ACSH Dispatches Round-Up: Curtains!

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DISPATCH 6/13/08: Scary Curtains, Diarrhea, Expired Medicine, Floods, and Fat

Honorary seat at the table goes to Dr. Marvin J. Schissel
We would like to offer Dr. Schissel a seat at the ACSH breakfast table for his response to an article touting the health benefits of organic food in Harvard Medical School's Healthbeat Extra. Dr. Schissel wrote to tell them, "no evidence has ever supported the allegations that organic food is healthier, more nutritious, or superior in any way to conventionally produced food." ACSH hopes more people like Dr. Schissel speak up on behalf of sound science.

Quote of the day
"The claims that are being made on shower curtains are phantasmagorical." --Julie Vallese, spokesperson for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, on the alleged dangers of shower curtains.

Shower curtains scare is psycho
We were shocked to see how much press coverage the scare over chemicals in shower curtains received today. The Los Angeles Times said, "That 'new shower curtain smell' gives off toxic chemicals, study finds," while the Daily News declared, "Shower curtains could mean curtains for you, says watchdog group." ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan asks, "Where are the media watchdog groups to hold them accountable for this nonsense?"

ACSH staffers commend ABC News for reasonably reporting on the flawed study that claims shower curtains release toxic chemicals into the air. As ABC rightly points out, only a single curtain was subjected to complete analysis, and the tests were not repeated, supposedly to avoid "potential instrument damage." "The real story here is that the scientists know very well that this is complete garbage," ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross says. "The compounds that were detected have been studied over and over again and found to be safe. Moreover, this study's methodology is completely flawed."

"This is one scare that's all wet," remarked ACSH's Jeff Stier. ACSH thinks Morning Dispatch readers should still consider shower curtains a safe gift for Father's Day.

Will calorie counts reduce calories consumed?
Another problematic study focuses on the benefits of posting calorie counts on restaurant menu boards. ACSH staffers believe that forcing restaurants to post calorie counts for every menu item is impractical and will not help significantly curb overeating. We agree with Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the UPMC Weight Management Center in Pittsburgh, who according to ABC News says that laws requiring calorie displays are "neither practical nor helpful" and instead recommends that restaurants provide "a section of the menu with smart calorie buys for consumers who want to save calories."

Vaccine against vacation spoiler
ACSH staffers -- especially those of us who travel frequently -- were happy to read about a small study testing a vaccine patch that protects against traveler's diarrhea. The patch, which should be applied in the weeks before traveling, immunizes against common toxins that can cause traveler's diarrhea, including E. coli. "It's certainly not perfect, but it is very effective at reducing severe diarrhea," explains Dr. Ross. We hope to see a larger clinical trial conducted on the patch very soon.

Expired medicines do not lead to expired patients
ACSH staffers were disappointed to read about the unscientific scare tactics being employed against New York drug stores accused of selling expired medicines. "The idea that medicines stop being effective the day after their expiration date is such a myth," explains Dr. Whelan. "There's a tremendous amount of leeway in there," especially if medicines are not stored in extreme heat or cold.

New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo is threatening a lawsuit against CVS and Rite Aid, but we hope his focus will shift to other products that may actually lose their efficacy when expired, like baby formula.

Japan forced to slim down
We were surprised to hear that Japan, the country with the longest life expectancy in the world, now requires all adults between the ages of forty and seventy-four to have their waistlines measured during checkups. Those who don't meet the stringent limits of 33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women are educated about ways to lose weight.

With much of its population living well into old age, the Japanese government hopes to ease health care costs by ensuring that its population stays healthy. While abdominal fat is an important factor in overall health, we believe that Japan should first focus on reducing smoking rates, which remain extremely high there -- due in part to government support of the tobacco industry.

An ark needed in Iowa
ACSH staffers have been following the news about flooding in Iowa for several days and are shocked at the extent of the tragedy. Many people have lost their houses and all their belongings to the water, and most of them were denied flood insurance because they live on a floodplain. There is cause for concern about contaminated water, because as ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava says, "I don't know if the water purification system still works."

