November 5, 2007: Banning Smoke, Recalling Meat, Defending DDT
-- Quote to Note: "Their populations have been scared by environmentalists into thinking DDT causes cancer and birth defects, and their farmers have been frightened by EU officials and segments of the Western chemical industry into believing their crop exports will be boycotted." --Roger Bate, in his Wall Street Journal op-ed on DDT.
-- The past few days were marathon weekend for New York, with more than 38,000 runners completing the grueling 26.2-mile tour of the city. ACSH staffers went out to cheer on fellow staffer Jeff Stier, who completed his first marathon, along with thousands of people from around the world. Here in New York we heard of one tragic ending -- that of a twenty-eight-year-old career marathoner participating in the Olympic trials on Saturday.
The runner, Ryan Shay, was diagnosed with an enlarged heart at the age of fourteen. Still, the physician who saw him this spring cleared him to run, acknowledging he might need a pacemaker in the future. At around mile five, Shay collapsed and was later pronounced dead at the hospital.
ACSH staffers wondered aloud if this death was a preventable one -- or if there is any blame to be assigned. ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross hesitated to use the term "preventable," preferring "premature." Still, Stier reminded us, Shay was at mile five, not mile twenty-four. He wasn't taxing his body that hard at that point. Here at ACSH, we expect more news organizations to delve further into this topic later this week.
-- Last month, here at ACSH we discussed the legality and wisdom of banning or restricting smoking in apartments and condos. This weekend, the New York Times looked into it as well. First, in the Sunday real estate section, in a question-and-answer column, the writer tried to explain your legal rights if your neighbor smokes and that smoke enters your apartment and irritates your asthma. While the question piqued our interest, the answer did little to clear the air about these murky legal waters -- it was unrealistic and incomplete.
Doing a better job explaining possible legal recourses was today's article on the "new arena" in the fight on smoking -- the home. While experts said they knew of "no law in the United States prohibiting residential property owners from banning smoking," property managers said they would shy away from such a ban. (They cite the Fair Housing Act, but the _New York Times_ points out that the federal act actually protects nonsmokers in cases where people have diseases like asthma or disabilities aggravated by smoke).
After experiencing a similar problem in her building, ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan said that as a board member she realizes it's a very slippery slope. Do we tell the owner of an apartment that he is going to be evicted if he continues to smoke? What about if he plays loud noise? Or cooks odorous foods? ACSH staffers are curious about the future of this movement, as we doubt it's going away anytime soon.
-- Today's Wall Street Journal published a well-thought-out op-ed by Roger Bate about the "last chance for DDT" today. The article asked how many people must die from malaria before DDT's effectiveness as an insecticide is finally recognized. Dr. Ross said he agrees wholeheartedly with Bate -- African farmers are fearful of using DDT because of the anti-DDT movement throughout Europe. The farmers worry that they may have their crop exports blocked by the EU if they use DDT, regardless of how many lives its use would save.
-- And because it seems a week can't really begin without another food recall, Cargill announced it is "voluntarily" recalling more than 1 million pounds of beef over fears of E. coli contamination. Once again, ACSH staffers wondered when the meat industry will begin to irradiate foods. Furthermore, when will there be a mention of irradiation as a fix to this problem anywhere in the mainstream media? Dr. Whelan wondered aloud why the meat industry has not used the most innovative technologies to protect the food supply.
November 6, 2007: Slimming Santa, Replacing Trans Fat, Defending ACSH
-- Quote to Note: "The biggest danger of the trans-fat swap-out could be that consumers will eat more junk food because they think it's healthier." --Julie Jargon in Wall Street Journal's Health Journal.
-- Yesterday John Tierney of the New York Times wrote on his TierneyLab blog about ACSH. The post was a response to commenters' demands for disclosure of funding after he quoted ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan a few weeks ago regarding trans fats. Here at ACSH, we applaud Tierney for encouraging discussion about disclosure of corporate funding -- and the way tracing money ties is sometimes used as a cheap excuse to avoid arguing about the actual science of an issue. Comments are still being accepted, so feel free to weigh in at the link above.
