ACSH Dispatches Round-Up: Fluoride, Navratilova, and More

DISPATCH 7/11/08: Nature and Fluoride for All, Plus Smoke and Life

ACSH taste tests Truvia
ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan and Dr. Ruth Kava attended the New York launch of the "natural" sweetener Truvia yesterday. ACSH staffers sampled it today with mixed results -- some of us liked it, while others complained about its aftertaste. "We're happy to have another sweetener on the market, and I'm sure it's very safe, but we're concerned about marketing it as 'natural'," Dr. Whelan says. "It's appealing to ignorance on the concept," which includes most people thinking "natural" things are inherently safer or better than "artificial" things.

"The definition of natural used for Truvia is that they haven't changed the molecular structure of the ingredient that is derived from the stevia plant," says Dr. Kava. "But there's no clear definition of natural that everybody shares." ACSH's Jeff Stier points out that this discrepancy allows companies to "find a definition they qualify for and use it." We hope companies and consumers stop buying into the paranoia surrounding the word "artificial" and begin scrutinizing the ambiguous "natural" label.

Millions of Americans do not receive fluoridated water
Sixty years after fluoridation was introduced into some public water systems, 30% of Americans still aren't receiving fluoridated water. "This is a prima facie case of public health negligence," Jeff Stier believes. Even some major cities -- like San Diego, Portland, Honolulu, and Witchita -- still don't fluoridate their water supplies.

Fluoride helps prevent tooth decay, and adding it to public water systems has no negative health effects, despite the claims of the vocal anti-fluoride community. "We're talking about one part per million here, and the effect it can have on preventing tooth decay is amazing," says Dr. Whelan. "The under-utilization of fluoride is mind-boggling."

Fewer smokers and increased restrictions lead to less secondhand smoke
We weren't surprised to hear that the percentage of Americans exposed to secondhand smoke has decreased dramatically since the early 1990s. "People are smoking less and there are more restrictions on where you can smoke," says Dr. Whelan. "This is an obvious consequence of fewer smokers and limited access to venues where smoking is allowed."

Lives worth less than they used to be
The EPA recently cut back on the estimated monetary value it puts on human life. A life is now worth $6.9 million, down from $7.8 million five years ago. "People may be troubled by the concept of placing monetary value on life, but it's something you have to do in the real world," says Jeff Stier. The EPA uses the figure to weigh the cost of a measure against the lifesaving benefits it will have. If the cost is higher than the amount assigned to the lives saved, the measure may not be adopted.

"The problem with these rules is that they are all made in a vacuum," Stier says. "There are other public health interventions outside of what the EPA proposes that would provide a much bigger bang for the buck, and maybe this will start putting those disparities in perspective."

Cigarettes are still more dangerous than Chantix
Commercial truck drivers are banned from using Chantix, the smoking cessation drug, because of the concern that it might have side effects that could increase the risk of accidents. But what about the risks associated with cigarettes? "If you want to worry about sudden cardiac events, you should worry about smoking, not Chantix," Dr. Whelan says.

This issue was brought to our attention by Dr. Brian Harrison, the Director of Health and Productivity Management at Affinity Occupational Health. He points out that while hypertension is closely monitored in truck drivers because of the possibility it will cause a cardiac event, smoking goes unregulated -- and now, untreated -- even though smoking increases the risk of a cardiac event more than hypertension does. We agree with his astute observation, "It is contradictory that we take drivers off the road for a condition (hypertension) which poses a 16% risk of a cardiac event in ten years but give no guidance for a condition (tobacco addiction) that poses a 20% risk, except to maybe not allow the most effective treatment."

DISPATCH 7/10/08: HRT, Navratilova, Autism, Puberty, PhRMA, and Bones

Judge overturns lawsuit against Wyeth
ACSH staffers were encouraged by the news that a federal judge granted Wyeth's motion to overturn a punitive-damage award related to the pharmaceutical company's hormone replacement therapies (HRT). An Arkansas woman sued the company earlier this year, claiming that she wasn't adequately warned that the HRT drugs she was prescribed to ease symptoms of menopause carried an increased risk of breast cancer.

