ACSH Dispatches Round-Up: Salmonella, Autism, and More

MORNING DISPATCH 7/25/08: Rep. Barton, Dr. Miller, Tomatoes, HIV, Meat, and Candy

Honorary seat at the table goes to Representative Joe Barton
We would like to offer a seat at the ACSH breakfast table to Rep. Joe Barton for his sensible statements opposing a phthalate ban. In an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News, he writes, "Not only does this proposal [to ban phthalates] mischaracterize the science, it also retroactively studies the facts, assumes the safety of alternatives, and categorically exposes the makers to bankrupting lawsuits. In short, it is not good policy or a policy I can support." Barton is the senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, so we hope other legislators follow his logical lead.

Dr. Miller helps readers assess risk
ACSH Trustee Dr. Henry Miller has an excellent essay in the Washington Times about discerning fact from fiction when assessing health risks. He takes on the unfounded scares over bisphenol-A, acrylamide, and trans fats to show how "incessant dire warnings...might make the world seem full of quotidian lethal hazards, but many of these alarms are completely bogus, while most of the others represent only de minimis, or negligible, risks." Dr. Miller encourages his readers to use ACSH's Riskometer in order "to understand what poses significant health risks and what does not."

Food industry reacts to salmonella outbreak
The Associated Press reports that the difficultly tracking down the source of the current salmonella outbreak may have been related to recent efforts by the food industry to block regulations that would have required more complete electronic recordkeeping.

"The costs for food would have gone up if this system had been put in place, but it might have made it easier to trace foodborne illnesses back to their sources," says ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross.

The tomato industry is now seeking compensation for its losses from the government, claiming that the salmonella outbreak should be treated as a natural disaster and arguing that its product was wrongfully blamed because salmonella was recently found on jalapeño peppers. Dr. Ross asks, "How far up and down the line would you compensate people? Everyone, from farmers to truck drivers to sellers, took losses from this."

ACSH's Jeff Stier points out, "Tomatoes still might have been responsible for some earlier infections, even though those being sold now are safe. It is important that we hold industry accountable for outbreaks like these, because then they will have an incentive to protect consumers." Letting industry bear the costs (including lawsuits) of its mistakes may be simpler and more efficient than simultaneously protecting them and concocting new regulatory systems.

HIV drugs improve life expectancy
New HIV treatments led to a thirteen-year improvement in life expectancy for those who began taking the drugs early. A twenty-year-old on highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) can now expect to live another forty-three years. "That is still shorter than the average lifespan, but is it a great improvement from the beginning of the outbreak in the late 1980s and even from the mid-1990s," says Dr. Ross. "It's miraculous, and patients with HIV owe this advance to the ingenuity of the pharmaceutical industry."

PCRM tries to ban meat based on bogus cancer claim
We were appalled by the misleadingly named Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine's (PCRM) latest attempt to promote an extreme vegan diet by calling for all processed meats to be removed from schools. "PCRM is trying to get meat banned from schools because of a phony and outrageous claim that it is linked to colon cancer," says Dr. Ross.

Even worse, the group is exploiting Tony Snow's tragic death from the disease to promote its agenda. "Tony Snow was actually a big fan of ACSH and he understood the science behind these scares, so attaching his name to this is particularly insulting," says Jeff Stier. Read Dr. Ruth Kava's commentary on the subject on ACSH's FactsAndFears blog.

Candy prevents cavities?
A new study shows that feeding children gummy bears sweetened with the sugar substitute xylitol can help protect them against tooth decay. "The xylitol doesn't just replace the sugar in candy, it actually kills the bacteria that can cause cavities," says Jeff Stier. Xylitol has been included in certain brands of gum for years, but this is the first study that shows it can be beneficial for children.

MORNING DISPATCH 7/24/08: Phthalates, Soy, Smoke, Granite, Genes, HPV, and L.A. vs. Food

Honorary seat at the table goes to Representative John Dingell
We would like to offer a seat at the ACSH breakfast table to Rep. Dingell for his sensible thoughts on phthalates. "It is critical that legislation on phthalates be informed by science and include a plan for advancing further inquiry where questions remain," he told reporters.

As the chairman of a committee trying to broker a compromise between the House and the Senate on a proposed phthalate ban, Dingell is a key player in the heated debate over the chemicals. We hope his professed interest in listening to science keeps him from letting a nonsensical scare determine national health policy.

Why aren't we more afraid of soy?
A new study suggests that eating half a serving of soy-based foods per day may reduce men's sperm counts -- but we're not hearing any backlash against soy. "If the study were on any industrial chemical or medicine, people would be calling for it to be taken off the market," says ACSH's Jeff Stier. "But because soy is natural and considered good, it doesn't receive the same scrutiny."

