DISPATCH: Hunger, Mercury, Alcohol, Smoke, and Toenails
Norman Borlaug's op-ed on the fight against hunger
ACSH trustee Dr. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and professor of international agriculture at Texas A&M University, co-wrote an op-ed addressing the issue of world hunger. In the article, Dr. Borlaug and Peter McPherson acknowledge that short-term solutions include emergency food aid, but they heavily emphasized that "we also need a long-term vision of growth, and integrated investments that incorporate research, human and institutional capacity building, infrastructure, sound policy, markets, and governance."
Dr. Borlaug is often referred to as the father of the green revolution and offers these solutions: "We need investment in the maintenance of successful varieties of crops, and the development of technologies to raise yield ceilings. Moreover, research to develop seeds more resistant to climatic stresses like drought must be dramatically accelerated."
ADA speaks up on behalf of FDA
We were happy to see that yesterday, the American Dental Association posted on their website some clarification on the FDA and mercury fillings lawsuit. The ADA asserts that they are undergoing only a reclassification process for dental amalgam, a commonly-used cavity filling material, and that as far as they are aware, the FDA has in no way changed its approach to, or position on, dental amalgam -- which is that it's an excellent and safe approach to treating dental cavities (caries).
ACSH advisor Dr. Marvin Schissel, a dentist, said, "The word 'amalgam' is defined as a mixture. The current rumpus is certainly an amalgam: of poorly-informed activism, sensation-hungry media, and I'm sure we can add litigation-eager lawyers and their clients to the mixture."
Can moderate drinking reduce rheumatoid arthritis? Probably not
Our initial reaction to this article indicating that drinking may reduce rheumatoid arthritis was, as ACSH's Jeff Stier puts it, "I'll drink to that." If only it were that easy. ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross says, "I looked at the data in the study, and it is typical of epidemiology studies. If you do enough tests on enough variables, you find something. This is not something I would take seriously enough to start recommending my patients to drink alcohol."
The study found that people who engaged in moderate alcohol consumption were 40-45% less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis compared to people who did not drink or drank only occasionally. While this sounds like a major reduction, in fact it is more likely a statistical quirk. Of course, more such studies need to be done and, if replicated, might then warrant attention.
Toenail clippings used to gauge nicotine levels
Now there may be another option for doctors for determining nicotine exposure, if they don't believe their patients' smoking history: analyzing the nicotine content of toenail clippings. According to the Nurses' Health Study, the nicotine content in toenails can help gauge a woman's heart disease risk. Dr. Ross notes "this is a case of biomonitoring."
The problem with biomonitoring is that there is sometimes nothing to compare the data with. What level is acceptable or unacceptable? Is this more reliable than obtaining patients' history of smoking? At ACSH we think probably not.
The cigarette bill
At ACSH we are very much against the FDA/tobacco bill, since we know the true beneficiary is not smokers but Philip Morris and other tobacco companies. Jeff Stier says, "There is a lot more wrong with this bill than just the menthol exemption." Dr. Ross thinks, "there is far more that is detrimental than beneficial for public health in this bill, and there are obviously some conflicts of interests going on here."
Joel L. Nitzkin, Chair of the AAPHP Tobacco Control Task Force, noted that "This theme [of the bill], as I perceive it, is one that says that FDA can diddle with the chemical content of tobacco and tobacco smoke, as long as it doesn't do anything that might reduce sales and profits from cigarettes. This is most clearly shown in the menthol exemption."
Why is the menthol exemption so bad? To sum it up, former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph A. Califano Jr. said, "the legislation was clearly putting black children in the back of the bus." He was referring to menthol cigarettes being the choice of three out of four black smokers and being frequently preferred by young smokers.
Drug makers defend Chantix
We know that quitting smoking is not an easy task, and most smokers need all the help they can get, and that's why we promote the use of smoking cessation drugs. Recently, Pfizer has been working overtime to boost the image of its drug Chantix after a recent report said there have been hundreds of problems with patients since its 2006 approval. ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan says, "People should know it is a novel drug. Unlike the other cessation drugs, it actually blocks the nicotine receptors." Dr. Ross adds, "it is a unique drug, but it also has unique side effects, too. However, they are claiming that several hundred have had adverse side effects. But that doesn't tell us anything. We need to know how many people are taking this drug to make any sort of comparison."