"I'm astounded but relieved to hear that no people have been killed," remarks Dr. Ross. The flooding is expected to peak early next week, and we hope that people there take precautions to protect their health and lives.

DISPATCH 6/12/08: Living Longer but Suing, Smoking, Refusing Care, and Avoiding Tomatoes

Life expectancy on the rise
We were happy to read that life expectancy in the U.S. has reached a record high of seventy-eight years. "How can that be with all the phthalates out there?" jokes ACSH's Jeff Stier. Despite rising fear over everything from shower curtains to rubber duckies, babies born in 2006 are expected to live four months longer than those born in 2005.

Researchers attributed the sharp increase to falling mortality rates for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, accidents, and especially the flu. U.S. lifespans continue to lag behind those of some other developed countries, including Switzerland, Australia, and Japan (which has the highest life expectancy at eighty-three), but the data show U.S. lifespans increasing steadily across all demographic groups -- more evidence that most health scares aren't actually as scary as they are made to seem.

Whole Foods not so wholesome, says California attorney general
California has sued Whole Foods Market for failing to properly label soap products that contain 1,4-dioxane, an alleged carcinogen. "We got a kick out of the fact that Whole Foods, the poster child for the 'no chemicals' movement, is being accused of the same thing" it criticizes in others, says Stier. California attorney general Jerry Brown filed the lawsuit under Proposition 65, which requires that companies label products containing even minute levels of chemicals that may cause cancer in high-dose animal studies.

ACSH also filed a lawsuit against Whole Foods under Prop. 65 in 2002, on the grounds that the company failed to report levels of acrylamide in its whole wheat, organic bread -- except we were also hoping to point out how absurd the law itself was, if it finds fault in foods that are marketed as being "chemical-free."

"We're also willing to bet that there are chemicals in their paper bags," says Stier, who recently wrote an op-ed criticizing the company's decision to stop providing plastic ones.

A smoking gun
Despite the attacks on Stier's Politico piece about the long-term consequences of Sen. Barack Obama's smoking, the media is now jumping on the story. Obama is working to kick his smoking habit but recently admitted to reporters that he had fallen off the wagon. The fact that Obama is still struggling to quit even though it is an issue that could affect the presidential race "shows what a strong addiction it is," ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan says. The fact that some people still think it is a "non-issue" shows that "people don't understand the irreversible long-term health effects of smoking," says Stier.

This month marks the tenth anniversary of ACSH's popular booklet on such irreversible effects.

The risk of refusing medical care
We were concerned to read about the number of children dying because their parents refuse medical treatment for religious reasons. The belief that prayer alone can cure patients is "emblematic of the attitude that vaccines and medical care are dangerous or not advisable," ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava remarks. "It's neglect of children's welfare." Many states have laws that allow parents to reject medical care for their children on the basis of their religious beliefs. While we are wary of criminalizing personal beliefs, we are disappointed that many parents are still not providing appropriate medical care for their children.

Preventing the return of killer tomatoes
ACSH staffers hope to put into context the salmonella outbreak in tomatoes. While we believe the current outbreak should be taken very seriously, it is important to remember, as ACSH's Dr. Gil Ross says, "We are actually making progress with better monitoring and diagnoses."

"These kinds of outbreaks may have occurred in previous years, but we weren't as well attuned to them. The fact that we are now is a sign of progress," Stier explains. We also hope to raise awareness about what can be done to prevent similar outbreaks in the future.

Dr. Kava recommends providing "clean water for irrigation and better sanitary facilities in the fields" because crops can become contaminated with pathogenic microbes such as salmonella through contaminated water supplies. Food irradiation would also help keep the food supply safe with minimal cost to consumers. While irradiation is not a quick fix for all food contamination problems, Dr. Kava believes "it would have helped with this case, and it can help in the future." For more information, see ACSH's publication on food irradiation.

