ACSH Dispatches Round-Up

October 1, 2007: Meat, Booze, Movies, and Toothpaste

-- Quote to Note: "That precedent could embolden other groups campaigning to rid movies of portrayals of gun use, transfat consumption, or other behavior that could be proved harmful to the public." --New York Times article on movie studios taking smoking out of films rated G, PG, or PG-13.

-- For the second time in four days, ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan appeared in the op-ed section of the New York Post, which has the seventh-highest circulation of any daily U.S. newspaper. Today's article, on "Booze and Breast Cancer," criticized the coverage of a study suggesting that drinking three or more alcoholic beverages a day can increase a woman's risk of breast cancer. First, there is the small relative risk from drinking (it results in a 30% increase in risk of breast cancer as compared, for example, to the 1,000% increase in risk of lung cancer resulting from smoking a pack of cigarettes a day). Additionally, Whelan pointed out, the increased risk of drinking can be mitigated by simply taking some extra folic acid, a B-vitamin. ACSH staffers wonder if there will be a run on drugstores for folic acid supplements. Maybe there should be.

-- The latest meat recall just expanded. Today's New York Times reported that now 23.7 million pounds of ground meat may be contaminated with E. coli. That's a lot of potential E. coli, a very real food safety risk. How many more of these recalls and scares are we going to have before we start using irradiation treatment, ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava asks. The company Omaha Steaks has been irradiating its frozen meat for years, she explains, and the meat tastes just fine. Also, there's no fear of E. coli being found in it.

-- In other health scares today, a Panamanian "everyman" single-handedly discovered a toxin in his toothpaste. The poison, diethylene glycol, is a sweet-tasting ingredient in antifreeze that had been mixed in cold syrup in Panama, killing or disabling at least 138 Panama residents. ACSH staffers said it was the way the poison was found that is most disturbing -- diethylene glycol was listed in the ingredients section on the toothpaste box. It passed through the hands of Health Ministry officials, store owners, and thousands of other consumers, but only one man actually read the label and recognized the poison.

-- The movie industry is kicking the cigarette habit, one pack at a time, the New York Times reported today. Anti-smoking activists are making their mark on soundstages, aiming to associate cigarette smoking with movie ratings; movies with smoking could be unable to attain a rating of G, PG, or PG-13. Some ACSH staffers applaud movie studios for recognizing the impressionable nature of children -- as ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross pointed out in 2003, kids who recall having been exposed to more movies featuring smoking are almost three times more likely to start smoking than their peers who do not recall being exposed to many movie smoking scenes.

However, we were a little taken aback by the article. Yes, recognize the negative and dangerous impact smoking can have on young people. But we wonder about the slippery slope of taking something out of a movie for "safety's sake." One line in the article in particular (see the Quote to Note above), about next targeting trans fats and guns, struck a chord with us. What is the movie industry going to do, make every film politically correct? Will a film's rating now be R because a man is eating a meal with margarine that contains trans fats? It's absurd. While making movies with smoking R-rated makes some sense, common sense must be used before trying to broaden this rating to every "scares of the day."

October 2, 2007: Sick Kids and Shingles

-- Quote to Note: "When I was working in India and Pakistan and the Near East countries in the 1960s and 1970s, nobody thought these soils were ever going to be productive." --Dr. Norman Borlaug, a founding director of ACSH and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his agricultural achievements.

-- Is your child sneezing a lot? Well, think twice before using some cold medicine -- at least, that's what the latest advisory from the FDA says. ACSH staffers said they see three questions regarding cold medicine for children: whether the medicine is safe, whether it's effective, and whether it's properly used. ACSH's Jeff Stier says he doesn't think anyone would disagree that there could be better guidance when it comes to dosing; it's too easy to get the size a little bit off when measuring. ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan says effectiveness and safety also are dependent upon the age of the children taking the medicine.

What's also interesting in articles about the issue is how the pharmaceutical industry is under fire. For parents, it's particularly disconcerting to see that medicines marketed specifically for children may now be labeled as dangerous. ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross, however, points out that a grand total of fifty-four deaths among children had been linked to these remedies since 1969. That's thirty-eight years, meaning a little more than one child fatality annually. How could this low fatality rate be linked on a cause and effect basis to these common cold preparations, Dr. Ross asked?

