. For example, our classic Holiday Dinner Menu details the many animal carcinogens that are naturally present in our foods but are present in such tiny amounts that they do us no harm. Further, a substance that is carcinogenic in one species is not necessarily carcinogenic in another. Even relatively closely related rodent species like rats and mice can differ in their reactions to a particular chemical. A more extensive examination of this issue is available in the ACSH book America's War on "Carcinogens": Reassessing The Use of Animal Tests to Predict Human Cancer Risk.
  • Presenting only one side of a health-related issue. Reiterations of incorrect information in the popular press can lead consumers to assume that some health advice is accepted by mainstream scientists when it is not. Thus, information should be presented in context, and if contentious, both sides of the argument should be given. An example of this type of imbalanced reporting is presented in our section dealing with chemicals in cosmetics. A number of websites discuss the ingredients in cosmetics as though everyone agrees that they are human carcinogens, when in fact this is not the case.
  • Failing to acknowledge that there can be risks associated with not using a product because of exaggerated fears. For example, avoiding fish consumption because of fears of mercury diminishes the intake of valuable nutrients that have actually been linked to improved health.
  • Failing to assess the long-term consequences of actions that supposedly reduce health risks. Thus, banning trans fats from New York City s restaurant foods could backfire if the trans fats are replaced with saturated fats, which we know also raise blood levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol.

Having noted these shortcomings in many health reports, ACSH must also emphasize that at least some of the time, the media do make an effort to be balanced and to advise readers when information is preliminary. We applaud these efforts and would like to see them applied more widely.

It is our hope that this 2006 roundup of unfounded health scares will encourage consumers not to mention journalists and editors to be skeptical the next time a report trumpets the discovery of either a new chemical threat or miracle cure.

1. Trans Fatty Acids Cause Obesity and Heart Disease

The Scare: Trans fats are the most dangerous ingredient in our diet.(5) Trans fatty acids (TFAs) have been in the American food supply since the early 1900s; they are produced when hydrogen is added to unsaturated fatty acids in a process known as partial hydrogenation. TFAs lend stability and useful textural characteristics to a variety of foods, similar to the effects of saturated fats. TFAs are also similar to saturated fats in that consumption of either can increase blood levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol. That much is well established. There are also some data that suggest, though not conclusively, that TFAs also lower levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. Because of these effects, there is concern that consumption of TFAs can contribute to heart disease this concern has been whipped into a full-fledged fear campaign. Some scientists and activists now speak of TFAs as though they were acutely poisonous, or supremely dangerous. (6,7) And they speak as though TFAs are uniquely responsible for heart disease being the number one cause of death in the United States.

Origin of the Scare: In the 1980s some activists urged food purveyors to use oils and fats containing TFAs in place of those containing saturated fats in order to avoid saturated fats effects on blood cholesterol levels. But when further research found that TFAs could also have negative effects on blood cholesterol, they reversed their position and have greatly exaggerated the risks of TFAs and the benefits to be gained from removing them from the American diet.

Media Coverage: Media coverage of the TFA issue has been more than extensive a Google search on trans fats yielded over three million hits. Coverage ranged from sober explanations of the effects of these ingredients on blood cholesterol levels to excited alarms conflating TFA consumption with the obesity epidemic. (8,9) And in December 2006, the New York City Board of Health voted to ban the use of TFAs in restaurant foods citywide. This decision generated a new spate of coverage the great majority lauding the Board of Health for taking steps to protect New Yorkers health. (10) It will not be surprising if other cities follow suit: Chicago is already considering doing so. (11)

The Bottom Line: The topic of TFAs is a difficult one for media to present accurately as these ingredients are certainly not beneficial to health, but are not as supremely dangerous as some would have us believe. Exaggeration of the negative health effects is not conducive to a reasonable approach to diet. ACSH has noted in a number of articles and opinions, as well as a peer-reviewed and published paper, that the consumption of transfats by Americans is low and likely to become even smaller since the FDA ruled that packaged foods must list the TFA content on their nutrition labels. Manufacturers have responded by limiting the amounts of TFAs in their products. (12,13,14) Thus the risk to heart health from TFAs is likely to decrease but we do not know that the fats that will replace TFAs (quite possibly some form of saturated fats) will be any less detrimental and this is the problem with overzealous rules to ban TFAs outright. Further, since TFAs contain the same number of calories per gram, as do all other fats, their removal will not necessarily result in lower calorie consumption which is what is needed to deal with the soaring prevalence of obesity in the United States. The TFA scare is one that has become enmeshed in nearly unprecedented levels of hyperbole and exaggeration: unfortunately it has been promoted by some who should have known better and has been applied precipitously by some for political gain, rather than in the best interests of citizens health.