David Gonzales, co-director of Oregon Health & Science University's Smoking Cessation Center, said, "no more than 5% of people who attempt to quit smoking without drugs or nicotine replacements are successful. In trials, Chantix helped more than 40% of patients quit smoking."
Smoke on a Plane
I (Krystal Ford) recently returned from my vacation to Florida on Delta, and the story I couldn't wait to share with the ACSH staff was about my plane ride. Normally a boring topic, but this time I witnessed a woman lighting up a cigarette and smoking mid-flight. I was completely floored. I have been on over a hundred flights, and never have people smoked, let alone in their seats. She did not even try to take cover and smoke in the restroom.
I thought that everyone knew that you can't smoke on airplanes. There is the sign above your head, the flight attendants announce that there is no smoking on the flight before you take off, and then there is the fact that you can hardly smoke anywhere indoors anymore. The other passengers and I all wondered how this thirtyish woman could not know. Well, I am sure she learned her lesson, because as we landed at the airport, the police were there to escort her off the plane.
DISPATCH: New Drugs, New Uses for Old Drugs, and New Scares
FDA looks into possible arthritis drugs/cancer tie
We are concerned about how people will react to the possible link between certain drugs (for rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease) and cancers in children and young adults. ACSH's Dr. Ross is a rheumatologist and practiced for many years and is well versed on the subject. He notes, "No doubt the anti-pharmaceutical types will be pushing to take these important, highly-effective and relatively safe drugs off the market, but rheumatoid arthritis in children and teens is often much more severe than in adulthood. Rheumatoid arthritis can affect the heart valves, can cause failure to grow, problems with the eyes -- and of course it affects the joints." Dr. Ross recalls "in the 70s that they would treat the problems as they pop up, and now it is treated as a malignancy, before inflammation has a chance to do its progressive joint and multisystem damage. Back then you saw a patient every month but you didn't notice the slow deterioration, and then before you know it, the patient ends up in a wheel chair. We have come a long way, and these drugs are necessary. Besides, all drugs have risks, and these powerful drugs do have their share."
Dr. Whelan worries that "The message that is going to be received by some is: this is why drugs are bad." Fortunately, the FDA said it currently believed potential benefits outweighed the risks for certain young people with diseases the drugs are approved to treat.
Evista's label expansion not welcomed by some
We were disappointed to read that a few "women's groups" were dismissing the benefits of Evista (normally used to treat osteoporosis) for the treatment of women at high risk of breast cancer. Last fall, the FDA finally gave the Eli Lilly Company the green light to market the drug as a chemo-preventive agent for these women.
In typical anti-pharmaceutical, anti-drug activists lingo, Brenda Salgado, program manager of Breast Cancer Awareness in San Francisco, said, "This is not the approach we should be taking...We believe that any pill powerful enough to lower the incidence of breast cancer will most certainly cause other health problems and diseases. Why should we substitute one problem for another?" Dr. Ross asks, "With that sort of 'logic,' why bother to develop any new drugs at all?"
ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava found the American Cancer Society's position to be very wishy-washy. Debbie Saslow, the society's director of Breast and Gynecologic Cancer, said, "We didn't feel the benefit was so huge or that there was enough risk that we could recommend for or against it." We at ACSH think this drug has could offers a substantial degree of protection against invasive breast cancer for high risk women, and we are disappointed that more people aren't onboard with this.
FDA makes a scandalous statement about fillings
We were absolutely baffled this morning when we read about the FDA statement on dental fillings causing health problems. According to the article, the FDA put a notice on their website stating "Dental amalgams contain mercury, which may have neurotoxic effects on the nervous systems of developing children and fetuses."
Dr. Whelan says, "This is very disappointing. Were they forced to state this as part of some legal settlement? The fact that mercury can be a neurotoxin, and that it is present in amalgam fillings, does not mean that the amount of mercury in fillings that gets into the body is a threat. These fillings have been commonly used for many decades with no evidence of harm to anyone's health."
The FDA said it did not recommend that people who currently have mercury fillings get them removed. But that won't come close to countering all the damage they have done by making concessions to the activists.