DISPATCH 6/11/08: Chantix, Cancer, Counterfeits, Cholesterol, and FDA

Honorary seat at the table goes to the FDA's Norris Alderson
We would like to offer FDA official Norris Alderson an honorary seat at the ACSH breakfast table for his unambiguous public statement yesterday confirming that plastic bottles containing BPA are safe. We hope Congress takes note of the FDA's sound science as it prepares to vote on a ban of the useful chemical. Read below for more on the story.

Quitting smoking still healthier than the alternative
We were pleased to read Dr. Joseph M. Feczko's op-ed about the overblown fear of the side effects of Chantix in the Wall Street Journal today. ACSH's Dr. Whelan remarks, "To say that Chantix has side effects -- well, compared to what?" Chantix, a new drug that helps people quit smoking by preventing nicotine from reaching receptors in the brain, has recently come under fire for claims linking the drug to conditions such as heart trouble, diabetes, and seizures. The possible risks associated with Chantix, however, are far outweighed by the known harmful effects of smoking, which remains the leading cause of preventable disease and premature death across the globe.

We at ACSH hope that people struggling to quit can get all the help they need from drugs such as Chantix (as well as "harm reduction" methods).

Early detection of breast cancer saves lives
We were glad -- but not surprised -- to read that women whose breast cancer is detected and treated early do not have decreased life expectancies. "Breast cancer is the most feared disease a woman can get, but it shouldn't be, especially if it is detected early," Dr. Whelan explains. When breast cancer is detected during Stage 1, surgery to remove the tumor combined with radiation treatment and drug therapy is extremely effective in a majority of cases, minimizing the chance of recurrence and extending life expectancy to normal levels.

"This is all the more reason for regular mammograms," says Dr. Whelan, who wrote an article about the benefits of early detection of breast cancer in Medical Progress Today. ACSH's Dr. Ross says early detection "is almost like a cure."

The dangers of counterfeit drugs
The market for counterfeit drugs is growing as more consumers seek out cheaper medicines online. Seizures of illegal drugs jumped 24% in 2007, but as Dr. Ross points out, "This is only the tip of the iceberg." Counterfeiters use sophisticated techniques to create copies of popular drugs such as Viagra and Lipitor. "This is very big business," Dr. Whelan says. "The demand is so huge for these medications in the U.S., and it is perfectly filled by counterfeit drugs."

Patients should be wary of purchasing drugs through online pharmacies -- the Fourth Global Forum on Pharmaceutical Anticounterfeiting found that 62% of all medicines bought online were fake and that 96% of online pharmacies studied operated illegally. Stay tuned to our HealthFactsandFears blog for a report on this issue by ACSH freelancer Steven Marks.

FDA declares plastic bottles safe, but what about pajamas?
As noted above, we were pleased to see that the FDA issued a statement reassuring consumers that plastic bottles and other products containing bisphenol A are safe. "They should be congratulated for their sensible statement about BPA," says Dr. Whelan. "If the government did that more often, there would be fewer scares." Unfortunately, another health scare has arisen overnight -- certain camouflage pajamas are being recalled due to concerns about excess levels of lead. "It's hard to keep up with the number of health scares," Dr. Whelan remarks.

The golden (cholesterol) ratio
There are many ways of measuring cholesterol, and ACSH staffers were wondering which of the numbers given to us by doctors was the most useful. Total cholesterol levels include both "good cholesterol," or LDL, and "bad cholesterol," or HDL. Dr. Ross explains that the ratio of LDL over HDL is even more important as a predictive factor than the much-touted ratio of total cholesterol over HDL because it gives a more complete picture of health. Still, knowing your LDL is helpful because it is the type of cholesterol that can lead to heart disease and other health problems. There are ways to reduce your LDL if necessary, including various medicines, but not as much attention is paid to boosting HDL levels. "If I had to choose one number, I'd choose the LDL, even though that doesn't give you the full picture," Dr. Ross says.

DISPATCH 6/10/08: Tomatoes, Ducks, Herpes, and Memories

Honorary seat at the table goes to Toronto Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente
We would like to offer Margaret Wente a seat at the ACSH breakfast table for her commonsense op-ed on the "dangers" posed by "yellow duckies and other killers" in the Toronto Globe and Mail today. Read below for more on the story.