Stier remembers a similarly dampened reaction to a study linking soy consumption to heart disease in mice. "If we applied the same standards to soy as we do to industrial chemicals, we'd be banning soy," he points out. "Perhaps next time we see a study that says a chemical causes heart disease in mice, we can apply the soy standard to beneficial products of modern science."

South Los Angeles bans more fast food restaurants
The Los Angeles City Council has placed a one-year moratorium on opening new fast food restaurants in South LA. Since fast food restaurants predominate in the economically disadvantaged area, some Council members blame them for the high rates of obesity among residents. "The ban will accomplish absolutely nothing healthwise, but it will make them feel like they're doing something to fight obesity," says ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan.

Bloomberg and Gates team up to fight smoking
Microsoft founder Bill Gates and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg have committed $500 million to curb smoking worldwide. "This effort never would have happened thirty years ago," says Dr. Whelan. "It is now truly recognized that smoking is the leading cause of preventable death around the world."

The money will be directed toward programs that encourage tobacco taxes, prohibit smoking in public places, outlaw cigarette advertising to children, start antismoking campaigns, and offer people help quitting. Similar efforts have been successful in the United States, and Gates and Bloomberg want to extend them to low- and middle-income countries like Bangladesh and Russia. "This is a wonderful idea, but the tobacco industry is still going to spend much more to encourage people to start smoking," says ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross.

ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava says, "I hope Gates and Bloomberg direct much of their efforts toward young people" -- especially in light of a new study that finds teenage smokers often have trouble quitting.

Latest cancer scares blame cell phones and granite countertops
We were disappointed by a statement made by Dr. Robert B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, warning people to limit their cell phone use because of a potential link to cancer. "I was amazed to read that a physician made this warning, considering that there is no scientific evidence to back it up," says Dr. Ross.

An equally ridiculous scare about the danger of the radiation emitted by some granite countertops appeared in the New York Times today. ACSH staffers took particular issue with EPA analyst Lou Witt's statement that "scientists agree that 'any exposure [to radiation] increases your health risk'," since we published a paper debunking that myth. "As long as you don't sleep on your granite countertop, I think you're okay," jokes Dr. Ross.

Gene discovery may make statins even safer
Researchers have identified a gene mutation that may be responsible for causing a rare but serious side effect of statins. About one in 10,000 patients taking a standard dose of statins develops myopathy, or severe muscle pain and weakness. Concern over this side effect may lead doctors to limit the dose of statins they prescribe to patients.

The study found that patients with a specific mutation in the gene SLC01B1 were much more likely to experience myopathy when taking statins. "This could help doctors predict which patients might have problems with statins, so they could prescribe higher doses to those who are less likely to experience the side effect," says Dr. Kava.

Dr. Ross reminds us, "The bottom line is that statin drugs are already among the safest drugs we have, and the incidence of serious side effects is very small."

Officials issue reassurances about the safety of Gardasil
We're glad that the FDA and the CDC are standing behind the safety of the HPV vaccine Gardasil. "There has been a lot of background noise about the potentially lethal side effects of Gardasil, but the CDC and FDA did not find any increased risk associated with the vaccine," says Dr. Ross. "The recent concerns over Gardasil were probably produced by groups looking to advance their socially-conservative agendas."

MORNING DISPATCH 7/23/08: Tobacco Bill, Nosophobia, Dallas Discourse, Antibiotics, and More

Executive branch opposes tobacco regulation bill
Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt issued a strong statement against the new tobacco regulation bill in the form of a letter to Joe Barton, the senior Republican on the House's Energy and Commerce Committee. "The implication of the letter is that the president would veto the bill if it gets to his desk," says ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross.

We agree with Sec. Leavitt's arguments, including the fact that the bill "would impose an enormous implementation and resource burden on the FDA," and "adding tobacco to the FDA's regulatory responsibilities could also leave the public with the misperception that tobacco products are safe, or at least safer, with the FDA regulating them."

When it comes to banning chemicals, the nose doesn't know
The latest products being blamed for "contaminating" our bodies with "dangerous" chemicals are the perfumes used in air fresheners and detergents. "There's a term for this irrational fear of developing an illness -- nosophobia," says ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. "I think the nation is now gripped by nosophobia, constantly worrying about developing a disease from chemicals in the environment." We worry ridiculous stories like this one might detract attention from true health threats, like smoking and obesity.

Dr. Whelan corrects the Dallas Morning News

The Dallas Morning News printed a letter from Dr. Whelan taking issue with the paper's mischaracterization of ACSH as an "industry-funded" arm of ExxonMobil in an editorial calling for a phthalate ban.

"The troubling premise of your editorial is this: either you toe the party line -- that rubber duckies pose a health hazard -- or you are, by definition, speaking on behalf of 'industry'," Dr. Whelan writes. "This dichotomy obscures the reality that there are scientists who deplore hyperbole about the risks of chemicals, and they speak out, not in defense of 'industry,' but on behalf of the consumers who are tired of being terrified about bogus risks and paying higher costs to reformulate products that were safe in the first place."