"HRT causing breast cancer is a borderline issue already, but to say Wyeth did this intentionally and claim punitive damages is ridiculous," ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross says.

ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan hopes that decisions like this one will "start discouraging these lawsuits in the first place."

Martina Navratilova speaks out for health, fitness...and cigarettes
We find the AARP's choice of tennis star and longtime Virginia Slims spokesperson Martina Navratilova as a "health and fitness ambassador" irresponsible and shortsighted. Dr. Alan Blum, a devoted anti-smoking activist and chairman of Doctors Ought to Care, brought the decision to our attention, writing, "Describing Martina Navratilova as a terrific role model is like calling Tokyo Rose a true patriot or Typhoid Mary a great cook."

"This is just pure hypocrisy," Dr. Whelan believes. "It's as if these anti-smoking people just forgot about all her years as the Virginia Slims spokesperson." Dr. Ross adds, "Martina's athletic talent and work for gay rights are admirable. If she renounced her association with the tobacco industry, she could easily be a great role model. But there's no evidence she's done that."

Government forced to study quack autism treatment
The government is being pressured into testing an ineffective and potentially dangerous treatment for autism in children. "This is one of the more frightening stories in the news," says Dr. Whelan. Many desperate parents have already turned to chelation, a process that removes heavy metals from the blood, to treat their autistic children. The belief that it will help is based on the discredited idea that mercury in childhood vaccines triggers autism.

"To study the effects of this process, they're going to have to test it on children," says ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava. "It's outrageous." We agree with Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious disease at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and an ACSH Advisor, who believes federal research agencies must "bring reason to science" without "catering to a public misperception" and worries that vaccination rates may drop because of baseless fears.

"Chemicals" blamed for early puberty
The unfounded idea that environmental exposure to chemicals causes early puberty in girls continues to get press coverage. "The fact that some girls might be going through puberty earlier than they used to has nothing to do with chemicals and has everything to do with better nutrition," says Dr. Whelan.

Early puberty can be cause for concern because it is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, but, as Dr. Ross says, "You can't just throw in one true statement and expect us to believe the whole story."

Doctors must say goodbye to PhRMA coffee mugs
The pharmaceutical industry announced a new conduct code governing its interactions with doctors and other healthcare professionals, the centerpiece of which is a ban on giving doctors promotional trinkets like pens and mugs. "How petty can you get?" asks Dr. Whelan.

Dr. Ross points out that while trinkets are now off limits, there's no restriction on how much money can be spent sending doctors on extravagant trips that supposedly have to do with medical research. "This new code of conduct is just politically inspired pandering," he says.

Osteoporosis drug linked to fractures
Long-term use of the osteoporosis drug Fosamax may increase the risk of fractures of the femur. "This seems counterintuitive," Dr. Whelan says. "People take Fosamax to build up the strength of their bones, and now it causes fractures?"

The side effect may be related to the drug's suppression of bone metabolism, limiting the repair of microdamage and increasing risk of fractures later. "We're talking about long-term use here," points out Dr. Kava. "Some women may be taking this drug for twenty or thirty years."

DISPATCH: 7/9/08: Weight Loss, Cancer Lessons, Warning Labels, and Sleep

Eat slowly and put down the remote
We saw a connection between two new studies regarding weight loss, with one indicating that eating slowly causes people to be more satisfied with fewer calories and the other finding that children who watch TV during mealtimes tend to eat more than children who don't.

"Both of these stories relate to mindless eating," says ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava. "When you're watching TV, you’re more likely to just shovel in the food without paying attention to how much you’re eating." Weight loss programs have long recommended that dieters eat slowly and deliberately, in order to consume fewer calories and to enjoy meals more. Now they have science on their side.

New "natural" sweetener hits the shelves
Cargill Inc.'s new "natural" sweetener Truvia will soon be available across the country. ACSH's Dr. Whelan and Dr. Kava will be attending the product's New York launch tomorrow and are curious to see how heavily its marketing will focus on its "natural" label. "Do you think they're going to go up against Splenda and Nutrasweet and say Truvia is better because it's natural?" Dr. Whelan wonders.