Attack of the "killer" tomatoes
No, we are not referring to a B movie but to the recent outbreak of salmonella, which can cause a gamut of symptoms such as headaches, stomach pain, diarrhea, and nausea. Susan Leibrock, community relations coordinator with Sustainable Food Center, said, "We want to emphasize that by knowing where your food comes from, you can prevent risks like these from happening with your family." Dr. Kava rejects this statement. "How does knowing where your food is coming from have anything to do with salmonella? Even if you were getting food from a farm ten miles away, you don't know the quality of the water, soil, or growing methods. It doesn't give you any extra protection."
Since mid-April, there have been twenty-one confirmed cases of salmonella in Texas, and no deaths have been reported.
Dr. Whelan quoted in article about food coloring
Yesterday, during our morning meeting, Dr. Whelan conducted a phone interview on the topic of food colorings. If you read yesterday's MD, you know about the Center for Science in the Public Interest's call for banning food coloring. We were quite pleased that the Business and Media Institute wrote an article criticizing the media's use of CSPI propaganda to scare people about food additives. Dr. Whelan said in her interview, "You have to look beyond this and say, 'why is Jacobson doing this?...If you read the AP story, he's basically saying that food manufacturers use these colors to make unhealthy food more attractive. I think that's his real agenda." It's the food itself CSPI dislikes, not any particular obscure scare such as hyperactivity claims.
DISPATCH: Germs, Food Coloring, Wine, and Fear
Quote of the day
"All substances are poisons; there is none that is not a poison, the right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy." --Paracelsus in the sixteenth century (quoted in the new book The Science of Fear -- see below for more details about the book).
Fear-fighting book a nice surprise
ACSH is pleased by a new book, titled The Science of Fear, written by Canadian journalist Daniel Gardner and published by Dutton Adult. The book was hand-delivered to ACSH's Dr. Whelan, and so far she has found it fascinating. The author mentions that there are two parts of the brain involved in responding to threats; one is rational and the other is irrational. A comment made by a friend of Dr. Whelan regarding chemicals in plastic bottles may illustrate the difference: "I want to believe you, but my gut tells me otherwise."
Gardner mentions in his book that there are certain "risk-perception buttons" that, when pressed, elicit a response of fear or great concern. Some examples include:
•Familiarity: Unfamiliar or novel risks make us worry more.
•Understanding: If how an activity or technology works is not well understood, our sense of risk goes up.
•Personal control: If we feel the potential for harm is beyond our control, we worry more than if we feel in control.
•Children: Our fears are greatly enhanced if kids are involved -- or if we are made to believe that our children are especially vulnerable to whatever the perceived threat is.
Keep a lookout for this book, due out July 17. We think it would make a nice addition to your library. We know too well that there are not enough books out there to help fight the fearmongers.
Red wine, supplements, and aging
We read a story on the front page of the _New York Times_ today about red wine and aging, and although we believe that alcohol in moderation can be beneficial to your health, we are a bit skeptical of the claim that it could prevent aging.
ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava said, "This looks like another boon for the dietary supplement industry." The study is based on dosing mice with resveratrol, an ingredient of some red wines, which is thought to activate enzymes known as sirtuins. Sirtuins are a class of enzymes that may be able to control age-related disorders such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, and Parkinson's disease. Unfortunately, drinking moderate amounts of red wine may provide too low a dose of resveratrol to activate sirtuins.
On Monday, Sirtris, a startup founded in 2004 to develop drugs with the same effects as resveratrol, completed its sale to GlaxoSmithKline for $720 million. The company plans to start clinical trials of its resveratrol mimic soon.
There is a new wave of interest in drugs that may enhance longevity. Although the quest to find and distill the Fountain of Youth into a bottle continues, in the meantime, you can always enjoy a glass of red wine.
Another scare from the "food police" at CSPI: food dyes blamed for hyperactivity
It's the "That 70s Show" of junk science! When we read this story about food dyes, it felt like deja vu for many people at ACSH. Dr. Whelan said, "blaming food dyes for hyperactivity was an issue back in the 70s. Now, thirty years later, it's popped up again." Who is behind this science throwback you ask? Our friends at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. This week, they called on the Food and Drug Administration to ban artificial coloring in all U.S. foods based on a groundless claim that artificial coloring is behind the rise in kids' behavioral problems. According to Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI, "I think it's crystal clear the dyes affect kids' behavior." Dr. Whelan can't believe that we are still debating this stuff and recalls when she was asked to debate the topic against the late Dr. Benjamin Feingold, the first person to promote the idea that dietary items might be responsible for causing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Proponents of the ban quote a study published in 2007 in which researchers found a slight increase in activity level linked to food dyes. Fortunately, there are some sensible people out there not willing to overlook science. Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Schneider Children's Hospital in New York, said "the 2007 study's data is not compelling and did not address ADHD at all...further research is necessary." We couldn't agree more. In fact, we discussed this study last fall.