Could Viagra help women too?
A small study found that the erectile-dysfunction drug Viagra might also help reduce the negative sexual side effects of antidepressants in women. "Viagra increases blood flow, so it's logical that it would have an effect," says Dr. Ross. "However, this is just a phase I study involving only ninety-eight women. The fact that it is receiving so much publicity shows the power of the words 'Viagra' and 'sexual dysfunction' to grab headlines."

Britain's healthcare system faces new rules
Doctors in England have been instructed to limit their prescriptions of antibiotics in an attempt to save money and cut down on over-prescribing common drugs. "Doctors are always told not to over-prescribe antibiotics, but sometimes writing the prescription is easier than arguing with the patient," says Dr. Ross. The new guidelines target respiratory tract infections, especially the common cough, for which antibiotics may be unnecessary.

More disturbingly, rheumatoid arthritis patients covered by England's National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) are now being told that they can only try one type of anti-TNF drug to treat their disease -- even though there are three types currently available and individual patients respond to them differently. According to NICE, letting patients try more than one anti-TNF treatment is not cost-effective. "Just because one anti-TNF drug doesn't work for a patient, it doesn't mean they all won't work," says Dr. Ross. "They are basically rationing healthcare."

Researchers use tobacco to treat cancer
We were intrigued by a study in which doctors created a personalized vaccine against lymphoma using tobacco plants. Because cancer cells associated with lymphoma make a specific antibody, doctors may be able to encourage the patient's own immune system to fight the cancer by vaccinating them against their own tumor cells. The antibody linked to lymphoma can be added to the genome of a virus that targets tobacco plants -- so when the plants become infected with the virus, they produce the antibody that can then be used to make the vaccine.

"This is fascinating from an immunological point of view, even though it's very early in the picture," says Dr. Ross. "This is just the sunrise of the biopharmaceutical era." Dr. Whelan finds it ironic that tobacco plants could be used to treat cancer. "It's always interesting when something dangerous can actually produce health benefits," she says.

Dentist advises Americans to wise up about fillings
ACSH scientific advisor Dr. John Dale Dunn brought our attention to a letter he received from a fellow dentist about the alleged dangers of amalgam dental fillings. Dr. Darrell Pruitt writes:

"Few yet realize it, but BPA is in almost all plastics that are used in dentistry, including composite filling material -- the only alternative to amalgam. There are politicians such as Congresswoman Diane Watson from California who want to ban amalgam because of mercury, and you mention others who want to ban BPA. This means that in a short time, it could be illegal for dentists to fill teeth in the US. I find this sequence of events very interesting. Imagine Americans watching helplessly as their teeth rot away. Are we as a nation incredibly stupid?"

ACSH staffers hope that science prevails in public health decisions and Dr. Pruitt's prediction doesn't come true!

MORNING DISPATCH 7/22/08: Health Bucks, Cancer Treatments, Vytorin, and Peppers

Quote of the day
"What they are doing is developing their own system for evaluating things… Using this scale to say a sunscreen offers good protection or bad protection is junk science." -- Dr. Warwick L. Morison, professor of dermatology at Johns Hopkins and chairman of the Skin Cancer Foundation’s photobiology committee, on the Environmental Working Group’s recent sunscreen recommendations. From the New York Times article, “Sunscreen Safety Is Called into Question.”

Honorary seat at the table goes to Jane Brody
We would like to offer a seat at the ACSH breakfast table to the New York Times health writer Jane Brody for her insightful column "Heath 'Facts' You Only Thought You Knew." She debunks several health myths ranging from "drink eight glasses of water a day" to "natural is safer than man-made."

In regards to the latter, she writes, "Remember, nature has produced some of the most dangerous substances known...Only carefully controlled clinical trials can assure the safety of a natural or man-made drug, and few natural substances have been tested in this way." We are impressed by her rational approach to this hotly debated topic.

Jeff Stier's op-ed criticizes Health Bucks program
Congratulations are in order for Jeff Stier's excellent op-ed about New York City’s Health Bucks program in the New York Post. The city plans to provide low-income residents with coupons that can be used to buy produce at green markets in Harlem, the South Bronx, and certain parts of Brooklyn, where fruits and vegetables are reportedly scarce.

But, Stier says, "Come fall, when the green markets are gone, customers may return to the supermarkets only to find the stores have largely abandoned stocking vegetables -- not wanting to compete with produce the city has made free." He also points out, "the program allows people to switch to organic produce -- which is more expensive but no more nutritious."

Moreover, the Health Department will be distributing the vouchers to community groups with virtually no restrictions on how those groups should hand them out to residents. "The plan invites corruption," Stier argues -- especially since the list of groups that will receive the coupons has not been made public. Stier was only able to see the list after he agreed not to publish it, which seems fishy to us.