"Killer tomatoes" continue their attack
ACSH staffers are surprised that the salmonella outbreak in tomatoes has still not been traced back to its source. Many restaurants and grocery stores began pulling certain types of tomatoes off the shelves as a preventive measure. The New York Post deemed the "killer tomatoes" worthy of its front page, and the Today show discussed how to stay healthy during the outbreak. Despite the resemblance to a B-movie plot, these tomatoes actually do have the potential to be killers.

ACSH's Dr. Kava recommends, "Until they find out where the source is, I might avoid them, especially if you are feeding children and elderly people." The FDA advises consumers to avoid raw red plum, raw red Roma, and raw round red tomatoes for the time being. Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes with the vine still attached, and homegrown tomatoes remain safe to eat. The recent outbreak brings to mind the spinach recall due to E. coli in 2006, and while it is a shame that so much food will have to be thrown out, in this case we believe it is better to be safe than sorry.

1 in 4 New York City adults infected with herpes
We were shocked to read that New York City's Health Department found that 26% of adults in New York City are infected with herpes simplex virus-2, the virus that causes genital herpes. "This is a remarkable number," ACSH's Dr. Ross says. "Any lesions in the genital area make you more at risk of contracting other STDs." HSV-2 can cause outbreaks of painful lesions in the genital area, which may vary in intensity and frequency throughout a person's life.

While drugs such as Valtrex can suppress outbreaks, there is no cure, and the virus can still be transmitted to sexual partners even if an infected person never shows symptoms. Herpes is a serious issue for pregnant women because it can be transmitted to the baby during delivery, potentially causing complications such as encephalitis. Therefore, a woman about to give birth with a herpes eruption requires a C-section to protect the baby. A herpes infection also increases the chances of contracting HIV.

New York's rate of infection is higher than the national average, which is 19%. The virus was found to be more common in women, blacks, and men who have sex with men. This study emphasizes the need for effective sex education that focuses on safe sex and condom usage.

Smoking linked to memory loss
We were not surprised to read that smoking has been linked to memory loss and other cognitive impairments in middle age. Published in the June 9 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, the study also emphasized that such problems in middle age can hasten the onset of dementia later in life. ACSH's Dr. Whelan comments, "I'm not surprised by this at all. We have known this for a long time." Dr. Ross added, "This is consistent with the widespread promotion of vascular and neurological deterioration throughout the body associated with smoking." With so many health problems linked to smoking, we wish that more people would successfully quit, although it's very hard to break the cigarette addiction.

A voice of reason from Toronto
We were pleasantly surprised to read Margaret Wente's op-ed "Yellow Duckies and Other Killers" in the Toronto Globe and Mail this morning. After sarcastically detailing all the new "dangers" from which parents must protect their children, including walks in the park and Chanel No. 5 perfume, Wente encourages parents to relax by referencing Dr. Whelan's comments on the safety of BPA and phthalates. Wente jokingly condemns her generation's parents for being "negligent" for “let[ting] us suck on plastic duckies and roll around on pesticide-drenched lawns," but points out "how many of us managed to grow up" nonetheless.

DISPATCH 6/9/08: Fat, Calories, Tomatoes, Eyeballs, Additives, and Consulting Fees

NY1 trans fat ads
If you live in New York City, you may have noticed the bus ads for the TV news station NY1. The station is now bragging it has "no trans fats." That's all the ad says. No trans fats. What is this all about? We all thought this was quite amusing, and wanted to know the logic behind it. So we called the offices of NY1 to ask them why they chose that as a slogan.

The very nice lady reassured us we were not the only ones confused about their advertising campaign. She also said the point was that they are slogans that New Yorkers would easily recognize and they were to convey that NY1 is a "no frills" news station, or to put it another way, has no extra junk. She also listed off a few other slogans they've jokingly used, like "never off duty" and " congestion-free." Who knew that "no trans fats" could have so many meanings? We also think the fact that a TV channel is bragging that it has no trans fats may mean there is a growing consensus that the ban on trans fats in New York City restaurants is widely perceived as laughable.