ACSH believes the "natural" label can be misleading, as it does not necessarily mean "safe" or "healthy." What qualifies for the label changes frequently, as with the FDA's recent decision that high fructose corn syrup meets the definition of "natural."

"In the course of launching Truvia as a so-called 'natural' sweetener and catering to the public's fear of 'chemicals,' aren't they setting back the cause of truth and sanity?" Dr. Whelan asks.

Cipro must carry black box warning
Cipro and other antibiotics known as fluoroquinolones are now required to bear a "black box" warning about their safety. The drugs, which are used against anthrax and many other infections, have been linked to an increased risk of tendonitis and tendon rupture. "We've known about these side effects for twenty years," remarks ACSH's Dr. Ross. "Doctors have to help patients weigh their particular risks."

"It's alarming to see a black box on a medication," says Dr. Whelan, but Dr. Kava suggests, "Maybe this is a good thing. It will keep people from using the drug unless they really need it."

College educated people fare better when cancer strikes
We weren't surprised to hear that college-educated people are benefiting the most from recent strides in cancer treatment. "They are probably more affluent, have more access to health care, are more compliant with treatment, and are more interested in researching their options," Dr. Whelan believes.

Dr. Ross says, "It's certainly more complicated than just issues of health insurance," but ACSH research intern Nicole McNeil points out that those with a college education are "probably more competent at navigating the bureaucracy of some hospitals and insurance companies."

Online drugs laden with risk
Today's New York Times includes an article entitled "Abuses Are Found in Online Sales of Medication," which, as Dr. Whelan puts it, "seems like such an understatement." While the article covers the disturbing ease with which people can buy controlled medications like OxyContin, Vicodin, and Ritalin without a prescription through unapproved Internet pharmacies, it does not touch on the fact that you never know what you're actually getting when ordering from them.

Dr. Ross says, "Nowhere does the article mention anything about counterfeit or substandard drugs," the dangers of which ACSH recently covered.

Too much drinking and Web-surfing and not enough sleep can lead to weight gain in teenage girls
A new study found that more alcohol consumption, more recreational Internet time, and less sleep contributed to weight gain in adolescent girls. The researchers point out that while many teenage girls may experience unhealthy levels of weight gain, these three behaviors may go unnoticed as potential causes. "They seem like three practical points to consider," Dr. Whelan says. "It was nice to see some common sense for a change."

Dr. Ross agrees, pointing out the refreshing absence of pseudo-explanations: "Nowhere in the study did you see anything about trans fats or fast food."

DISPATCH 7/8/08: Swogger, Gardner, Bladders, Dieters, Pressure, and Single-Payers

Glenn Swogger calls for reprieve from health scares
Our favorite article of the week so far comes from one of our own trustees, Dr. Glenn Swogger. Dr. Swogger attempts to calm what he calls the "culture-wide anxiety" over health scares in a _Washington Times_ op-ed. "Americans are bombarded with an array of warnings and reassurances, stop and go signals, regarding health, environmental hazards, and lifestyle," he writes.

He continues, "In such a climate it's easy to forget that our life span, supposedly drenched with lethal danger, has increased hugely in the last 100 years, and that the incidence of many cancers and other environmentally sensitive diseases has decreased." We are impressed with Dr. Swogger's logical approach and his effort to make his voice heard even in our current "climate of fear."

Honorary seat at the table goes to Dan Gardner
We'd like to offer Dan Gardner a seat at the ACSH breakfast table for his excellent piece about banning "harmful chemicals" in the Ottawa Citizen. Written in response to the recent passage of a ban on pesticides in Ontario, Gardner's op-ed points out that the most common lawn-and-garden herbicide, 2,4-D, has been proven to be safe -- unlike many of the natural chemicals we are exposed to everyday.