-- Following yesterday's coverage of contamination in more than 20 million pounds of meat, Dr. Whelan said she was frustrated to read in USA Today an article about how the meat industry is working hard to prevent E. coli in its packaged products and still see no mention of food irradiation. Journalists continue to ignore an important aspects of the story.

-- When reading about the shingles vaccine in the New York Times science section today, ACSH staffers couldn't help but wonder why more people are not getting the shot. Researchers estimate that if the vaccination is used, about 250,000 cases of shingles could be prevented yearly, and an additional 250,000 cases would be less severe. While shingles becomes more dangerous as you get older, the vaccination is best if gotten when you are between sixty and sixty-nine years old. Why are more people not getting this, Dr. Whelan wondered aloud. Is it distribution problems? Another factor could be cost -- the shot costs $300 dollars. But when you consider how many thousands of dollars treatment and/or possible hospitalization could cost if you contract shingles, it seems like a good investment.

-- Finally, ACSH staffers welcome Tara Parker-Pope's new column in the New York Times science section as well as her blog on Here at ACSH, we missed her the last few weeks after she departed from the Wall Street Journal. We also enjoyed her write-up today on America's Next Top Model going smoke-free -- something we also discussed in a blog last week.

October 3, 2007: Chemicals, Smokeless Tobacco, and Missing Spliced Tomatoes

-- Quote to Note: If every smoker in the United States were to switch to smokeless tobacco, "in the next decade we would see fewer cancers and less heart disease." --Thomas Glynn, the director of cancer science and trends at the American Cancer Society.

-- Humans may be unable to taste the difference between organic food and food produced with the help of synthetic chemicals, but that doesn't stop a team of Swiss and Austrian scientists from seeking a worthier connoisseur: rats. Yes, it seems rats can tell the difference between the two types of fare, and, at least in the report cited, they preferred the organic wheat to the conventional wheat. But ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava asks, do you want to eat like a rat or eat like a person? In whose footsteps do you really want to follow?

-- When it comes to trusting dubious sources, we'd be willing to bet those likely to trust the rats and eat only organic from now on are the same people who probably ate up the op-ed in today's New York Times about our drinking water and how "toxic" it is. The writer pointed out how New York City's drinking water is filled with toxins and carcinogens. The New York City Department of Health, currently launching a massive campaign to encourage drinking tap water, should very well take him on. As ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross countered, how many waterborne illnesses and/or deaths have we had in the country, let alone the city? The answer: slim to none. And as for all the deadly toxins and carcinogens in our water, we wonder how the op-ed writer explains our country's enviable good health and declining cancer rates.

-- But there was one article today that caught our eye as quite accurate -- the New York Times finally placed on the front page of its business section a feature on smokeless tobacco. While the American Cancer Society tends to obfuscate about this topic, saying smokeless tobacco is a gateway drug to smoking cigarettes, ACSH staffers were happy to read a review that was encouraging overall. ACSH has long supported the option of smokeless tobacco as a means of helping addicted smokers who switch to it to reduce the very high health risks they would have incurred by continuing to smoke. Smokless is a less harmful way to get a nicotine fix; Sweden, where Snus (the Swedish brand of smokeless tobacco) is very popular, has both the lowest smoking rates in Europe and lower incidences than neighboring countries of smoking-related diseases (such as lung and oral cancer).

-- ACSH staffers were excited to read in yesterday's _Wall Street Journal_ about an experimental farm making sweeter tomatoes. By doing this, Heinz, the company growing these tomatoes, is cutting down on its need for corn syrup. Other newly-bred tomatoes resist disease better and stay fresh longer. We at ACSH were disappointed, though, that Heinz emphasized that it is not using genetic modification. ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava commented that it's a shame they're not using genetic engineering techniques to alter the tomatoes -- it'd probably make the process go a whole lot faster, and it wouldn't hurt either the tomatoes or consumers. Heinz seems to be caving in to the baseless fears about genetically-modified food.

October 4, 2007: Salt, Stress, Beef, and Biopsies

-- Quote to Note: "I remember the words, 'You don't have breast cancer, you never did.'" --Darrie Eason, a thirty-five-year-old from Long Island, NY, who underwent a double-mastectomy after she was told she had breast cancer. It turns out her biopsy slide was mixed up in the lab.

-- Take a look at Campbell's soup cans and you may see a new advertising tagline proclaiming the product now uses sea salt, not sodium chloride.

