October 9, 2007: Don't Sweat the Cell Phone Rumors
-- Quote to Note: "The evidence against Haagen Dazs was nothing like the evidence against Marlboros." --John Tierney in his column in the New York Times about diet and fat.
-- After a long weekend, ACSH staffers reconvened this morning, and the first topic was the Today show. A spokesman for the American Cancer Society was interviewed, and ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan says she couldn't believe what she heard him say. When asked about whether or not cell phones cause cancer, Dr. Whelan reported that he said he was "not convinced" they cause cancer. According to Dr. Whelan, this just shows the different styles of ACSH and American Cancer Society. ACSH staffers would say that there is no evidence that cell phones cause cancer. To Dr. Whelan, this official's explanation sounded awkward -- as though he were trying to keep his feet on both sides of the fence.
Also, this emphasis on perceived risk instead of real risk is a frustrating trend. This weekend's deathly-high temperature for races (as in Chicago and Long Beach Island, NJ) is one of those "real" risks. Runners were "dropping like flies." We understand that in the case of Chicago, the weather was significantly cooler when the marathon started, but why did the race go on as long as it did before officials canceled it, the delay resulting in numerous hospitalizations and one death? Where is the common sense in a society where we worry about hypothetical risk (like cell phones and cancer) but don't pay attention to the real risks (like overheating and dying during a marathon in near-ninety-degree weather)?
-- ACSH staffers did, however, enjoy most of John Tierney's column in the New York Times science section. The described cascade effect -- the way groups are prone to reach mutually-reinforcing incorrect conclusions, so that until there is a paradigm shift no one questions the conclusions/theories -- is a good description of the thinking on trans fats. The recent public health bandwagon calling for the elimination of all traces of trans fats came from one source -- the Harvard School of Public Health -- and now has swept the country, while no one (except ACSH) dares to question the basis for these claims.
Where ACSH staffers believe Tierney got one thing wrong, though, is in his analysis of smoking and the epidemic of heart disease in the 1950s and 1960s. Tierney denies that there was a heart disease epidemic in that period, but ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross notes that, in fact, there was such an epidemic -- caused by the large percentage of Americans smoking cigarettes.
October 10, 2007: Atlas Shrugs, Topps Recalls, Gates Farms
-- Quote to Note: "You have farmers who are very willing adopters of new technologies and want to raise yields but are not getting access to seed, fertilizer and small-scale irrigation." --Joseph Devries, head of seed development for a joint effort by the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations to jump-start farm productivity in Africa.
-- Articles decrying the low percentage of people opting to get flu vaccinations are usually met with nothing but praise from ACSH staffers. This morning we did like the op-ed in the New York Times encouraging people to ignore myths -- such as that it's "natural" to get colds and flu and that parents therefore shouldn't vaccinate their children (for the sake of health, get the proper doses this autumn). However, ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross pointed out that there are several holes in the article: The writer fails to mention the importance of healthcare workers getting vaccinated and does not warn readers about the scientifically unfounded notion that autism may be linked to vaccines.
-- With news that yet another food product (this time pot pies) is getting recalled for health risks, ACSH staffers wondered how many times we must repeat ourselves: Use irradiation. Similarly, if Topps had just irradiated its meat products, it wouldn't be going out of business as a result of their large meat recall.
-- In other food news, ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava said she found the article in the New York Times about bioengineered rice seeds particularly fascinating. While the seeds have the potential to greatly improve food supply in Africa, the distribution of the seeds (which are resistant to drought, pests, and disease) is difficult. There's a lack of roads. There's corruption in the government. These rice seeds, if they get to the right place, to the right farmer's hands, can be a huge step towards lowering the dreadful toll of malnutrition in those regions. If these new varieties can't be transported and people can't use them, that's a huge problem, one that foundations need to focus on.
ACSH staffers were proud to read that one of the organizations providing basic machines for African farmers to thresh, husk and parboil rice is the Sasakawa-Global 2000, a nonprofit partnership organized by Jimmy Carter and Dr. Norman Borlaug, one of ACSH's founding directors.
-- A historical date to note, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged. Some ACSH staffers couldn't help but note parallels between the protagonists in Rand's novel, the producers who go on strike (demonstrating how important they are) and pharmaceutical companies. Today, pharmaceutical companies are innovators of lifesaving products, yet they are continually attacked as villains. In reality, they are producing the drugs that our country -- and the world -- needs.
October 11, 2007: Smoking, Breast Cancer, and Dentists
-- Quote to Note: "Howard was overmatched...Elizabeth Whelan presented (herself) as much more credible" --A 1983 tobacco industry memo written after Dr. Whelan and Tom Howard debated on the Merv Griffin show.
-- Yesterday, ACSH staffers time-traveled to the early 1980s. Dr. Elizabeth Whelan brought in old videos of her appearance on the Merv Griffin show, when she appeared with the Tobbaco Institute's Tom Howard to debate the dangers of smoking. Besides the entertaining 80s hair and fashion, we were struck by Howard's resemblance to the movie Thank You For Smoking's Nick Naylor character. The arguments by which the fictitious Naylor and the all-too-real Howard in 1983 "spin" the health risks associated with smoking are eerily similar, but in Howard's case the humor is lacking. When he attacked Dr. Whelan by saying she's "the lady who claims sex causes cancer," it's not just a line in a movie designed for easy laughs. ACSH staffers were heartened to see Dr. Whelan intelligently counter his statement, backing up her "claim" by pointing to epidemiological studies suggesting multiple sex partners as a risk factor for cervical cancer.