"Environmentalists like to say we live in a chemical stew and they're right. But most of the chemicals in that stew did not come from a factory in New Jersey. They came from Mother Nature," he writes. We think he'd enjoy ACSH's Holiday Dinner Menu because his thinking certainly agrees with ours about the omnipresence (and safety) of chemicals!

Most people unaware smoking can lead to bladder cancer
While most people know that smoking is a serious risk factor for lung cancer, they are not aware that it can also cause bladder cancer. Seventy-five percent of bladder cancer patients themselves are unaware of the link, according the University of Michigan. "People don't understand that toxins from cigarette smoke get into the bloodstream and travel all over the body," says ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava.

The good news is that bladder cancer risk decreases significantly in the years after a person quits smoking. Doctors should make sure to discuss all the risks of smoking with their patients, both to discourage them from starting and to encourage them to quit.

Food diaries help dieters lose weight
We weren't surprised to read that people who kept food diaries while dieting lost almost twice as a much weight as those who didn't write down what they ate. "Most of us don’t pay attention to what we're eating," says Dr. Kava. "A food diary can make you more aware of your habits."

Food diaries have long been a staple of weight-loss programs like Weight Watchers because not only do they draw your attention to your diet, they also hold you accountable for what you eat. "You eat differently when you know you have to write it down," Dr. Kava explains. "It's a behavior modification technique."

Anti-depressants linked to low risk of GI bleeding
There is a low risk that certain antidepressants may increase the chance of gastrointestinal bleeding in some patients. "This is the perfect example of risk-benefit analysis," remarks ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross. "It is something to consider if your patient has a known history of GI bleeding, but it shouldn't discourage the use of these drugs in most patients."

The Reuters article impressed ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan with its levelheaded approach; while health risks are often blown out of proportion in the media, she says, "this story is careful to emphasize that it is talking about a very low risk."

Treating high blood pressure can stave off dementia
An encouraging new study found that controlling high blood pressure in elderly patients might reduce their risk of dementia. "It makes sense to me," says Dr. Whelan. High blood pressure itself has no symptoms, but it may impair bloodflow to the brain, causing vascular dementia. "This new study goes along with the current change in the systolic hypertension treatment paradigm, which is encouraging more aggressive treatment of high blood pressure," Dr. Ross says.

Should economics influence health care?
Costly drugs made the news again today, as Tyverb, an expensive medicine used to treat breast cancer, was found not to be a cost-effective treatment for patients in Britain's single-payer health care system. While Tyverb can slow down tumor progression, it can cost the equivalent of $42,000 per year. "That's what happens when you start rationing health care," Dr. Ross believes.

Drug prices may start influencing health care decisions on this side of the Atlantic as well, with the Wall Street Journal reporting that many doctors are growing concerned about the economic repercussions of providing their patients with expensive cancer drugs.

DISPATCH 7/7/08: Jalapenos, Wine, and Pharmaceuticals

Jalapeños may be source of salmonella
The investigation of tomatoes as the source of the recent salmonella outbreak seems to have hit a dead end, prompting government officials to look elsewhere for potential culprits. Because so many of the salmonella patients ate fresh salsa before they contracted the infection, the FDA has turned its attention to jalapeño peppers and is also looking into cilantro and Serrano peppers.

We were particularly surprised by the following statement in the Wall Street Journal: "Health officials said the evidence linking jalapeños to the disease is compelling but are erring on the side of caution before making a public warning." ACSH's Jeff Stier believes "Because they over-warned on the tomatoes, they are now being overly cautious on the other side," while ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava remarks, "They are being cautious for the producers but not the consumers."

One certainty in this confusing situation is that increasing the FDA's funding would not alleviate the problem -- despite claims from Nancy Snyderman and others to the contrary. "The salmonella outbreak is getting more and more complicated, but it would still be incredibly mysterious if you doubled the FDA's resources," says ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan.

Drugs recommended to lower children's cholesterol
We were surprised by the American Academy of Pediatrics' decision to recommend wider cholesterol screening and increased use of cholesterol-lowering drugs in children. "It's a very provocative move," says Dr. Whelan.