Can prostate cancer be treated with a pill?
Researchers are studying a pill that may shrink tumors in men with advanced prostate cancer. "I was skeptical of this at first, but apparently there's actually some encouraging data here," says Dr. Gilbert Ross. The pill targets the hormones that fuel prostate cancer by shutting off both the body and the tumor's ability to produce them. Research is progressing quickly, so in the words of Dr. Ross, "stay tuned."

New strategies suggested to encourage breast cancer screening and treatment
We were surprised to hear that lidocaine gel, an over-the-counter local anesthetic, can be effective in reducing pain during mammograms. "You can buy lidocaine gel at the drug store," says Dr. Ross. "I wouldn’t have thought anything so simple would be so effective."

The percentage of women over forty getting their recommended yearly mammograms has dropped recently, and some doctors hope that reducing the discomfort associated with the procedure will encourage more women to be regularly screened for breast cancer.

A new study shows that, disappointingly, 13% of women still fail to complete the full course of radiation therapy that is part of their breast cancer treatment. While this study did not offer reasons why this might be the case, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan suggests, "Often the radiation therapy venue is so inconvenient to get to that women don't do it or they can't do it -- especially not every day for six weeks." She also informs us, "Oncologists have been testing how to get radiation therapy down to only one week, so this problem might have a solution."

Vytorin study generates mixed results and bad publicity
Despite its documented success rate for lowering "bad" LDL cholesterol, the drug Vytorin was found to have no effect on reducing aortic valve disease events. It was also associated with slightly higher death rates from cancer, but researchers assert that the small increase was due to chance rather than any negative effect of the drug.

"Despite the misleading headlines, the Vytorin study was not all bad news," says Dr. Ross. Dr. Ruth Kava points out, "While the drug was not useful for people with valve problems, it still helped reduce the risk for coronary artery disease."

Salmonella traced to jalapeño peppers
The FDA finally tracked down the real source of the recent outbreak of foodborne illness: jalapeño peppers contaminated with the Saintpaul strain of salmonella. The agency is now warning consumers to avoid fresh jalapeños and products containing them.

Two weeks ago, we reported on compelling evidence that the salmonella outbreak was linked to jalapeños, but the FDA did not issue a public warning because it was "erring on the side of caution" after jumping the gun on its tomato warning. "The FDA warned too early about tomatoes, so it couldn’t warn about peppers when it needed to," says Jeff Stier. Dr. Ross adds, "It was the FDA who cried wolf."

MORNING DISPATCH 7/21/08: Transfats, Truvia, Autism, and Alzheimer's

Stop trans fat ban in California
The California legislature recently passed AB 97, a bill to ban trans fats in the state's restaurants. The fate of trans fats in California now rides on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's decision whether or not to sign the bill. ACSH opposes trans fat bans, an opinion that is shared by the Los Angeles Times.

ACSH trustee Dr. Jim Enstrom encourages Morning Dispatch readers in California to send messages about AB 97 to Schwarzenegger.

Mike Savage cruelly mischaracterizes autism
We were appalled by the insensitive comments about autism made by radio host Michael Savage, who said, "In 99% of the cases, it's a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out. That's what autism is." Dr. Elizabeth Whelan worries, "If a man of his stature feels comfortable saying that, I feel like a lot of people must believe it. He wouldn’t have said it if he didn't feel like he had a constituency."

"I'm predicting that there will be a firestorm of commentary on the subject," says Dr. Gilbert Ross. Indeed, the National Autism Association has already demanded a retraction and a public apology from Savage, and a large protest has been planned outside of his station's offices in Manhattan this afternoon.

"Not only do I think Savage should apologize, but he should agree to spend a day at an autism care center to observe if these children just need 'discipline,'" says Dr. Whelan. "That would be a real education for him."

Low fat milk recommended for some infants and children
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is now recommending that children with a family history of high cholesterol, obesity, or heart disease, or who run an increased risk of becoming overweight, drink low fat milk instead of whole milk when they are weaned from formula or breast milk. "The rationale for not putting them on skim milk is that they need the fat for their neurological development," says Dr. Ruth Kava.

The higher amount of fat in whole milk (about 3.2%) was considered important for a young child's healthy growth and neurological development, but, as the AAP's Dr. Stephen R. Daniels notes, the whole milk recommendation was developed "at a time when there wasn't the kind of concern that we have now about childhood obesity." The AAP also recently began recommending increased use of cholesterol-lowering drugs in children with high cholesterol.

"It's a big deal that they changed these recommendations," says Dr. Kava. "The biggest potential danger I see is that some parents might follow the rationale 'if a little is good, a lot is better' and put their children on skim milk. Children still need some fat in their diets."