Disinfectant wipes can spread germs
Disinfectant wipes have become our ally against evil bacteria, but they do not have limitless powers. Wipes are effective only on the first use -- anything more and you are just spreading the germs around. Researchers from the Welsh School of Pharmacy at Cardiff University in Wales tested the cleaning power of three different types of antibacterial wipes containing either traditional disinfectants, detergents, or natural antimicrobial substances. They found that all of the dirty wipes, including those with the disinfectant, still had some bacteria remaining on them. When they were reused, the wipes just transported the bacteria to another location. Dr. Ross noted, "You would think it was common sense, especially in hospitals, not to reuse disinfectant wipes, but the story seems to indicate that people are reusing them."
Mixed Mayo messages: Don't worry about acrylamide, but just in case...
If you could see us right now, we would be shaking our heads in disbelief. We've seen nonsense from two respectable institutions in the last two weeks -- first Harvard Health, with Dr. Claire McCarthy's article on chemicals in baby bottles, and now Mayo Clinic's article about limiting acrylamides. The article does have some valid points. The authors point out that "mankind has been baking and frying foods at high temperatures for a long time. And haven't plant foods including grains, potatoes, and coffee been staples?" Our response to that is: Yes, we have been eating these foods for a long time, and yes they are staples, and there is no credible evidence that acrylamide in food poses a human cancer risk. Even though the FDA recognizes there are specific foods that are larger sources of acrylamide -- such as French fries, breakfast cereals, and toast -- they do not recommend eliminating these foods from the diet.
The authors, however, are not averse to giving their own solutions and wrote "I'll choose less processed cereals and ones that I can cook (like oatmeal) more often. Toast -- light brown. I'll continue to limit those French fires and chips (and entirely stop eating the brown crunchy ones). More often I'll boil or microwave the spuds." If there is a better example of the so-called precautionary principle in action, we can't think of it right now.
DISPATCH: 200th Morning Dispatch
Milestones, hailstones, and you
This morning (June 3, 2008) brings our 200th Morning Dispatch, and I (Todd Seavey), normally editor of ACSH's blog, HealthFactsAndFears, get the honor of marking the occasion, though I've just been filling in on the Dispatch while intern Krystal Ford is away. And soon new hands will take over the Dispatch.
This month, ACSH welcomes aboard both a new one-year intern, Elizabeth Wade, and a new summer intern, Nicole McNeil, who has already shared one alarming story about risk: the grapefruit-sized hailstones that have recently fallen near her family home in Minnesota (and as strictly scientific thinkers, we doubt that the Denver and St. Paul areas have recently been targeted by tornadoes because they're both hosting political party conventions this year).
To keep ACSH projects like the Morning Dispatch going, please consider marking the occasion of this 200th e-mail with a $200 donation to ACSH -- and thanks again to all of you for donating in the past.
Fearing the cell phone by your head as you walk into traffic
ACSH's core mission is encouraging people to properly prioritize risks -- and stories like one about purported cancer risks from cell phones in the _New York Times_ today don't help, despite their pretense of being moderate and cautious when making suggestions such as using an earpiece to be on the safe side and keep the phone itself away from your head. ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava notes, of course, that "The big risk of using an earpiece is that people think you're crazy, walking along talking to yourself."
Imagine, says ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan in reaction to the phone scares, "if we lived every bit of our lives like that." Yet plainly, we blithely ignore risk in countless other, more mundane aspects of our lives -- witness bunk bed injuries, to take another example from today's news, or the frequent injuries suffered by pedestrians from car and bike collisions in New York City, which barely faze people. And when people think something is sufficiently fun, they'll tolerate very large amounts of risk, as with skiing -- or small amounts of risk, as with marijuana use, which a new report suggests may cause brain-shrinkage.