This Merv Griffin show, it turns out, marked the end of Tom Howard's career as a spin person for the tobacco industry. Whether his absence can be attributed to a kidnapping involving the violent application of multiple nicotine patches (as in Thank You for Smoking) or embarrassment over his intellectual whipping by Dr. Whelan is still a mystery.
-- This morning's article in the New York Times about dentists and their increasing salaries reminded us that things never change. Just as smoking risks are still getting "spun" by pundits, in a long piece about dental health there was only one brief mention of fluoridation.
The article described how dentists are getting paid "too much" (their incomes are going up faster than inflation) and how Medicaid covers many people for dentistry though most dentists do not accept it. While the dental profession is flourishing, teeth are not doing quite so well. There is no mention of the fact that many areas in this country still don't fluoridate their water, which increases the likelihood of cavities. Fluoridation works. A simple survey of ACSH staffers illustrated how the number of cavities relative to how old we were (age being a decent indicator of whether we grew up with fluoridated water) could be graphed to show an association, though we are but a tiny sample.
Why is there such a rabid movement against fluoridation of tap water but no movement for it, Dr. Whelan wondered.
-- In another blast-from-the-past moment, ACSH staffers did not expect to be surprised last night when they saw, yet again, a hyped-up ABC program about "diet and breast cancer." For the past decade, it seems the same segments about how eating fruits and vegetables will decrease risk of breast cancer inundate the news. (Just look at former NBC chief medical correspondent Dr. Robert Arnot's book, Breast Cancer Prevention Diet, which misrepresented the degree to which vegetables and eating "healthily" can help women stave off breast cancer). ACSH reviewed Dr. Arnot's book and found it rife with inconsistencies and inaccuracies.
However, we were pleasantly surprised with ABC's coverage of the issue. Instead of buying into the myth that diet can help lower the risk of breast cancer, ABC followed sound science, admitting diet in and of itself will not affect breast cancer risk. It did say that after menopause, women should keep weight under control -- something ACSH staffers agree on, as studies have shown an association between obesity and breast cancer in post-menopausal women. We wonder what Dr. Arnot is thinking now.
October 12, 2007: Colds, VD, Lipstick, and Cavities
-- Quote to Note: "The reason the makers of over-the-counter, oral cough and cold medicine for infants are withdrawing these medicines is that there have been rare patterns of misuse leading to overdose recently identified, particularly in infants, and safety is our top priority," said Linda A. Suydam, president of the trade association.
-- Today's big health news is that major drug makers are voluntarily taking their over-the-counter oral cough and cold medicine for children and infants off the market. The drugs, including Triaminic, Robitussin, and Dimetapp for infants, are apparently getting shelved because the safety margins for very young children for size and dose were too narrow.
ACSH staffers expressed confusion about this decision. First, how long have these drugs been on the market? Decades? While we understand that it can be extremely easy to overdose young children and babies, why not come up with single-dose packaging for the products? We assume the companies already thought about this option, and we respect their belief that the risk is too great. However, ACSH staffers do worry about the precedent this action is setting -- now will any medicine that can be improperly used get pulled?
-- ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan got a surprise package yesterday from Clorox Company: information about its new brand of products, Green Works. Labeled as "powerful, natural cleaners from the makers of Clorox products," all of the "green" toilet- and all-purpose cleaners are "at least 99% natural," and Clorox Company aims to make them 100% natural in the near future.
What is natural, though, Dr. Whelan asked? Obviously, this is a marketing ploy, but don't these statements imply regular Clorox products are in some way less safe than these new, "natural" ones?
-- After yesterday's discussion about fluoridation in our nation's tap water, ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava looked up the status of water fluoridation by state. The data (as of 2004) surprised us. DC topped the list, with 100% of its water being fluoridated, followed closely by Kentucky and Illinois, which fluoridate more than 99% of their respective water supplies. But sitting near the bottom of the list, at number 45, was a huge shocker: California, with only 27.6% of its water supply fluoridated. It is unbelievable, Dr. Whelan said, that in a state so concerned about safety (just look at excesses such as California's Proposition 65, labeling nearly everything a carcinogen), the water supply continues to be mostly unfluoridated, though fluoridation is a simple health policy. Fluoridation's efficacy is well proven, and the cost is minuscule -- why would anyone not fluoridate? As the nation talks about healthcare costs and ways to improve the general health of the country, more focus should be placed on this simple treatment.
-- In our health scares section today, we at ACSH were baffled to hear on Good Morning America a report that there is lead in lipsticks. According to a study by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, tests on 33 brand-name red lipsticks found that 61% had detectable lead levels of .03 to .65 parts per million.
ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross said that this level of lead, even if confirmed by less-biased sources than this so-called consumer group, poses no health hazard and would have close to zero effect on anyone's lead levels.
-- Two days ago, the L.A. Times science section published an article documenting the extraordinary surge in venereal disease in California. An estimated 1 million young Californians had a sexually transmitted disease in 2005 -- this includes one in every four or five young people in Los Angeles County, said researchers for the Public Health Institute in Oakland.
This is extraordinary, Dr. Whelan said. ACSH staffers agreed, but couldn't figure out any reasonable explanation for this increase in STDs -- perhaps increased birth control pills use is a reason for more sex without condoms, but the pill has been around for decades. Certainly it cannot explain a recent increase in chlamydia and gonorrhea among people age fifteen to twenty-four.
ACSH has discussed STDs for many years, but in light of this recent news we wonder if the organization should take another, more focused look at the increasing problem.
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 DriebuschC[at]acsh.org.