Doctors are looking into prescribing approved medications for children with high cholesterol and other risk factors, such as obesity, family history, or diabetes. Dr. Kava also points out that they are beginning to recommend switching children from whole milk to low fat milk after one year instead of two. "Changing recommendations on how to feed children is a very big move," she says.

Gardasil continues to weather attacks
The HPV vaccine Gardasil received some bad publicity this weekend, as one parent claims it may have contributed to the degenerative muscle disease his daughter developed about a month after being vaccinated. "There are lots of agendas going on here, so you have to separate them out," Dr. Whelan advises. "We certainly hope that this report will not discourage people from getting the vaccine."

Many of the groups making claims about the dangers of Gardasil have what Dr. Gilbert Ross calls "a misguided belief that the HPV vaccine causes promiscuity." We hope these unfounded claims will be silenced by scientific evidence, such as the University of Michigan's recent report that sex during adolescence does not predict a women's future chance of contracting HPV.

Red wine is the fountain of youth...for mice
Red wine's alleged health benefits are adored by the media, and the drink received even more good publicity this weekend, with a new study claiming that one of its components, resveratrol, can slow down age-related problems in mice. "I would call this a typical media-beloved story," says Dr. Whelan. Researchers point out that a human would have to consume 100 bottles of wine per day to match the dose of resveratrol the animals received -- and that's not a recommendation.

Should cost influence the use of cancer drugs?
We were intrigued by an in-depth article in the New York Times examining the promise and problems of the cancer drug Avastin. The drug cuts off tumors' blood supply and is frequently prescribed to patients with advanced lung, colon, or breast cancer, but its price tag can reach $100,000 per year, and it may only prolong life by an average of four months. "Is there a cut-off point that makes it worth it?" asks Jeff Stier. He points out, "The more people who take the drug, the more data we will have on it. It can move science along."

Dr. Ross advises, "Four months is a mean. Avastin will be more effective for some patients than others, and there's no way to tell at this time who will be in which group. The doctor should discuss the upside and the downside of the drug with the patient and sometimes the family."

"It’s a philosophical issue," concludes Dr. Whelan.

DISPATCH 7/3/08: Mangos, Pot, Employers, Steaks, Blood Pressure, and Herpes

Irradiated Indian mangos arrive on U.S. shores
ACSH mango fans were thrilled to hear that imports of Indian mangos are increasing dramatically thanks to an extensive irradiation program. "This is a win-win situation for India and the U.S., since they get to export the fruit and we get to eat it," says ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. "It's really a success story for irradiation."

Indian mangos were previously banned from the U.S. because they can harbor the mango seed weevil, which finds its way inside a mango seed as a larva and damages the fruit, as it eventually burrows its way back out. Irradiation kills the pest without the use of insecticide and significantly extends the mango's shelf life, making it easier to ship the delicious fruit around the world. "This is good for everyone except the weevils," says ACSH's Jeff Stier, who also wrote a Huffington Post column on this topic.

Dutch smoking ban leaves marijuana alone
The Netherlands recently passed a smoking ban in restaurants and bars, but the law peculiarly applies to tobacco and not marijuana. "I find it puzzling," says Dr. Whelan. "It's still smoke. You’re still inhaling a product of combustion."

Jeff Stier believes "This is more of a cultural decision than a health decision," but ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross points out, "It’s the rare marijuana smoker that can go up to a pack a day."

Can your company force you to be healthy?
While many companies already offer their employees health incentives such as discounted gym memberships, more and more are taking interest in their employees' health to the next level. Some workplaces have banned smoking from the premises, stopped hiring smokers, or even fired those who tested positive for nicotine. Some people are worried these invasions of privacy might one day extend to weight loss.

"Because employers pay the price of your being ill, they feel like they have the right to tell you how to live your life," remarks Dr. Whelan. "This is going to be a prominent story for the next few decades" -- especially with obesity and its myriad complications on the rise.