Taxing cigarettes is not the same as subsidizing health
The most important and widespread risk to public health is cigarettes, and we note rising taxes on them in New York City, driving the price of a pack up to something like $8. We'd love it if people stopped smoking altogether but question whether high taxes on cigarettes is a good long-term strategy. "This is a complex situation because it makes the City dependent on the taxes," says Dr. Whelan. "It's a revenue-enhancing measure...This is not necessarily good for public health." Will politicians who rely on cigarette taxes -- and thus cigarette sales -- to enhance their budgets really be diligent about discouraging people from lighting up?
Meanwhile, around the world: hunger worries
Elsewhere in the world, some policy issues are bit less subtle: rising food prices have caused rioting and raised fears of starvation. Dr. Whelan spoke to ACSH Trustee (and Nobel-winning agricultural scientist) Dr. Norman Borlaug about the problem this week, as he recovers from illness, and "He's eager to get up and get out there and produce a second Green Revolution...using biotechnology...I'm happy to hear he's back on his feet." The world needs both Borlaug and biotech.
Fighting cancer on multiple fronts
At a time when TV anchors are uniting to combat cancer, we note the irony that one group partnering in the latest round of cancer-fighting is Saks Fifth Avenue -- owned until 1990 by British American Tobacco. In other words, a store formerly owned by a company that produced cigarettes, which are responsible for 35% or more of U.S. cancers, is now making an admirable but tiny effort in the opposite direction.
In other cancer-fighting news, we note the existence of a vaccine that extends the survival time of victims of the most common form of brain cancer (including the kind diagnosed in Sen. Ted Kennedy). This is good news -- and makes more sense, notes Dr. Whelan, than the recent, inadvertently paradoxical headline she saw about a novel surgical technique that announced "Sen. Kennedy to undergo operation for inoperable brain tumor."
Breast cancer activists vs. anti-cancer drug
One cancer-fighting drug that probably deserves a lot more headlines is Evista (the selective estrogen receptor modifier, raloxifene). Explains Dr. Whelan, "Starting around 2000, it was known that Evista [originally meant to be used against osteoporosis] decreases the risk of invasive breast cancer -- we wrote a booklet about it -- but poor Lilly [the manufacturer] couldn't legally tell people about this," since the discovery of Evista's cancer-fighting powers was made unexpectedly instead of in careful FDA-approved trials aimed at proving it has this effect. Finally, Lilly has gotten permission to advertise Evista's anti-cancer effects -- but now groups purportedly devoted to promoting women's health are denouncing ads that mention Evista's dual osteoporosis-fighting and cancer-fighting uses, claiming to fear that some women will go on the drug unnecessarily.
ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross says of the activists, "They just don't like commercialization and advertising...Why not tell people about a beneficial, possibly lifesaving drug most people have never heard of and know nothing about?" And if groups are worried about women unnecessarily asking for the drug, they should recall, says Dr. Ross, that the women can't just pick up the drug at the store: "They have to talk to these intermediaries called doctors."
DISPATCH: Incomplete Solutions to Cancer and Malaria
Welcome to the smokeless California
Should apartment buildings be able to ban smoking, Californians are now asking? While tending to think owners should be able to lay down whatever rules they want, ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan notes of California's law permitting bans, "It's predicated on this assumption that trace levels of smoke is harmful to the neighbors, and it's not -- it's just annoying...I'm sure many will say it interferes with smokers' rights, but the real problem is that it's being packaged as a health measure." Adds ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross, "There're three issues: the health issue, the safety issue (fires), and the aesthetics." People tend to conflate issues instead of teasing them apart.
Can you and that cigarette finally be together after the blood test?
There's a report of a possible blood test capable of warning people about early signs of lung cancer. That would be good news, but "early" is the tricky part with any hoped-for tests capable of reducing mortality from lung cancer. Whelan says, "The problem with lung cancer of course is that in most cases, when it's diagnosed it's very advanced." Ross adds, "It was thought for a time that X-rays might help, but that wasn't the case...Spiral CT scans might have some efficacy [but] the problem is...'incidentalomas' and small indolent lung cancers...a lot of them turn out to be benign, and people are having chest surgeries unnecessarily."
The result is that while in principle it would seem that such scans could detect lung cancer early enough to save lives, given all the unnecessary surgeries occurring because of them, it's not yet clear the practice of performing such scans is reducing mortality.