2. Benzene in Soft Drinks Cause Cancer

The Scare: Soft drinks contain high levels of benzene (15) according to some activists. Small amounts of the chemical benzene were found in soft drinks, containing both the benzoate preservatives and vitamin C, that had been exposed to heat and light.

Origin of the Scare: FDA had found benzene in some drinks back in the early 1990s, and manufacturers had been warned to reformulate their products, which they did. But in 2005, an activist notified the FDA that some soft drinks contained benzene: this initiated the scare. The Environmental Working Group accused the FDA and soft drink producers of hiding the presence of benzene in some popular children s beverages. (16) The group warned consumers to avoid beverages that contain both preservatives of this sort and the vitamin, and stated that the FDA found high levels of this potent carcinogen in tests of some soft drinks, and provided a list of drinks in which the chemical had been found.

Media Coverage: Various Internet and print media covered the story with varying degrees of accuracy and hype. Some simply called the chemical a human carcinogen linked to leukemia with no mention of doses. (17) Some mentioned that the benzene was present in levels above the limit considered safe for drinking water, while others warned of [s]oft drinks found to contain high levels of cancer-causing benzene. (18)

The Bottom Line: Yes, benzene is a carcinogen at high doses and has been linked to leukemia in workers exposed over years. The current EPA limit on benzene in water is 5 parts per billion (ppb), and levels found in soft drinks were over that amount. But what the scaremongers don t tell us is that even levels above that are not necessarily going to present a problem. The amounts found in soft drinks are extraordinarily small one ppb is analogous to one second in 32 years. Back in 1990, when there was a similar scare about benzene in Perrier (naturally present in the spring the water came from), the FDA counseled that the levels (12-20 ppb) should not be of concern. (19) Again, for this latest benzene discovery, the FDA noted that the levels of the chemical in soft drinks were not a health concern. In response to a letter from the EWG, an FDA representative responded in part:

Your letter includes a list of beverage products that were purchased in retail outlets and that contain ascorbic acid and benzoates. You cite this list as evidence that the beverage industry has not eliminated the chemical combination that can form benzene. You should know, however, that the presence of benzoates and vitamin C in a product cannot be used to conclude that elevated levels of benzene have or will form. In fact, in our current analyses, the vast majority of beverages containing both benzoate preservative and ascorbic acid contained either no detectable benzene or levels below 5 ppb.(20)

Thus, the activist group exaggerated the likelihood of occurrence of benzene in soft drinks, without taking into account the science behind the presence of the chemical or the lack of health implications of the low levels found.

3. High Fructose Corn Syrup Causes Obesity

The Scare: Ubiquitous sweetener is loaded with calories. (21) This is just one of the inaccurate headlines bandied around about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a caloric sweetener produced from cornstarch. Supposedly, because it contains fructose, HFCS is handled differently by the body than regular sugar (sucrose), and is thus more likely to cause fat to be produced and retained by the body than is sucrose or other sugars.

Origin of the Scare: HFCS was the subject of a paper about correlates of obesity first presented at a scientific meeting in 2003 and published in a journal the following year. (22) By tracking the use of HFCS in the American food supply between 1970 and 2000, the authors established that HFCS consumption increased greatly during that period a period during which the occurrence of obesity also escalated. Although the authors of the paper stated clearly that they were alluding to overconsumption of foods and beverages containing HFCS playing a role in the obesity epidemic, that was not the message promulgated by much of the media. Frequently, allusion was made to this unnatural ingredient foisted on an unsuspecting public by evil food and beverage manufacturers. Few, if any, reporters noted that the concept of HFCS having a major impact on obesity was a hypothesis not a proven scientific concept.

Media Coverage: The putative effects of HFCS consumption on body fat created a media frenzy, which has not completely died down even after 2 years of exposure and explanation. Some media outlets still tout the unproven health risks from HFCS. (22) Food critics skip the explanations, and simply refer to HFCS as unhealthy, and imply that it is uniquely fattening. (23,24) In one case, a food writer chose one brand of beans over another not because of differing amounts of fats or calories, but because the preferred variety used honey instead of HFCS as a sweetener he said that HFCS is a no-no. (25) One writer recently likened the health threats of HFCS to those of anthrax and plutonium! (26) Misinformation abounds, as in an article that cites a physician stating that fructose increases insulin release which it does not do. (27) Some manufacturers are now exploiting the fact that HFCS is not a natural ingredient as a marketing tool.(28)