If you're diagnosed with prostate cancer, must you say goodbye to steak?
We are skeptical about the benefits of reporting that a high-fat diet encourages prostate cancer progression. "It's never been proven, but it always comes back up for discussion," says Dr. Whelan. "These men are already anxious, depressed, and concerned, and all of a sudden their doctors say they can't eat steak? We shouldn't guilt-trip already sick men with this hypothesis."

Many men uninformed about high blood pressure
We were disturbed by the news that many men -- and particularly African-American men -- do not know they have high blood pressure, a condition which can lead to heart and kidney disease but has no symptoms by itself. Men are less likely than women to have routine check-ups, so more of them run the risk of never finding out they have high blood pressure. "It's very troublesome to think that men are unaware of how serious a risk factor high blood pressure is but also how easy it is to control," says Dr. Whelan.

Doctors begin work on a potential cure for herpes
Researchers believe they may have found a way to cure herpes, which is currently considered a chronic viral condition. The herpes virus is difficult to kill because it "hides" in the nerves it infects, flaring up once in a while to cause outbreaks. Scientists may have found a way to "wake up" the virus, which would allow them to target it with standard antiviral medicines. "They have a biological hypothesis on how to start working on this, which is very encouraging," remarks Dr. Whelan.

DISPATCH 7/2/08: Lead, Menthol, HIV, Diabetes, Vegetables, and Fireworks

Lead paint lawsuit overturned in Rhode Island
We were happy to hear that a Rhode Island appeals court, in a unanimous decision, overturned a lower court's ruling that held former lead paint manufacturers liable for all lead clean-up costs. "The plaintiffs' attorneys were trying to turn lead into the new asbestos or cigarettes, which would have resulted in exorbitant liabilities for businesses," says ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. "The decision was a real victory for sound science and common sense in public health."

Since no negative public health effects could be convincingly linked to trace levels of lead paint in Rhode Island, the suit was filed as a public-nuisance complaint. Lead paint can be extremely harmful when ingested in significant amounts, and lead poisoning remains a risk in old and poorly maintained buildings with peeling paint; however, as ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross argues, "Those kinds of repairs should be the responsibility of the landlord, not the paint company."

To ban or not to ban menthol cigarettes?
ACSH staffers are paying close attention to the tobacco regulation bill that would ban the use of flavored additives in cigarettes but specifically exempt menthol. "Black caucus leaders are outraged that menthol is going to be allowed because it is such a draw for African-American smokers," says Dr. Whelan. The exemption was initially included to convince tobacco companies like Philip Morris to support the bill but has since raised questions of discrimination.

Now the Lorillard cigarette company is fighting back by urging smokers who prefer menthol cigarettes to call their congressional representatives and encourage them to support the exemption. "This issue illustrates in bright light how this bill is promulgated by the cigarette industry," says Dr. Ross. "As soon as you try to touch their bottom line they get up on their haunches." We hope this ineffective bill won't pass, with or without the menthol exemption.

Americans underestimate the severity of diabetes
Even as diabetes rates are rising, Americans continue to underestimate the severity of the disease. "People feel that diabetes is just another bother," Dr. Whelan says, while ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava remarks, "I don’t think people understand how complex care can be."

While diabetes can be managed with vigilant attention to blood sugar levels, diet, and exercise, it can still lead to a host of other health problems, from depression to neuropathy -- and vascular disease leading to amputations of extremities. "You'd think the risks of diabetes would be enough to deter people from becoming obese. They just don't make the connection," says Dr. Whelan.

HIV may not be a death sentence -- if it is treated early
We were happy to read that the HIV death gap is closing, as people who begin to receive state-of-the-art medical treatment very soon after they are infected are living nearly as long as their non-infected peers.

Those who remember the early days of the epidemic, when, as Dr. Whelan recalls, "people were dropping like flies," can particularly appreciate the dramatic results new medical treatments have achieved. "The fact that individuals with HIV who are getting appropriate and early treatment now have the life expectancy of those without HIV represents a triumph of the pharmaceutical industry," Dr. Whelan notes.