The stigma of lung cancer
While we may not always be sure how best to combat lung cancer, we do seem to have produced a stigma around the disease. Whelan notes, "Either you're a smoker and you're being blamed for having this horrible disease, or you're a never-smoker and you have to defend yourself against accusations of being a smoker," though it should be noted that non-smoking-related lung cancer remains rare, despite recent heightened awareness of it. Given people's lousy grasp of math and probability, it would be bad to leave people with the impression that whether one smokes is not a significant factor in getting the disease (smoking remains the leading preventable cause of cancer and indeed the cause of about half of U.S. cancer deaths).
"You see people marching in Central Park over breast cancer and having prostate cancer fairs," adds Whelan, but smoking remains common and lung cancer research gets less funding than some more-fashionable diseases.
Celebrex vs. lung cancer
Of course, not every incremental breakthrough in reducing cancer risk is all that useful. A study suggests that high doses of Celebrex may produce a very small reduction in lung cancer risk. As Whelan says, though, it's unclear what can be done with this news. "The study was on heavy smokers," she observes, and the effect was small, something like a 10% risk reduction, but given the huge remaining risks from continuing to smoke, "it's a like instead of jumping from the eightieth floor of your apartment, you jump from the thirtieth." That is, making a very dangerous activity only a fraction less dangerous may not be doing people a significant favor if they continue in the activity -- and note that this is not analogous to harm reduction with smokeless tobacco, which involves a radical reduction in risk and ceasing to smoke (albeit without breaking the nicotine habit, which is not itself remotely as dangerous).
Ross adds that "Celebrex has been documented to inhibit the development of polyps and colorectal cancer," and laments that the controversy over Vioxx led to a reduction in research on "chemoprevention with the COX-2 drugs."
A new breast cancer drug
In other drugs-vs.-cancer news, reacting to a report about a drug that may be useful in reducing breast cancer recurrence, Ross said, "It's in its infancy, aromatase inhibitor treatment" and requires complex strategies that are still in flux as more is learned. For instance, "You're not supposed to use aromatase inhibitors for premenopausal women because it shuts off the estrogen production and makes them _more_ likely to develop osteoporosis." Now, however, it appears that bone-protecting drugs given to women on AIs may reduce cancer recurrence. Several factors including age need to be considered in determining the right combination of drugs to use in dealing with breast cancer risk and/or menopausal symptoms.
The group Nothing But Nets could use one thing beside nets
We found the name of a well-meaning but incomplete malaria-fighting project that's in the news rather poignant. Whelan says, "The tragedy of this story...is that there's no mention of the most effective means of fighting malaria: DDT." Ross says netting would be a wonderful solution if we could ensure it would always be used properly, but "The simplest thing to do is go around and once or twice a year spray a little bit of DDT," killing mosquitoes and irritating those who don't die into wanting to leave the dwellings where spraying has occurred. Anti-chemical greens are have kept us from deploying humanity's best weapon against the scourge of malaria.
DISPATCH: Vioxx Rulings Overturned, Plus Babies, Bacteria, and Teeth
Judgments against Merck overturned
In both New Jersey and Texas, it's been a good week for Merck regarding lawsuits against the company alleging they dealt irresponsibly with possible cardiac risks from their drug Vioxx. ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross says, "New Jersey's a little more complicated. They threw out the punitive damages...In the Texas case, the appellate court said, no, this drug did not cause the man's heart attack."
ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan notes, contrary to suggestions Merck engaged in some sort of cover-up, "I think it's fair to say that whatever cardiac risks were associated with Vioxx did not show up until post-marketing surveillance." Ross adds: "And they found punitive damages for that?"
The Texas appellate court appears to share that reaction, but one litigant insists the court has "gone off the deep end." Sounds to us more like they went to a good class on statistics, unlike a lot of jurors.
Have kids, lose teeth?
A new study suggests that across income levels and other social divides, women who have more babies lose more teeth. On this odd finding, we have no position -- and can only guess at plausible biological mechanisms. "How about depleting the body's supply of calcium?" wonders Dr. Whelan. It probably isn't because the arrival of children increases tooth fairy activity.
Have staph and E. coli, lose kids?