-- In an article that resembled satire, we learned this morning that Santa Claus is going on a diet. In London, all Santas must exercise prior to Christmas and slim down, lest they set bad examples for children and give the impression being obese is "OK." The concept reminded ACSH's Todd Seavey of how politically correct all children's characters are becoming -- he pointed to Cookie Monster of Sesame Street who, this year, told viewers that cookies are a "sometimes" food. All in all, here at ACSH we feel it's getting a little strange (and perhaps extreme?) out there -- soon you're going to see Santa endorsing a diet drug.
-- One of our favorite articles of late was Julie Jargon's column in today's Wall Street Journal. Jargon wrote about how when trans fats are taken out of foods, a whole lot of other possibly more dangerous fats are added as replacements, calling into question the benefits of trans fat bans. The whole gist of the article echoed what we here at ACSH have been predicting for a long time about the unintended consequences of the ban, and we compliment WSJ's Jargon for addressing this. When we take out these trans fats, they are replaced with palm oil and palm kernel oil, and other cholesterol-raising saturated fats. While there's nothing wrong with reducing trans fats, ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava said, the replacements might be just as bad or worse -- we don't yet know.
This problem goes back decades, Dr. Whelan said -- we want to ban things but we don't think about the consequences of replacing them. (For instance, Oreos now have a higher saturated fat content, even though the total fat content is the same as before trans fats were removed). And many consumers, when seeing the "no trans fats" label, believe that the product is healthier or less fattening, which is not true. The "no trans fat" campaign has become an excellent marketing tool, but one of little value for public health.
November 7, 2007: Meat, Fat, and Stem Cells
-- Quote to Note: "If we use the criteria of mortality, then the term 'overweight' is a misnomer," said Daniel McGee, professor of statistics at Florida State University.
-- Yesterday around the country citizens cast votes. In New Jersey, voters defeated a ballot measure that would have allowed the state to borrow $450 million for stem cell research.
Here at ACSH, we strongly support stem cell research and feel New Jersey, as a medically advanced state, could bring great advances in stem cell research if they had more funding. Still, we believe voters of New Jersey rejected this measure not for (misguided) "moralistic" reasons, but rather for economic reasons. We like to believe that the majority of New Jersey citizens are not opposed to stem cell research, but that they resist excessive state-government funding and the increased taxes that may result. Many believe that the federal government should be supporting more of the research.
-- Following up on the story last week about how red meat "causes" cancer, the Washington Times published an op-ed by ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. The op-ed put the study in perspective by focusing on the effects of obesity, not specific food consumption.
-- But the biggest story today has to be the breaking news that a little excess weight can help, not hurt you, when it comes to lifespan.
The study appears in today's Journal of the American Medical Association, and it analyzes the relationship of people's BMIs (body mass indexes) to their risk of death from a wide range of diseases. It found that while being either obese (BMI over 30) or underweight increased risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer, simply being overweight (having a BMI of 25-30) did not.
Are people going to feel "whiplashed" over this, Dr. Whelan asked. Probably, ACSH staffers said -- it seems so counterintuitive, given most medical advice we hear in the news.
Still, ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava said that we should focus on individual diseases -- the study found that in the cases of diabetes and kidney disease overweight people have a higher rate of death than "normal"-weight people.
Also, Dr. Kava pointed out that BMI does not tell the whole story -- someone with a 27 BMI could be muscular, not necessarily "fatter." This could contribute to longevity. As for those people who may be tempted to keep carrying around those extra twenty pounds as a result of this study? Keep in mind that just because they are living longer doesn't mean they are fully enjoying the last years of their lives -- simply because they're not dying from CVD and some cancers doesn't mean they aren't having other significant health problems, Dr. Kava said. An article in the same JAMA noted the burden of disabilities imposed by obesity.
November 8, 2007: The Pill, the Children, the Taxes
"Despite conventional wisdom, there is no mainstream scientific evidence that points to children's health being imperiled by trace levels of chemicals in the environment." --Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, in her Huffington Post blog "Big Bucks (Yours) Fighting Bogus Health Risks."
-- If women weren't confused a few weeks ago when they learned that alcohol consumption "causes" breast cancer (a claim ACSH's Dr. Whelan quickly put into perspective), they're definitely confused now. About 100 million women worldwide use the pill as a form of contraceptive. Last night, reports surfaced that oral contraceptives cause artery blockage and heart disease. Can a woman do anything without increasing her risk of early death?
ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross says the point to focus on is that the alleged risk is only 20-30%. In this type of uncontrolled study, such a small increase is highly unlikely to be an actual cause-and-effect. Also, it's important to note these are merely ultrasound findings -- no actual heart attacks or strokes were detected. Further, the doses of hormones in the pills studied were larger than the doses of estrogens in today's birth control pills.
The problem, here, ACSH staffers agreed, is the "need for news" by the media. With the explosion of 24/7 news outlets, there's a demand for a "breaking" news story that will grab viewers' attention. Due to the need for stories to fill twenty-four hours every day, many reporters have stopped caring about the truth behind the science -- they take any little crumb and turn it into the latest health scare. While we wish journalists would use some restraint, as Dr. Ross pointed out, it took him years to be able to recognize the faults in a study like the one on oral contraceptives and heart disease. How can we expect reporters to understand? (A first step, though, is reading our paper on the difference between association and causation).
-- As our attention turned to the editorial pages this morning, ACSH staffers found an interesting contrast between the New York Times and Wall Street Journal's editorials on Oregon's proposed state children's health insurance program. Both discussed how Oregon voters rejected a plan to pay for insurance for young children by raising a tax on cigarettes.
While here at ACSH we are clearly no supporters of cigarettes, we agree with the Wall Street Journal's stance. What does a cigarette tax have to do with children's health insurance? Will taxes on cigarettes next pay for highway construction? Just look at the Master Settlement Agreement between states and tobacco manufacturers -- those funds, which were earmarked for tobacco education, did in fact pay for highways as well as schools and other non-health projects.
Furthermore, such a tax would make the government more dependent on cigarette companies, relying on their booming businesses (i.e., large cigarette sales) in order to continue to finance children's health insurance. Talk about conflict of interest: Why would any government that relied on cigarette taxes make a strong effort to reduce the consumption of this deadly product? Certainly, there must be a better way to fund this program.
-- We encourage you to check out a Huffington Post article published last night by our own Dr. Whelan. It expands on what we've discussed the past couple weeks about trace chemicals in blood and the incongruous idea that our government is spending $69 million for scientists to "prove" that chemicals are hurting us. Dr. Whelan also expresses concern that the Environmental Protection Agency is the one siphoning these funds -- since when does EPA oversee children's health? Shouldn't this be up to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) -- or the American Academy of Pediatrics?
November 9, 2007: Planet Not in Peril, Says Whelan on CNN
-- Quote to Note: "You know those extra few pounds you'd like to lose? Well, it turns out that, while they won't prevent you from getting a disease, they might nonetheless keep you alive longer." --ACSH's Jeff Stier in his New York Post op-ed today.
-- ACSH is all over the news lately! Last night, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan appeared on Anderson Cooper's show 360, where she spoke about testing for trace chemicals in blood. The full transcript can be read here.
Also this morning, ACSH's Jeff Stier had an op-ed published in the New York Post addressing the latest study published in JAMA about body mass index and mortality risks. In the op-ed, Stier wondered how the public health community is going to address the new evidence that "overweight" people have a lower risk of certain diseases.
-- The announcement made this morning that a new smallpox vaccine has been approved is amazing, Dr. Whelan noted this morning. Smallpox has been eradicated in the United States, so it's remarkable that new vaccines for it continue to be made. The last smallpox outbreak was in New York in the spring of 1947. Then, the New York City Board of Health vaccinated more than 6 million New Yorkers in about a week's time. Now, the Strategic National Stockpile is in charge of these vaccinations, and that is where this latest smallpox vaccine will be stored.
-- Finally, the most troubling news ACSH staffers read today was that of Merck's big settlement for the drug Vioxx. Dr. Whelan said she finds the story depressing. The pharmaceutical company is, in essence, being penalized for a drug that was approved by the FDA -- if this is the precedent, why are other drug manufacturing companies going to want to risk inventing new medications? Merck is now paying $4.85 billion for its innovation. The market cap on Merck is $119.21 billion, which means while Merck is not in danger of going under, this is still nearly 4% of the company's worth. How is this going to hamper future of drug manufacturing? How many people at Merck are going to lose their jobs? Here at ACSH, we hope people realize the huge negative results such a settlement may have on America's public health and drug manufacturers' willingness to risk creating drugs that are beneficial on balance but might have unforeseen side effects.
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.