Are you sure you ate your vegetables?
People often underestimate the total number of calories they eat, but a new study shows that they tend to overestimate their consumption of fruits and vegetables. A randomly selected group of women who received information about the benefits of eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day later reported consuming a significantly higher number of servings of these food groups than women who did not receive the information.

While the researchers blame the discrepancy on "approval bias," Dr. Kava has another hypothesis. "If you educate people about the importance of eating something, they might actually eat more of it for a while -- or believe they have," she points out. Of course, "Overestimation is not necessarily the same as lying, so I take issue with the way this is being discussed," she adds.

Health facts and fictions about July 4
As we prepare for picnics and fireworks this weekend, we're receiving a lot of advice on how to best enjoy the holiday. While ACSH staffers had a good laugh at the notion that watermelon is "the new Viagra," we took note of a report that exercising and drinking alcohol might make us particularly scrumptious to mosquitoes -- not that it will stop us from doing either!

On a more serious note, ACSH's warnings about the risks associated with fireworks have received a lot of media attention. Fireworks cause at least 10,000 injuries every year, many of them in children. If you choose to light fireworks this year, ACSH Advisor Dr. Emil Chynn recommends wearing protective eyewear, having a bucket of water nearby, and avoiding particularly dangerous types of fireworks, such as bottle rockets and sparklers. With those tips in mind, have a happy Fourth!

DISPATCH 7/1/08: Olin, Judicial Watch, Beijing, and FDA

A fond farewell to Francis O'Connell
At ACSH, we aren't just a group of scientists. We are a network of people who believe science should inform public policy, regardless of politics. Over the years, we have been fortunate to get to know some outstanding individuals, including our long-time supporter Francis O'Connell, who passed away on Sunday at the age of ninety-four.

"Frank really believed in ACSH and was there from the very beginning," ACSH president Dr. Elizabeth Whelan remembers. "He was the second person to approve a grant for ACSH when he headed up the John M. Olin Foundation way back in 1979." Frank continued to support ACSH for decades and encouraged others to do so as well, once writing in a letter, "ACSH has led the charge for twenty-five years in favor of scientific truth and accuracy -- often all alone." We have appreciated his support over the years, and he will certainly be missed.

Gardasil comes under political fire
We are appalled at the stand the watchdog group Judicial Watch has taken against the HPV vaccine Gardasil. The group's agenda on this matter has been consistently focused on "protecting virginity," even though as ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross says, "The idea that having a pre-teen protected against HPV causes promiscuity has been thoroughly disproved."

The group released a report on "adverse reactions" to the vaccine, attempting to blame them on what Dr. Ross calls "the fictitious toxicity of Gardasil."

This is a terrible, volatile mixture of medicine and politics," says Dr. Whelan. "They are after Gardasil and are looking for data to back them up."

Beijing faces challenges to make Olympics safe
This summer's Olympics in Beijing promise to be of public health interest all over the world. The biggest potential danger for athletes is the city's overwhelmingly polluted air, with some competitors -- including the marathon world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie -- opting out of the games because of health concerns. ACSH research intern Krystal Ford recalls that during her own trip to Beijing the pollution was so bad that "I didn't see the sun shine once while I was there."

Beijing began banning cars from its roads recently in an effort to reduce pollution and congestion in time for the games in August. The city has already banned 300,000 high-emissions vehicles and will start banning private cars on alternate days later this month. "I'd like to know how they can clean it all up in just a couple of months," says Dr. Whelan. While pollution is a serious area of concern for travelers to Beijing, visitors should also take care to avoid dog bites, since the city's large numbers of stray animals are rarely vaccinated against rabies.

Missing your summer tomatoes? You're not alone
We aren't surprised that the ongoing salmonella outbreak in tomatoes is making people angry. "Who wouldn't be angry when you can't sell your product?" Dr. Whelan asks. The FDA still hasn't tracked down the source of the outbreak, and there is a good chance it never will, causing ongoing consumer paranoia and drastically impacting the sales of tomatoes all over the country.