Given how very common staph and E. coli is, it seems unlikely that it is fair to blame them, as a new study suggests, for causing sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) simply because they are present in many SIDS cases. Adds Dr. Whelan, "Sudden infant death syndrome is something that's always been a real puzzle in terms of its etiology." Smoking is a real risk factor for SIDS, though -- while the effects of body position during sleep remain controversial.
Obama/smoking controversy continues to rage
Fox News, numerous blogs, and other venues have included the perspective of ACSH's Jeff Stier in their coverage of Obama's smoking history. With Obama's partial medical records now released -- arguably more an extended note from his doctor than full health records -- we still don't know how much effect smoking has had on him, something Stier argues is worth inquiring about. McCain, notes Stier, also smoked for many years, though he quit decades ago. Obama says he quit during the current campaign, though Dr. Ross notes how tough it is to quit and stay off cigarettes, reminding us of the Mark Twain comment that quitting smoking is so "easy" that he's "done it hundreds of times."
Catch talk about Stier and Obama on video here.
DISPATCH: ACSH Not Afraid of Cell Phones, ACS Not So Sure
ACSH ought to be in pictures
We're a small, lean organization -- but still crucial in getting the message of sound science across, with the help of donors like you. And to increase the odds of our experts appearing in influential TV news reports, we're building a tiny but professional "studio" inside our ACSH office -- about which you may have already received a mailing.
Now, we want to be able to devote staff time to properly producing and editing material in that studio -- so that broadcast-worthy clips of our experts weighing in on the latest science controversies can easily be sent digitally to the news organizations who would use them. This approach helps many organizations get the word out -- including the well-funded activists ACSH so often opposes -- and we wouldn't want the voice of science to be left out of the rapidly-edited mix when busy producers construct their pieces.
Our donors recently helped us purchase special media-relations software that has done wonders in keeping us on reporters' radars and are helping with the studio construction -- now, please donate to give this special, strategically-useful ACSH video plan the staff it requires, by clicking here or mailing a tax-deductible check to the address below. And thanks again for making ACSH possible.
Can't be 100% sure of anything in this crazy, crazy world, really
Are cell phones more dangerous than cigarettes? Dr. Michael Thun of the American Cancer Society, ostensibly the experts on cancer-causation, wasn't quite willing to say, despite overwhelming evidence that cigarettes are the leading cause of death and that cell phones are safe. "Wow," said CNN's Dr. Gupta in response . "I expected a staunch defense from the American Cancer Society, but instead I heard a more tepid response from Dr. Michael Thun [of the American Cancer Society]," who hyper-cautiously recommends wearing a wireless earpiece.
Gupta was reacting with amazement to Thun's waffling, risk-averse appearance on Larry King's show, where, as it happens, the cell phone scare began years ago, not with an announcement from scientists but from one man claiming without evidence that his wife's brain tumor was caused by her cell phone.
"This is the new posture of the American Cancer Society," said ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. They "don't want to help people distinguish between real and imagined risks...really tragic." ACSH's Jeff Stier adds, "The only difference between ACSH and ACS is an H, but I think they're missing the S," that is, science.
Overmedicated or just confused?
The theme of Americans being "overmedicated" has become commonplace in the media, so a report suggesting older Americans may be overmedicated is no surprise -- but the report is based largely on an investigation of the interaction of multiple medications, and adverse drug interactions are not quite the same thing as simply "taking too many drugs." ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross says that to avoid dangerous drug interactions, since the elderly often forget which medications they are using, "The doctor should tell patients, pack up all your pills -- including 'supplements,' and we can review them together." People often don't think herbal supplements are medications, a potentially dangerous mistake.
A fetish for PVC scares
Healthcare Without Harm continues to push the idea that PVC is harmful, and some greens have focused on fears that phthalates in sex toys could cause disease, an intrusive-sounding threat if ever there was one. There's no scientific basis for the reports, but Dr. Ross asks with a mixture of weariness and admiration, "Who writes these things? They should get a Nobel Prize for Literature."
Stier on Obama and Cigarettes
ACSH doesn't endorse political candidates -- and we're not so myopic as to suggest your vote should be determined by a candidate's health -- but Jeff Stier's call for people to note Obama's long history of smoking when mulling candidates' health has nonetheless sparked plenty of heated reactions on Politico.com and has been noted by the Baltimore Sun and other major newspapers.