The Bottom Line: In a nutshell, the truth is that HFCS is no more or less dangerous to health than is any other sugar. Its chemical composition is essentially the same as that of sucrose (table sugar), and it is digested by the gastrointestinal tract and absorbed into the body in the very same way. (29,30,31) HFCS and sugar have essentially the same number of calories per gram, and since HFCS tastes a bit sweeter than sugar, slightly smaller amounts of it could be used to attain a similar level of sweetness. If people gain weight because they re drinking too many sweetened drinks, it s because of the extra calories not because of the particular sweetener used in the drinks. Finally, the obesity epidemic is not limited to the United States it s global. For example, in Egypt the prevalence of obesity in children has quadrupled over the past 18 years but HFCS is not a widely used sweetener there. (32) The misinformation about HFCS still so prevalent in the media directs people s attention away from the bottom line and succeeds in confusing, not helping, those who wish to eat healthfully and lose weight.

4. Tuna Has Unsafe Mercury Levels

The Scare: Mercury in Tuna: New Safety Concerns. This was the title of the recent Consumer Reports article that sparked the latest scare involving mercury in seafood. Mercury is a toxic metal that is naturally present in the environment and can also be released by human activity such as emissions from coal-burning power plants. When in water, mercury is converted into methyl mercury, a potent neurotoxin, which then enters the food chain. Therefore, methyl mercury is present in small quantities in fish. Larger fish accumulate more methyl mercury than do smaller fish, partly because they are higher up in the food chain.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets a reference dose for human blood levels of mercury and recommends amounts and types of seafood that women who are or may become pregnant and young children should eat in order to limit their exposure to mercury. Media coverage in 2006 of a few mercury-related reports and recommendations set off new alarm about the effects of mercury found in seafood.

Origin of the Scare:
In July 2006, Consumer Reports (33) magazine published an article stating that pregnant women should avoid all canned tuna for fear of the presence of unsafe levels of mercury. Consumer Reports analyzed data from the FDA and concluded that 6% of canned tuna contained levels of mercury higher than what the FDA deems safe levels for pregnant women to consume. Most cans of light tuna contain on average 0.12 parts per million of mercury, while white or albacore tuna has on average about 0.35 parts per million. But 6% of light-tuna cans tested contained levels above 0.12 parts per million, some as high as 0.85 parts per million. (34) Consumer Reports asserted that because the FDA says pregnant women should never eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish, all of which have higher levels of mercury than tuna (king mackerel averages .73 parts per million, for instance),(35) then these new findings should change recommendations for tuna, since the possibility exists that any given can of tuna may have higher than expected levels of mercury.

The article mentioned an increased risk of mercury poisoning in fetuses. The authors claim that studies of fish-eating populations have linked low-level mercury exposure in pregnant women and young children with subtle impairments in neurological and behavioral functioning, such as hearing, eye-hand coordination, and learning ability. While the article admits that the effects of sporadic exposure to the higher mercury levels in some light-tuna cans have not been determined, it continues to say that some scientists are concerned that even brief exposure to those mercury levels at critical points in fetal development may be harmful.

Media Coverage:
The coverage included articles from the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. The Chicago Tribune (36) headline included New Warning for Canned Tuna: Mercury Risk for Pregnant Women Too High. Stories by the Los Angeles Times and USA Today played up the scare and included the benefits of fish consumption as an afterthought. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (37) concluded that light tuna had worrisome amounts of mercury in it.

In addition, numerous activists groups including the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and the Mercury Policy Project (MPP), picked up the story. EWG claims to tell consumers what the FDA won t in terms of seafood s safety. It states that the levels of safe fish consumption recommended by the FDA are too high. CSPI applauded the Consumer Reports study and advised pregnant women to limit tuna consumption. MPP also mentioned the new report and suggested that the government should stop subsidizing the seafood industry at the expense of exposing America s poorest and most vulnerable to mercury, a known neurotoxin.

The Bottom Line: The Consumer Reports article should be viewed with much skepticism. The FDA says that although some canned tuna may contain higher mercury levels, most are lower. When recommendations are made about the amount of tuna that pregnant women can safely consume, scientists consider the average level of mercury in one serving of tuna. Only 6% of the cans of tuna tested had higher than average mercury levels. I haven't seen science that a single serving of a higher level would be of concern, says David Acheson, chief medical officer of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Mercury is very much a chronic-exposure concern. You build up the levels in the blood, and that seems to be the problem. (38)

Furthermore, fish is one of the most healthful of dietary selections. It is a good source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to be beneficial for our hearts and brains. Several studies have shown that eating more fish, especially fatty fish, is associated with lower rates of heart disease and sudden cardiac death.