Alzheimer's treatments have mixed results
The results of a study of a vaccine designed to reduce plaque in the brains of Alzheimer's patients were disappointing. The vaccine did reduce amyloid protein plaques, which were long believed to contribute to the cognitive deterioration associated with Alzheimer's; however, the treatment did not stop dementia progression. "The finding that the plaques were regressing as Alzheimer's was progressing is very disturbing because now we have nothing to hang our hat on," says Dr. Ross. Dr. Kava notes, "You can't always assume that what seems logical is correct biologically."

ACSH staffers were extremely skeptical of a single doctor's claim that an injection of the anti-inflammatory drug Enbrel (etanercept) can dramatically improve the language skills of Alzheimer's patients. Dr. Edward Tobinik of the private medical group Institute for Neurological Research has patented the treatment and released a video of what he calls the "verbal effects within a few minutes of the first dose." Dr. Ross says, "This is not the way we do medical science. Maybe this drug will actually work, but we need to do a double-blind control study before we make any such statements. We should condemn Dr. Tobinick's statements in the strongest possible terms."

Heart disease death rates plummet
Statistics released by the CDC unequivocally show that death rates from heart disease have declined dramatically among blacks and whites and for both men and women since 1979. "More aggressive approaches to treating elevated cholesterol levels and high blood pressure, as well as declining smoking rates, better diagnostic techniques, and improved interventions, have all contributed to the impressive decline in heart disease mortality," says Dr. Ross, who adds that the results are "a public health triumph."

Truvia raises more concerns
The New York Sun picked up our interest in Truvia, Cargill's new "natural" sweetener, and quoted ACSH's Jeff Stier as being concerned that Cargill is marketing the product "to play on people's fears about Splenda, Equal, saccharine, and even sugar." Stier was also worried by comments made by New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, who said she avoids artificial sweeteners and believes "[Cargill is] not giving nearly enough information" about Truvia.

"The assumption is that she's against Truvia and other artificial sweeteners because of health reasons," Stier says. Dr. Ross wonders, "Is she speaking as a nutritionist or as a frightened consumer?" Or perhaps, Dr. Kava suggests, as someone who simply doesn't like the taste?

But Dr. Whelan and Stier agreed that Nestle's negativity toward Truvia reveals a common thread among what Stier calls the "food police." "She is part of the puritanical camp that believes anything sweet with zero calories should be shunned because it doesn’t require you to be disciplined," he explains. ACSH, on the other hand, applauds all tools that safely allow people to lead healthier lives -- especially those that allow them to lead enjoyable lives, too.

MORNING DISPATCH 7/18/08: Safe Tomatoes, Elderly Patients, Counted Calories, Fearful Consumers, and Fat

Restaurants must start counting calories today
Today at midnight is the deadline for chain restaurants in New York City to post calorie counts on their menus or menu boards. Restaurants that haven't posted the information now run the risk of being fined. While many restaurants have already complied with the new law, ACSH's investigative reporting turned up several McDonald's in the city that haven't. "The only calories in sight were in the food," remarks Dr. Ruth Kava.

Of course, McDonald's does post calories on food wrappers, on posters, on tray liners, and on their website, so the chain may be awaiting the results of a legal appeal arguing that posting calories on menu boards as well is unnecessary and cumbersome, given all the existing notification. We here at ACSH continue to believe that such posting will have little, if any, impact on the obesity problem in our city.

Consumer fears drive science out of the marketplace
We know that those crusading against bisphenol-A (BPA) do not have science on their side -- so how and why have they succeeded in creating a scare that has influenced everyone from consumers to politicians? An interesting article in Fortune examines "how rapidly markets can by reshaped today by an activist campaign that catches fire online." Since retailers perceive increased demand for BPA-free products, they are pulling everything containing the chemical off their shelves -- despite the fact that BPA is considered safe by the FDA and faces no new governmental regulations.

"This is a perfect example of how science has gone out the window," says ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. "The FDA looks at science, while Wal-Mart only has to answer to perceived public pressure." ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross says, "Too often, emotion cancels out science for companies looking for the path of least resistance."

American waistlines continue to grow
Twenty-six percent of Americans are now obese, up from about 24% in 2005. Southern states have a particularly high rate of obesity, with 30% of people in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee meeting the definition of a body mass index of 30 or more.

"Why are Southerners particularly obese?" asks Dr. Whelan. "People always blame Southern fried food, but that was around long before obesity become such a problem." In 1990, in fact, the percent of people in Mississippi with a BMI above 30 was 10-14%. It was up to 20% in 2000 and jumped to 30% by 2006.

Dr. Kava suggests that as agriculture became increasingly mechanized, people's lifestyles became more sedentary. While Dr. Whelan is skeptical that "a culturally ingrained way of living and eating" can be changed, Dr. Kava reminds us, "Twenty-five years ago, would you have said smoking would be as out of favor as it is now? I don't think it's impossible to change cultures, and we certainly shouldn't give up on the idea."