This morning, ACSH staffers discussed whether this promise of change really warrants any excitement: Does sea salt actually make a real difference, in taste or in levels of sodium? Probably not in taste, ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava said. While it's lower in sodium, sea salt has more minerals in it, so the taste is probably just as salty. And should the level of sodium matter? Dr. Kava gave a sigh of disbelief. If a person has a serious problem, like congestive heart failure, then replacing sodium chloride -- table salt -- with sea salt probably won't do much good. ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross said there may be some benefit in terms of sodium intake, but how much he can't say.

-- Following the E. coli contamination story, today the New York Times reported on the class-action lawsuit against Topps, the beef producer. ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan said, after reading the list of complaints printed in the Times, that she again wonders why there is no mention of irradiation. It surprises ACSH that this hasn't been the basis of the lawsuit. After all, people are getting sick and this company has not been using readily-available technology that could prevent the contamination.

-- Sending a shiver down women's spines this morning was the appearance of a Long Island woman on Good Morning America to talk about the double mastectomy she received unnecessarily due to a mix-up. The lab processing her slides accidentally switched two people's results. While she did get a second opinion, both doctors agreed with the course of action -- because they were both using the same lab slides (which were not, in actuality, hers).

While, as Dr. Ross said, mistakes happen all too frequently in medicine, some ACSH staffers wonder if the answer is to require two independent samples be tested before extensive surgery. (Of course, insurance companies would probably not be too pleased with this idea). The main concern for the immediate future, though, is finding the woman the other woman whose slides were involved in the mix-up -- who actually has a highly aggressive form of breast cancer.

-- ACSH staffers also discussed an article in today's New England Journal of Medicine that confirms it is particularly important for seniors (among other high-risk groups) to get an annual flu vaccination. The researchers found major decreases in both hospitalizations and deaths related to flu and pneumonia over a ten-year period in more than 100,000 patients at several HMOs who got a flu shot. This is a retort to an article last week that questioned the vaccine's efficacy in older people.

Now is a good time to get your flu shot!

-- Finally, it looks like stress at work is taking another hit today. A week of bad reviews for workplace stress continues into this morning's news cycle, when we learned that not only can stress in the workplace lead to breast cancer, it can also cause depression. At least we can have a drink when we go home to relax. Oh, wait -- we supposedly can't do that, either. A word to the media: one of our main sources of stress is the hyping of these studies!

October 5, 2007: Sea Food and Sea Salt

-- Quote to Note: "There is a big debate about what is safe," said Brown University professor Patricia Nolan, a former state health officer of Rhode Island, about what prenatal advice to give mothers about eating fish.

-- What are pregnant women to think? Yesterday the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition recommended women eat at least 12 oz. of fish per week during their pregnancy, contradicting the current advice given by the FDA and EPA, which say women shouldn't eat more than 12 oz. of fish. (The National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition is a nonprofit group with almost 150 members, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Here at ACSH, we think the beware-of-mercury-in-fish-while-pregnant scare is mostly just that, a scare. As the article points out, health organizations try to find a balance between recommending fish for its beneficial omega-3 fatty acids (sometimes called "brain boosters") and mercury content. A study by researchers from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the University of Illinois at Chicago and scientists from the University of Bristol in the UK recently found that women whose diets during pregnancy contained the lowest quantity of fish or seafood had children whose IQs, social behavior, and fine-motor coordination were also in the lowest quartile.

As ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava points out, one big problem with any recommendation is ignoring dosage effects. No one is arguing that mercury is not toxic -- it is. But, as seen in a landmark study that added fuel to the fire of the prenatal mercury-consumption scare, how much mercury a woman is eating is important to note. On a study in the Faroe Islands in 2004, scientists found that neurological effects were associated with prenatal exposure to mercury. But the island's residents eat large quantities of whale meat, which, Dr. Kava explained, can have very high levels of mercury.

-- After yesterday's morning meeting, when ACSH staffers discussed the possible effects of using sea salt instead of sodium chloride, we did a little research. We learned that sea salt may not actually contain less sodium than sodium chloride. This is because there is no standard definition of sea salt. Thus, salts produced by different manufacturers may have different levels of sodium -- make sure to read the "nutrition facts" label.

Corrie Driebusch is an ACSH research intern. Receive these dispatches each workday in your e-mail by becoming an ACSH donor -- donate here, send a tax-deductible donation to the Broadway address at the bottom of this site, or call (212-362-7044 x225) or e-mail (McTeague[at] with questions.