A recently published study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (39) confirms that the benefits of moderate fish consumption outweigh any risk from mercury in fish. Researchers from Harvard Medical School and School of Public Health pooled data from over 200 studies of fish and its relation to cardiovascular health as well as health risks from contaminants such as PCBs, mercury, and dioxin. The studies showed that moderate fish intake about one to two servings of fish a week correlated to a 36% decrease in cardiovascular risk and a 17% decrease in overall mortality.

It was also stated that women who are pregnant, may become pregnant, or are nursing should avoid fish with the highest levels of mercury, including tilefish, swordfish, and king mackerel. Infants of mothers who consumed several portions of other fish weekly showed improved health.

In conclusion, the Consumer Reports article only serves to alarm the public, especially pregnant women or women who may become pregnant. In promoting an unfounded fear of tuna, the most widely consumed fish in America, activists will discourage people from enjoying a nutritious food that has health benefits that far outweigh any risks.

5. Nitrosamines in Bacon Cause Bladder Cancer

The Scare: Think Twice Before You Bring Home the Bacon. (40) Headlines like this one from warn consumers of a supposed link between bacon consumption and bladder cancer. Nitrosamines, which are suspected bladder carcinogens, or their precursors, are found in certain meat items. Meats contain amines. Nitrosamines form when sodium nitrite, an added preservative and a source of nitrosating agents, reacts with the amines present in the meat. Of all the cured meats, bacon has received the most attention. It often contains detectable levels of nitrosamines, principally nitrosopyrrolidine and, to a lesser extent, dimethylnitrosamine. The very high cooking temperatures used to fry bacon are conducive to nitrosamine formation. The removal of sodium nitrite as a food additive was considered in the late 1970s after extensive attention was focused on the issue of nitrosamines in cured meats. (42) A study published in the American Journal of Nutrition (43) in 2006 claimed to show a link between the consumption of bacon and skinless chicken and an increased risk of bladder cancer.

Origin of the Scare: In November, the American Journal of Nutrition published a study claiming that consuming five or more servings of bacon a week was associated with an increased risk of bladder cancer. The report analyzed the effects of meat consumption on two cohorts of men and women. The analysis showed that men and women with a high intake of bacon (five or more servings a week) had an elevated risk of bladder cancer compared with those who never ate bacon. The study notes that these results are not statistically significant. The authors also noted a positive association between intake of skinless chicken, but not for chicken with skin or for other meats, including hotdogs, processed meats, and hamburgers. The authors also note that other studies similar to theirs would need to be conducted to confirm the findings.

Media Coverage:
Despite the fact that the results of this study were shown to be statistically insignificant, various newspapers picked it up with headlines such as Bacon, Bad; Chicken Skin, Good, Think Twice Before You Bring Home the Bacon, and Bacon Tied to Bladder Cancer. Reuters (44) reported that eating too much bacon could be hazardous to a person s health because of the presence of nitrosamines, which are known to cause bladder cancer. The story was also reported on BBC News in the United Kingdom. (45) This report was fairly balanced, noting that the research was far from definitive. It also mentioned that the study shows that those who ate the most bacon were also more likely to smoke and take in more fat and fewer vitamins, and less likely to exercise, all risk factors for cancer.

The Bottom Line: The results from the study of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition should not concern anyone who occasionally enjoys bacon and skinless chicken. First of all, the results were not statistically significant. Secondly, this is only one study, and the first of its kind, and therefore, it needs to be replicated in future studies in order to prove a link between bacon and skinless chicken and bladder cancer.

The other factor to consider is the labeling of nitrosamines as carcinogens. Most suspected carcinogens are tested in high-dose rodent studies. There are major biological and physiological differences between rats or mice and humans that prevent rodent studies from accurately predicting cancer risk in humans. Additionally, these studies expose the animal to far higher doses of a chemical than a human would normally encounter.

Sodium nitrite is added to meat as a preservative, especially in preventing the growth of the bacterium that causes botulism. When sodium nitrite is added to meat, it combines with the amines already present in the meat to form nitrosamines, the suspected carcinogens. Removing sodium nitrite from meat would prevent nitrosamine formation, but it might also increase the risk of botulism poisoning. (46) In this case, the real risk of botulism poisoning outweighs the unproven risk of bladder cancer.