Researchers weigh the success of various diets
A new study done in Israel measures weight loss and other health improvements in people who followed either a low fat diet, a low carb diet, or a Mediterranean diet for two years. While all three approaches led to weight loss and improved cholesterol levels, the low carb dieters lost an average of 10.3 pounds, the Mediterranean dieters 10 pounds, and the low fat dieters 6.5 pounds.

"Some diets are better for some people than others," says Dr. Kava. She also points out that the actual diets people followed for the study are not necessarily what Americans think of as low fat or low carb. "They weren't eating the bacon and heavy cream we associate with low carb diets like Atkins," she says. Instead, low carb dieters were encouraged to choose vegetarian sources of fat and protein. The low fat diet restricted fat intake to no more than 30% of calories from fat per day -- which is actually the recommended limit for everyone. The Mediterranean diet focused on poultry, fish, olive oil, and nuts.

Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times takes a different view of the study, emphasizing that the relatively small number of pounds shed by participants show how ineffective diets can be. Dr. Kava says, "I think it's true that you can lose weight on any diet as long as you cut calories. But I'm not convinced that a high fat Atkins diet is the way to go."

Should elderly people have surgery?
As the number of people living past 100 increases, doctors are raising medical and ethical questions about using aggressive treatments like surgery to further extend their lives. "Who's to say that it's not worth letting even a very old patient live another three years?" asks Dr. Whelan. Dr. Ross believes, "It's as worthwhile to operate on a 100-year-old person as it is on someone who is eighty-eight."

Other doctors say that while aggressive treatments may prolong life, they might decrease a very elderly person's quality of life in their last years. And of course, much of the argument comes down to cost. Dr. Ross remembers that when he was an intern "we would not admit any patient to the cardiac care unit who was over seventy-five. When you have finite resources and an increasingly elderly population, you will either have to devote all of your tax dollars to their health care or you're going to have to ration it, even though no one wants to admit it."

Summer tomatoes finally safe to eat
FDA officials have lifted the months-long warning on tomatoes after determining that any of the fruit that may have been contaminated with salmonella has now passed out of the agricultural system. "They're not saying that tomatoes never made people sick but that those that potentially did would no longer be available," says Dr. Whelan. The FDA still hasn't traced the salmonella outbreak to its source and is now advising that young children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems should avoid fresh Serrano peppers, jalapeño peppers, and possibly cilantro.

MORNING DISPATCH 7/17/08: Summer, Menthol, Media Bias, Blood Mishaps, Arthritis, and the Pancreas

Summer celebration a success
We'd like to thank those who attended our summer celebration yesterday. Jeff Stier's garden was a lovely setting for an afternoon of good food and even better company. We hope even more of you can join us next year! In the meantime, you can see pictures of the event here.

Study questions the effects of menthol "manipulation"
As Congress considers a bill to ban flavored cigarettes, a new study examines the effect of menthol cigarettes -- which are specifically exempted from the ban -- on encouraging young people to smoke. Researchers claim that tobacco companies target young people with cigarettes containing menthol in small amounts, which can make a person's first few cigarettes more palatable. "When a teenager smokes her or his first cigarette, it's difficult and harsh. If you put a little bit of menthol in, it's going to make the experience less disagreeable," says ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. Conversely, cigarettes with higher levels of menthol appeal to those who have been smoking for an extended period of time.

But with so many cigarette choices already on the market, we're not convinced that cigarettes with low levels of menthol can be regulated based on the claim that they are specifically aimed at teenage smokers. "Cigarettes are a legal product and companies have a right to sell them," Dr. Whelan points out. "They happen to be a deadly product, but legally there's no distinction." Additionally, the tobacco industry maintains that it does not market to underage smokers.

The study adds fuel to the controversy already surrounding the tobacco regulation bill and its menthol exemption. "The purpose of the bill is to stop kids from smoking, and I'm not sure that menthol actually encourages them to start," says Jeff Stier. The menthol exemption was initially included to gain tobacco industry support for the bill but has caused other politically powerful groups, including the Black Caucus, to withdraw their support. ACSH doesn't believe the bill will be effective in curbing smoking, with or without the menthol exemption.

Dallas Morning News takes liberties with facts
We were troubled by a mention ACSH received in
an editorial in the Dallas Morning News calling for a phthalate ban. Even while acknowledging that science shows that phthalates are not a public health hazard, the editorial board attempts to discredit ACSH's position by calling us "industry-funded" and lumping us together with ExxonMobil. "It's so prejudicial. It's communicating that we're a surrogate for or a PR arm of ExxonMobil," says Dr. Whelan. "Anyone who goes to our website and sees the variety of topics we work on and the number of scientists involved knows that's not true."

"The dichotomy [they perpetuate is] that either you're against phthalates or you're a paid liar," she continues. "They can't tolerate that there could be a group against phthalate bans that isn't speaking for industry."