"The contamination might not have happened on the farm but rather at some distribution or processing point," says Dr. Ruth Kava. It has even been suggested tomatoes might not be the culprits at all, since many of the people who got sick ate products like guacamole and salsa. We hope this problem is solved soon because the thought of a summer without tomatoes is enough to turn anyone an angry shade of tomato red.

DISPATCH 6/30/08: Exploitation, PVC, Trans Fat, FDA Bureaucracy, and Vaccines

More voices call to stop the exploitation of 9/11
The op-ed by ACSH's Jeff Stier about exploiting 9/11 through false medical claims inspired the New York Post to write its own editorial on the subject: "As we've argued from the outset, those who were physically injured on 9/11 and in its aftermath deserve all the help that America can muster," the editorial board writes. "But those who hope to cash in -- even if they sincerely believe, without proof, that their illness is 9/11-related -- can't be allowed to get away with it."

Stier says he has been receiving lots of positive feedback on his article, including a commendation from someone who works with retired New York City firefighters, who says "he sees attempts to draw false connections between medical problems and 9/11 all the time. 'They smoked three packs a day for thirty years, get sick, and blame 9/11,' he complained," Stier says. "Obviously, these false claims hurt people who were actually injured in the line of duty." Our admirer requested to remain anonymous for fear he might lose his job!

PVC is "sustainable, cost-effective, and versatile," says former head of Greenpeace
We were impressed by an editorial condemning California's proposed ban on polyvinyl chloride (PVC) written by Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace. "It's refreshing to read a commonsense position about PVC, especially from a former head of Greenpeace," says Dr. Elizabeth Whelan.

Moore criticizes the attempt to remove PVC from packaging in California, writing, "Clearly, the ban is being driven by an extremist political agenda that has little to do with science or sustainability. If this ban comes to pass, Californians will be worse off rather than better off. A safe, affordable, durable, and well-researched material will have to be replaced with a host of unknown alternatives." We hope more voices like Moore's are heard before the California legislature votes on the ban.

Say goodbye to trans fats
The year without trans fats is in full swing, with New York City's ban going into effect on July 1. The ban extends to almost all prepared food sold in the city, from fast food burgers to flaky cannoli shells. "It will accomplish absolutely nothing," says ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan.

We haven't been encouraged by the city's past attempts to legislate healthy eating habits. Many fast food restaurants still have not posted calorie counts on their menu boards months after the requirement went into effect and are challenging the city in court. But of course, customers who want calorie counts can already get that information on the fast food restaurants' websites, food wrappers, posters, and tray liners.

Fewer new medicines reach the market
We were disappointed to read that the Food and Drug Administration's increasingly precautionary drug approval process has slowed the flow of new medicines to consumers. "Of course we want safe drugs, but there's a balance between safety and actually getting the drug to market," argues Stier, who also points out that the longer drug companies are forced to wait to sell new medicines, the harder it is to recoup their research costs -- and the more drugs thus must cost for consumers.

"Drug companies think they can't afford to put hundreds of thousands of dollars and a few more years into developing drugs that could help people and save lives because they don't feel the drugs would be approved anyway," says ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross.

Dr. Whelan agrees: "What a tragedy for consumers."

Vaccine scare recycled yet again
Another tenuous link is being drawn being vaccines and autism, this time in children with mitochondrial disorders. Diseased mitochondria can severely interfere with the body's development and functioning, and people affected by the disorders are at increased risk for infections and possibly autism. Vaccines, which introduce pathogens into the body in order to make the person immune to later infections, can pose risks for those with already compromised immune systems, but most doctors still recommend patients with mitochondrial disorders get vaccinated because it could be more dangerous if they contracted the diseases later.

"It's a risk-benefit analysis," says Dr. Ross. "But to extrapolate from these specific cases to generate publicity against vaccines is flawed." While the discussion of vaccines and mitochondrial disorders is important, we hope it is not skewed to serve the interests of alarmists who have based several other attacks on vaccines on junk science.

Elizabeth Wade is a research intern at the American Council on Science and Health (, Receive ACSH Morning Dispatch in your e-mail in-box each weekday by donating to ACSH and then requesting subscription.