6. Teflon Contains a Cancer-Causing Chemical (PFOA)

The Scare: Recently, the public has become concerned about the potential human health effects of PFOA (perflurooctanoic acid or perfluoroocanoate) a chemical used to produce substances needed to manufacture Teflon and other products. PFOA is mainly used to produce other chemicals, which are then used in the production of products such as Teflon coating in cookware. Research has shown that very high doses of PFOA can cause harm to animals, but the amount of PFOA to which the general population is exposed is much lower.

In 2004, concerns about PFOA were widely reported in the media because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claimed that DuPont, the manufacturer of Teflon, had not adequately reported information about PFOA s presence in water supplies and its ability to cross the placenta from mother to fetus. In February of this year, a group of scientific advisers to the Environmental Protection Agency voted to approve a recommendation that PFOA be considered a likely human carcinogen.

Origin of the Scare:
Concern over Teflon and human health have been around for a long time. This most recent scare was instigated by the recent EPA report. Controversy exists regarding the report s use of certain unpublished studies. Some members of the review panel disagreed with the majority view that PFOA should be classified as a likely carcinogen. These members pointed out that previously the EPA had determined that there was only suggestive evidence from animal studies that PFOA and its salts are potential human carcinogens.

Media Coverage: As with Teflon scares in the past, this scare was immediately picked up by the media. NBC News, CBS News, BBC News, and Fox News were a few of the news sources that ran stories about the EPA s new recommendation. NBC News (47) incorrectly stated that PFOA was present in pots and pans. In fact, the chemical is destroyed in the manufacturing process and is not present in pots and pans that are coated in Teflon.

In addition, activists groups such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG), who has been advocating the banning of Teflon for years, commented on the new recommendations from the EPA. Our concern is that this is a very unique chemical, said Richard Wiles with the EWG. It lasts, literally, for eternity, and now it has been determined to be a likely human carcinogen. That ranks it up there with DDT, PCBs, and dioxin as a very serious hazard. It needs to be banned.

The Bottom Line: While research has shown the adverse effects of high doses of PFOA in animals, studies of workers (who are exposed to much higher doses of PFOA than the general population) have not shown the same effects in humans that occur in animals. Additionally, laboratory animals that experience adverse effects from PFOA are exposed to amounts that are hundreds to thousands of times higher than those to which the general population is exposed.

There is doubt, however, as to whether at least some of the effects observed in animals are relevant to humans at all, since some biological mechanisms that produce these effects are not present in humans. Furthermore, workers with blood levels of PFOA equal to or higher than those that have been found to cause adverse effects in animals have themselves not shown any adverse effects. This suggests that the margins of safety for the general population may be even higher than the risk analyses predict.

While further research is needed in order to more fully understand how PFOA acts in the body, the current data indicate that we can expect no risk to human health associated with the levels of PFOA exposure found in the general population.

7. Grilled Chicken: Another Cancer Risk?

The Scare: Grilled chicken can cause cancer, according to President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), Neil Bernard. His comment was made in response to the discovery of a heterocyclic amine, listed as a carcinogen under California law, in samples of grilled chicken from restaurants across California. Heterocyclic amines are formed during the cooking of meat. Their formation is a function of the cooking method and is related to temperature and duration. It occurs at the highest concentrations in grilled chicken. This particular chemical (abbreviated as PhIP) has been known to cause tumors and other adverse health effects when given in high doses to laboratory rodents. (48) In 2006, under the provisions of California s Proposition 65, the PCRM sued various restaurants including McDonald s, Burger King, and Outback Steakhouse after samples of their grilled chicken tested positive for PhIP.

Origin of the Scare: PCRM commissioned a laboratory to test grilled chicken products from various restaurants. They found PhIP in the grilled chicken samples from each restaurant where samples were collected.

Under California s law called Proposition 65, PCRM filed suit against McDonald s, Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Chili s, Applebee s, Outback Steakhouse, and TGI Friday s in the Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Los Angeles. Proposition 65 is a law in California that restricts discharges of listed chemicals into known drinking water sources, although the major activity of Proposition 65 has been in the area of warnings. Under the Act, a clear and reasonable warning must be given prior to a known and intentional exposure to a listed substance. PCRM wants these restaurants to warn their customers that there is a chemical, listed as a carcinogen under Proposition 65, that is present in their grilled chicken.

Media Coverage: PCRM posted notices of the suit on their website and announced it in their online newsletter. It was also picked up by Internet blogs and other websites including On PCRM's website, president Neil Bernard completely exaggerated the threat, claiming that just one grilled chicken salad increases a person s risk of breast cancer and prostate cancer. He also went on to say, Grilled chicken can cause cancer, and consumers deserve to know that this supposedly healthy product is actually just as bad for them as high-fat fried chicken.