Red Cross criticized for blood services slip-ups
Problems with the American Red Cross blood services persist even fifteen years after a court order first required the organization to improve the way it collects and handles blood. Reported problems range from not screening donors well enough to not cleaning their arms appropriately to failing to recall potentially unsafe blood once it has been released. "Most of these problems seem to come down to mistakes by individuals, like the person taking your blood," says ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross.

The enormous size of the Red Cross has made implementing changes difficult. But while officials are reevaluating its practices, Dr. Whelan would like to suggest another change: "Reduce the number of people excluded from donating blood by changing the screening tests to reflect real threats."

If you are interested in donating blood and are in the New York area, Jeff is helping to organize the Angels in Waiting blood drive on August 4. He will also be hosting a dinner for donors at his apartment, giving those of you who missed yesterday's party another chance to enjoy his hospitality.

Pancreatic cancer linked to obesity
A new study concludes that obesity is a major risk factor for pancreatic cancer in women. "It's another reason to be concerned about being overweight," Dr. Whelan says. The increase in the often-fatal cancer in people who are overweight may be related to elevated insulin levels caused by high proportions of abdominal fat. "I don't think most people make the connection between obesity and any kind of cancer," says ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava. "But clearly it's something to be concerned about."

Drug combo proves effective for treating rheumatoid arthritis
Researchers found that a combination of the drugs methotrexate and Enbrel (etanercept) treated rheumatoid arthritis more effectively than methotrexate alone. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease involving severe inflammation of the joints that can result in pain and disability.

"It used to be that you could see a patient with rheumatoid arthritis every month for ten years and even though nothing changed dramatically from month to month, ten years later she or he would be in a wheelchair," says Dr. Ross. "It's a gradually progressive disease, and now we try to stop its progress early on, so studies on treatments like these are very important."

MORNING DISPATCH 7/16/08: Slower kids, self-examined breasts, high blood pressure, clustered cancer

Exercise dwindles as kids grow older
We weren't surprised to hear that children exercise less as they get older, with girls falling below the recommended one hour of physical activity per day at about age thirteen and boys at about age fifteen.

"This isn't really new information, but the study was much more quantitative than previous ones because researchers used accelerometers to measure activity levels," says Dr. Ruth Kava, who recently wrote about the study for ACSH's FactsandFears blog. "What we still don't know is if there is a biological component or if it is just a secular change based on the environment."

ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan remarks, "Gym classes, walking to school, and other physical activities used to be more common. Now kids are getting more involved with TV and video games, and physical education is being cut back in schools."

Thirty-two percent of children in the U.S. are overweight, and 16% are obese, contributing to the current obesity epidemic and casting a shadow on their generation's health now and in the future. Good exercise and eating habits are more difficult to develop later in life, so, Dr. Kava recommends, "Keeping kids active as they get into their adolescent years, along with maintaining healthful dietary habits, could be a way of preventing obesity."

Breast self-exams don't prevent cancer deaths
After decades of recommending that women perform monthly breast self-exams, doctors have now realized that they do not prevent breast cancer deaths. "That's a radical thing to hear after all these years," says Dr. Whelan.

Performing regular breast self-exams also appears to put women at risk for unnecessary biopsies, which can be a traumatic experience in and of itself. Dr. Kava also points out, "Women are not going to be able to find lumps unless they are a fairly decent size, and by then any cancer may have already progressed too much."

Dr. Whelan believes "women should be encouraged to get mammograms rather than rely on breast self-exams, which may lead to a false sense of security."

High blood pressure is a problem, even in young adults
Even slightly elevated blood pressure in young adults is a significant risk factor for atherosclerosis, or the build-up of plaque on the lining of blood vessels, which can lead to heart attack or stroke. "This is a very disturbing story," says Dr. Whelan. "How many young adults actually monitor their blood pressure?"

Since blood pressure is checked during routine physicals, regular visits to the doctor may help detect problems early. Young people with a family history of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes (and their parents) should be extra vigilant about monitoring their blood pressure.

Brain cancer scare grips Missouri town
Thirteen cases of brain cancer in a Missouri town have residents worried they might be living in a cancer cluster. Tests of the drinking water did not turn up any potential carcinogens, so state and federal officials have now turned their attention to the town's soil and groundwater. "This alleged cluster has not been statistically verified, and now they are testing the water and soil," says Dr. Whelan. "It's a defiance of science."

While alleged cancer clusters receive lots of media attention, they do not necessarily reflect a true increase in cancer occurrence. In this case, ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross recommends starting out with some basic questions: "Is thirteen really a cluster? There are several different kinds of brain cancers, so can they all be caused by the same thing?" For more information about the disparity between scientific findings and public misconceptions about cancer clusters, please see ACSH's booklet Cancer Clusters: Findings vs. Feelings.

Study reveals new "benefit" of smoking
A new study found that a history of cigarette smoking reduces the risk of cancer of the endometrium, the inner lining of the uterus. Of course, it still increases the risk of many other cancers and chronic diseases. "We're not going to tell women to smoke because of this information," says Dr. Whelan.