One Politico respondent, clearly not getting the ACSH message, dismissed the concern by suggesting that if we're looking into smoking history we may as well poke into trivial details of candidates' diets -- or perhaps their cell phone use. As we say all the time, there are indeed countless trivial risks out there not worth dwelling upon -- and then there is smoking, the leading preventable cause of death and disease. Obama says he has quit, though, and we hope we this is a change we can believe in.
DISPATCH: Formaldehyde, Lead, Fat, Cancer, and (Yet) Happy Centenarians
A new generation of birth defects claims is born
Slightly elevated formaldehyde levels in trailers used to house people displaced by Katrina are predictably being blamed for long-term health problems in children born to the residents. ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross says, "I would use this story if I were teaching a journalism course on how not to write a story based on fact but on innuendo."
It's tempting to ask rhetorically whether the purported health effects of such low levels of formaldehyde have ever shown up in kids dissecting frogs in science classes -- but asking might simply inspire another meaningless study purportedly demonstrating such a link. Indeed, even the esteemed Journal of the American Medical Association now routinely publishes reports such as one alleging that hairdressers (who are routinely exposed to formaldehyde) are 1.7 times as likely to develop ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) as the general population -- a small increase of dubious statistical significance, but in print nonetheless.
Lead me not into lead
As if fetuses didn't have enough to worry about with all the formaldehyde-laced trailers out there, another study alleges that adult criminal tendencies may be an after-effect of prenatal lead exposure -- and after all, as many conspiracy theorists have pointed out, some poor areas with higher than normal lead levels also have higher than normal crime rates, so what more do you need to know? Dr. Ross notes, though, that the levels of lead being blamed for these purported effects are so low "this means that anybody who has any lead level at all is affected" and wonders if defendants in the future will plead diminished responsibility due to "having a brain while possessing any measurable level of lead."
Fat but steady
On a somewhat brighter -- but ambiguous -- note for America's youth, and contrary to what we've been hearing about the rampaging "obesity epidemic," childhood obesity levels have leveled off in the past few years. ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan notes that anti-fat crusaders of the past few years, such as the ones who've pushed through mandatory calorie counts on restaurant menu boards, may try to take the credit for the leveling off -- but it's much too soon for any such measures to have had any impact, if indeed they work at all. It may be that we've simply reached the point where kids are already as fat as they're likely to get, or as ACSH's Jeff Stier puts it, this may be a case of "saturated fat."
We should note, however, that the rate of overweight and obesity among America's children is, in fact, unacceptably high and should be dealt with effectively. The trick is figuring out what measures might actually work instead of merely sounding like good ideas on the news.
Floss or die
A new study links bad dental hygiene and higher cancer rates -- with some suggesting that a plausible biological mechanism for the purported connection exists in the form of inflammation. However, it's not so clear that inflammation really is a good predictor of heightened cancer risk, cautions Dr. Ross. "If that were the case, people with rheumatoid arthritis and lupus would be at significantly increased risk for cancer, and I don't believe that's the case."
It's worth remembering that "cancer" is really numerous different diseases, too often lumped together as if they were a single phenomenon (indeed, a contagious form of "cancer" that produces lesions on the faces of Tasmanian devils is discussed on the front page of today's Wall Street Journal). Dr. Whelan notes that even admirable efforts like the impending multi-TV-network anti-cancer telethon or the "War on Cancer" can have the negative side effect of blurring the distinctions between cancer types (much like the recent move toward a "War on Chronic Diseases" or the likely eventual "War on Death"). We need to better define the enemy before hastily talking of "wiping out cancer," says Whelan.
Longer life is in the cards
Despite the myriad overhyped threats out there, we seem to be living longer, and Dr. Whelan notes that one indicator is a recent story about the booming number of Hallmark cards sold to celebrate recipients' hundredth birthdays -- 85,000 of them last year (and surely there are some centenarians out there who didn't get a card).
Passing away comparatively young (in his eighties), the New York Times obits noted today, was the inventor of the frozen French fry -- the sort of person anti-fat activists might call a purveyor of "junk food" death and disease, but in our minds another reminder that technology keeps giving us more edible options and, for the most part, we survive -- and even enjoy -- them.
Krystal Ford is a research and Todd Seavey is Director of Publications at the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org, HealthFactsAndFears.com). Receive ACSH Morning Dispatch in your e-mail in-box each weekday by donating to ACSH and then requesting subscription.