The Bottom Line: Proposition 65, passed into law by the voters of California in 1986, was created with the intent of improving public health through reductions in the incidence of cancer and adverse reproductive outcomes that might result from exposure to potentially hazardous chemicals. The law strives to reduce human exposure by restricting discharges of listed chemicals into known drinking water sources, although the major activity of the Act has been in the area of warnings.

Proposition 65 places little emphasis on the major known risk factors for human cancer and reproductive toxicity. In contrast, many listed chemicals are included because of effects in laboratory animals, not humans. Data regarding human exposure to PhIP is inconclusive. There is no strong evidence that PhIP causes tumors, cancer, or other adverse health effects in humans. One grilled chicken salad certainly won t increase a person s risk of breast or prostate cancer.

8. Meat Packaging Threatens Consumer's Health

The Scare: Meat Industry Quietly Begins Spiking Meat Packages with Carbon Monoxide. (49) Headlines such as this imply that something nefarious is going on something that industry is trying to hide. Not true. Beef has been a staple in the American diet since the 1860s, when the cattle industry expanded into the Wild West. According to the USDA, Americans today consume around 64 pounds of beef every year. Since most Americans no longer raise their own cattle, we rely on farms and feedlots to provide us with this meat, and on their adherence to regulations to keep it safe for us to consume. (50)

Beef can be packaged either in the butcher section of your grocery store or at a centralized industrial facility that provides stores with case-ready packaged products. The differences between these processes affect the shelf-life and appearance of the meat and its packaging. Butchers use in-store meat cutters to prepare cuts of meat, which they then package in a Styrofoam tray covered with a clear plastic film. This film does not seal the package; it allows oxygen to move in, a process necessary for beef to develop the deep red color consumers recognize. This red color lasts only as long as four days before the beef will naturally turn brown. However, the color change is unavoidable in these packaging conditions and the meat is safe for another few days with refrigeration. (51)

When cuts of beef are prepared industrially, the meat is actually sealed within its packaging before it is shipped. In order to maintain freshness, modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) is often used. High oxygen atmospheres will turn beef the color red familiar to customers, but this system also accelerates the rate at which the beef turns brown. Low oxygen atmospheres do not allow the beef to achieve its characteristic bright red color, but the meat does not turn brown as quickly on the shelf. (52) In 2001, the FDA approved a MAP technology utilizing carbon monoxide (CO) as GRAS (generally recognized as safe). This atmosphere contains oxygen as well as up to 0.4% CO and allows the beef to turn red as well as maintain a desirable color while on the shelf. This extends the shelf life of the beef because consumers generally do not purchase brown meat even though it is still fresh, a practice that costs the beef industry over one million dollars each year. (53)

Origin of the Scare: In November 2005, Kalsec, Inc., a Michigan-based producer of food extracts, submitted a Citizen Petition requesting that the FDA enforce a ban on carbon monoxide use in fresh meat packaging and terminate the GRAS status granted several years earlier. They requested this ban to prevent serious food safety harms to the public and preserve consumer confidence in the safely and integrity of the U.S. meat supply. They claim that the maintenance of a bright red color is deceiving to customers who will not be able to distinguish between fresh meat and spoiled meat. (54)

Media Coverage: On February 20, 2006, the Washington Post published an article entitled FDA Is Urged to Ban Carbon-Monoxide-Treated Meat. Author Rick Weiss claimed that the meat industry has quietly begun to spike meat packages with carbon monoxide in order to give meat a bright pink color that lasts weeks. Weiss quoted both Kalsec and several consumer advocacy groups who spoke out against the technology. They made claims that the FDA is deceiving customers into buying modified foods that they would otherwise pass up, thus potentially endangering anyone who might consume the meat. The article mentions briefly that Kalsec, Inc, has an economic interest in this debate because they produce extracts to use in high-oxygen MAP that prevent the meat from turning brown. The adoption of carbon monoxide MAP technology is a threat to this segment of their extract business. (55)

The following day, newspapers around the country printed articles similar to the one published in the Post, and carbon monoxide spiked meat made it onto television news programs as well. ABC s Good Morning America featured a segment entitled Is Your Meat Safe to Eat? in which they called carbon monoxide MAP technology a secret science being used to trick consumers into buying meat that may not be fresh. However, the segment and other news programs did provide viewers with tips stating that in spite of the red color, rancid meat will be easily distinguishable from fresh meat by bulging packages, an altered texture, a foul smell, and a noticeable sliminess. Consumers were also advised to pay attention to the sell-by dates posted on packages of meat. (56)