Not all chains have posted calories on their menu boards yet
ACSH staffers did some reconnaissance this weekend at McDonald's restaurants around the city. The restaurants have still not posted calorie counts on their menu boards. ACSH's Dr. Whelan wonders, "How long will they hold out? The fines will start in July if they do not comply." ACSH's Dr. Kava adds, "they are probably waiting to see how things go in court." It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few months.

Of course, we here at ACSH believe that this wrongheaded edict by the NYC Dept. of Health will have no real impact on the obesity "epidemic" and is mainly another example of government overreach and nanny-statism.

Salmonella tomato outbreak
The outbreak of salmonella in tomatoes has been expanding, and currently 145 infections have been tied to the consumption of tomatoes. Raw red plum, red Roma, and round red tomatoes are among the varieties consumers are being told to avoid, but officials have still not located the source of outbreak. Dr. Whelan asks, "Is this a good opportunity for irradiation?"

Dr. Kava thinks "it's possible, but the tomatoes would have to be irradiated on site or they would have to have irradiation available at large distribution centers. You also have to be careful not to mix irradiated and non-irradiated produce, because you could just end up recontaminating them again."

The best precaution you can take is to thoroughly wash your fruits and vegetables.

China recommends exercises to stop myopia
There are many myths about the benefits of eye exercises, but they are mostly seen as not useful -- certainly not to treat nearsightedness, which is caused by changes in the shape of the eye. The Chinese authorities have decided that students must do eye exercises twice a day to ward off nearsightedness. Chinese students often spend many hours studying and reading tiny characters in dimly lit libraries.

ACSH staffers ask, has excessive reading been linked to the development of myopia in the first place? Dr. Whelan notes, "This is typical of the Chinese government. They have a problem and they don't know how to solve it, but they believe that any solution is better than no solution, even if it there is no evidence it will help."

Researchers fail to reveal full funding
We were disappointed to read that a world-renowned Harvard child psychiatrist failed to completely disclose his income from pharmaceutical companies, because this will only serve to reinforce people's belief that experts who accept industry funding have something to hide. It was revealed that Dr. Joseph Biederman earned at least $1.6 million in consulting fees from drug makers from 2000 to 2007 but for years did not report much of this income to university officials. Dr. Whelan says, "the witch hunt continues."

ACSH's Dr. Ross adds, "Yes, the bottom line may be: they are singling out industry funding, but we have to be careful about distinguishing the 'industry-funded' issue from simple dishonesty in reporting income, which he was supposed to -- if that is indeed the case."

Ten additives you shouldn't lose sleep over
It seems like every day we read about the same scares repackaged in a new way. Today we read about the top ten food additives to avoid. Hopefully, they won't appear on Letterman anytime soon. Dr. Kava says, "This is the same old stuff over and over again. What's ironic is that they sell big tubs of BHA in the health food stores too." A few examples of the additives we're now being told to avoid (quoting from the article) include:

Acesulfame-K:

Found in: baked goods, chewing gum, and gelatin desserts.

Not proven to be unhealthy, but studies on this additive have been scant. If that concerns you, then you may want to avoid this sweetener.

Monosodium Glutamate:

Found in: soups, salad dressings, chips, frozen entrees, and restaurant food.

The infamous MSG, associated with Asian food, can cause headaches and nausea for some people. Try using a moderate amount of salt as a healthier alternative.

BHA and BHT:

Found in: many foods such as cereals, chewing gum, potato chips, and vegetable oils.

It prevents fats and oils from going rancid. For some people it can increase their cancer risk.

We just love how acesulfame-K is purportedly on the list due to only scant studies on it existing (not true). If we applied the same logic to many of the things we consume, there would be nothing left to eat...except for the additives.

Elizabeth Wade is a research intern at the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org, HealthFactsAndFears.com). Receive Dispatches weekday mornings by e-mail by becoming an ACSH donor.