The Bottom Line: The scare surrounding the use of carbon monoxide in meat packaging is based on unscientific claims made by Kalsec, Inc. MAP technology has been in use for over 20 years by the meat industry, and carbon monoxide MAP technology has been used for over four years. During this time there have been virtually no complaints from consumers who believed they were deceived into purchasing products that appeared fresh yet were in fact rancid. The American Meat Institute submitted a letter to the FDA in response to Kalsec s petition on the day after the Post article ran. They accused Kalsec of initiating a public relations campaign to create unnecessary confusion within the industry and inappropriately affect consumer confidence in meat products and claimed that their assertion is unfounded on both legal and factual grounds. (57) The FDA still considers this technology GRAS and has not rescinded the status.

According to the USDA there are four potentially harmful organisms commonly associated with beef: E. Coli (strain O157:H7),Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, and Listeria monocytogenes. All of these organisms can be contained with sanitary handling techniques and destroyed with proper cooking techniques. (58) The use of carbon monoxide in MAP does not extend the shelf-life of packaged meat and therefore does not make it more likely that consumers will purchase a product that is contaminated. Carbon monoxide is used only as a color stabilizer and has no effect on the growth of bacteria on meat. Consumers are advised to always adhere to sell-by and use-by dates provided on meat packages, which will minimize the potential exposure to harmful bacteria. (59)

9. Consumers Should Fear Chemicals in Cosmetics

The Scare: Cosmetics and other personal care products are the most dependable resource for scaremongers seeking a new target. Protect yourself! warns a new website. (60) The wide array of chemicals in shampoos, makeup, shaving creams, toothpastes, and deodorants sound dangerously hazardous when we are bombarded with their oftentimes foreign, multisyllabic names. With good reason, reports of toxicity involving products used daily by millions of Americans always make the news as chemicals are linked to everything from cancer to developmental problems to infectious diseases.

Origin of the Scare: In October 2005, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) launched a website called Skin Deep. This ongoing project is a brand-by-brand personal care product safety guide with in-depth information on 14,841 products...[providing] safety ratings and brand-by-brand comparisons that can help consumers choose safer products, and that can guide companies in plans for reformulating products. The website is divided into eight sections according to product categories: skin care, makeup, hair care, nails, eye care, feminine hygiene, dental and oral hygiene, and fragrances. The products are then broken down by the types, likely exposure, and form of the product (i.e. liquid, gel, solid, etc.) for easier searching. From here the user can determine the toxicity rating of their product as well as look up individual ingredients to see the classifications given to each based on safety data compiled by EWG. The data comes from 37 unique sources including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the National Toxicology Program (NTP), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Skin Deep assigns each ingredient a hazard rating on a weighted scale from the lowly Not likely to be carcinogenic in humans to the more volatile Restricted in EU cosmetics and Known human carcinogen. (61)

This website does not provide information on the dosage used to achieve the toxicities listed. It also does not inform readers whether or not these results were derived from rodent experiments or have human data to support the toxicity ratings. Consumers are thus led to believe that everyday cosmetic use can lead to cancer and developmental disorders.

Media Coverage:
Since its inception last October, this website has become a go-to reference for all of the latest cosmetic scares. TheChicago Tribune got a head start this year when Julie Deardorff cited Skin Deep in an article entitled, 10 Ways to Improve Your Health in 2006. Number Seven, Stop Blushing, advises women, If you wouldn t eat it, don t smear it on your body, which absorbs chemicals like a sponge. (62) In March, an AP publicizing the site appeared in newspapers nationwide. The opening line, Just because something is derived from a plant doesn t mean it s entirely safe for humans to use, especially on your skin. Have you ever heard of poison ivy? The article goes on to question the safety of products that are not pre-approved by the FDA before hitting the shelves. Consequently, an EWG spokesperson describes the cosmetics industry as self-regulating and says consumers are often misled into buying unsafe products because they do not know better. (63)

Skin Deep is regularly cited as a reference in articles pertaining to potential personal product toxicity. This media coverage is easily accessible on the EWG website, where readers can trace the most current scares. To their credit, most articles quote scientists offering reassurance that preliminary studies do not a carcinogen make.

The Bottom Line: Although cosmetics do not require FDA approval before they are sold in the United States, the FDA has the power to mandate warning labels and issue recalls if they deem a product unsafe. The FDA also maintains the right to inspect products and their production and prosecute companies should it be warranted by their investigations. An independent scientific organization, the Cosmetics Ingredient Review Board (CIR), also works to ensure the safety of personal care products. CIR makes recommendations to companies based on their own studies of cosmetics ingredients, which are published in a peer-reviewed journal. However, cosmetic companies are responsible for their own safety testing and therefore for the overall safety of their product. It is, in fact, in a cosmetic company s best interest to keep its customers alive and healthy so they may continue to buy eyeliner, nail polish, and deodorant. When it comes to cosmetics, consumers should keep in mind that the dose makes the poison. Simply because a chemical can be harmful to a rodent at high exposure does not mean that everyday exposure will have the same effect on humans. (64)

10. Hormone Replacement Therapy Fears and Hype About "Natural" Alternatives

The Scare: Run away from synthetic hormones is just one example of a slogan born of misplaced faith in so-called natural hormones.(65) Because of fears of mass-produced synthetic drugs, many women are turning to bioidentical hormones for hormone replacement after menopause. Bioidentical Hormone Therapy, as discussed here, involves a regimen of hormones that are chemically identical to human hormones, like pharmaceuticals, but are instead derived from the plant versions of the same estrogens, testosterones, and progesterones.

This therapy, however, involves an individualized regimen of hormones that are unapproved and unregulated by the FDA. (66) The hormones are custom-mixed by a specialized pharmacist after being prescribed by a doctor. (64)

Origin of the Scare:
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has long been an option for menopausal women who want relief from their unpleasant symptoms and a lowered risk from potential future illness. Pharmaceutical companies manufacture synthetic hormones that the FDA first tests and approves before ultimately regulating. These drugs are then deemed safe for use by patients for whom doctors prescribe them.

After recent research suggested that HRT might cause more harm than good, many women began searching for alternatives to the traditional pharmaceutical regimen. In October 2006, Suzanne Somers released a book entitled, Ageless: The Naked Truth About Bioidentical Hormones. This natural remedy is supposed to be safer than the traditional hormone regimen prescribed by doctors because the hormones come from plant sources. This book promotes a hormone replacement therapy using plant-derived hormones in an individualized regimen involving unique dosages for each woman. She claims that bioidentical hormones reversed her body s aging process and can do the same for any woman willing to try the therapy. Although it may sound good coming from the mouth of a celebrity, the therapy Somers promotes in her book was not created by a physician, nor does Somers have any sort of science degree. (67)

Media Coverage: After the release of her book in mid-October, Somers began a nonstop publicity tour during which she appeared on talk shows on every network in the United States as well as Canada. She sold her book and her therapy regimen in the allotted time claiming that she owed essentially everything positive in her life to bioidenticals. On NBC s Today, Somers told Anne Curry, I just feel so good...I am perfectly hormonally balanced. I m a really fun woman to live with. I wake up happy almost every day. And my moods are even, my weight is good, I sleep. (68) She did not, however, mention the cosmetic surgeries she underwent to preserve her youthful appearance. (69) When interviewed on CBS s The Early Show, Somers told Rene Syler that she would run away from synthetic hormones...Bioidentical hormones are biologically identical to the human hormone, an exact replica of what we once made or are still making small amounts of. (70) Somers, as a convincing and upbeat speaker, promoted her product with these types of televised conversations for an entire week in October. She got her book noticed, and bioidenticals became better known. Today, a Google search for Bioidentical hormones yields over 300,000 results, most of which target people looking for a natural solution or alternative to pharmaceuticals.

The Bottom Line: Bioidentical hormones, though derived from plant hormones, must still be manufactured synthetically, making them no more natural than those from pharmaceutical companies. More importantly, these synthetic drugs lack the history of proper FDA testing that ensures any drug s safety for human use. In November of this year, the American Medical Association (AMA) released a statement on bioidentical hormone therapy. The physicians called for FDA oversight of this therapy out of concern that patients are receiving potentially misleading or flawed information about custom compounded bioidentical hormones. The AMA calls attention to the fact that there is no scientific basis for claims that the compounded hormone therapies have a different risk-benefit ratio than FDA-approved hormone replacement therapies. (71) The specific hormones used in Somers therapies have not been tested and, therefore, may have adverse effects when used in these new ratios.

Hormone replacement therapy, even without bioidenticals, is a complex issue. Previously thought to be largely beneficial, recent research suggests that women who take these medications might be at a higher risk for heart disease, breast cancer, and stroke. For some women, the benefits to HRT may outweigh the risks, but only a licensed physician should make this decision. (72) Please consult your physician before starting any regimen of medications and be skeptical of those that are not regulated and approved by the FDA.