Endometrial cancer may be linked to increased levels of estrogen, and cigarette smoking is thought to suppress the hormone. "The findings emphasize an interesting biological mechanism, even though they don't currently have a practical application," says Dr. Whelan.

MORNING DISPATCH 7/15/08: Asthma, Alzheimer's, Arnold, Autism, Alienation, and Androgen

Child's asthma blamed on mother's diet
We were surprised to see that an obscure story linking maternal consumption of nuts during pregnancy to a child's risk of developing asthma received publicity this morning. "It was not even on the radar screen, and suddenly it's at the top of the Today show," says ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. "Even the authors of the study say it's not a causal link and it's not time for recommendations or warnings, so the way the story was given such prominence was really uncalled for."

ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross adds, "given the hysteria with which the Today show dealt with 'toxic plastic' recently, we are losing any confidence we might have had in the 'science' stories on NBC."

Exercise may reduce risk of Alzheimer's
Regular exercise may help stave off Alzheimer's by reducing the brain shrinkage related to the disease. The exact reasons for the link are unclear, and some ACSH staffers are pessimistic about major progress in preventing or treating this devastating condition in the foreseeable future. "Alzheimer's seems to have become a catch-all term, like dementia used to be," says ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava.

Still, Dr. Whelan adds, "People always hope we can find something."

California's chemical regulation proposal may have stalled
ACSH Trustee Dr. Jim Enstrom brought our attention to the fact that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to be backing down on his state's proposed Green Chemistry Initiative, which would create a list of chemicals made, used, and sold in California and attempt to implement safer and more sustainable alternatives when necessary.

Of course, "chemical safety" means vastly different things to scientists than it does to some activists and politicians. "The Green Chemistry Initiative may be a better alternative to the activist approach," ACSH's Jeff Stier suggests. Whether or not it goes into effect, we hope California makes sound science a priority in its public health policies.

Democratic delegates may vote with their stomachs at convention
We are amused by the decision to have only organic and colorful food at the Democratic Convention in Denver this summer. There is also a ban on fried food, which has inspired opposition from Denver Councilman Charlie Brown. He believes the culinary options at the convention might alienate -- or even offend -- Southern delegates and hurt the party's image in the region. We wonder if politicizing food issues helps anyone in the end.

Making sense of autism
With so many unfounded scares surrounding autism, we were impressed by a book from the Autism Partnership entitled Sense and Nonsense in the Behavioral Treatment of Autism: It Has to Be Said. One of the authors, Dr. Mitchell Taubman, says the book's purpose is to "provide parents and professionals with clear information and user-friendly tools to sift through the important issues relating to autism treatment and ultimately generate solutions that are truly in the best interests of the child with autism."

"It sounds like they are trying to make some sense instead of promoting fear," says Dr. Ross. It is important to have voices like these speaking up for sound science and against unproven fad treatments and "cures."

Spotlight on bone loss drugs
The new drug Denosumab is reported to be successful in preventing bone loss in men undergoing hormone treatment for prostate cancer. Bone loss is a common side effect of the androgen-deprivation therapy often used to treat prostate cancer.

The data came on the heels of news that the osteoporosis drug Fosomax may actually increase the risk of a certain type of leg fracture. "They don't have any plausible theory as to why that happens," says Dr. Ross. Even if the leg fractures are related to long-term use of Fosomax, they remain very rare. "With 300,000 hip fractures in the U.S. every year, the risk-benefit is clear," Dr. Ross believes.

MORNING DISPATCH 7/14/08: Autism and Melanoma, Miller and DeBakey

Honorary seat at the table goes to Dr. Henry Miller
We would like to offer ACSH trustee Dr. Henry Miller a seat at our breakfast table for his excellent article in the Guardian examining consumer misperceptions about risks and promoting ACSH's as a credible source for putting risks in proper perspective. Riskometer, he writes, "offers actual data which show that many of the hyped threats that we hear and read about daily occur very far down on the list [of actual risks]."

Dr. Miller consistently speaks out in favor of sound science and against unfounded health scares, writing, "The media's pseudo-scare mode is a disservice to the public. People have only so much time to pay attention to health issues, and if most stories focus attention on negligible threats, greater risks that individuals may be able to control get short shrift." We share his opinion and thank him for his support.

ACSH says goodbye to Dr. DeBakey
Dr. Michael DeBakey, a pioneering heart surgeon and loyal ACSH supporter, passed away this weekend at the age of ninety-nine. "He was a true friend of ACSH," says Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. The New York Times obituary states that Dr. DeBakey rejected cholesterol as a cause of heart disease, but Dr. Whelan says, "He actually rejected dietary cholesterol and other dietary factors as significant parts of the etiology of coronary heart disease" -- a belief that ACSH shares.

To raise awareness about such misconceptions, Dr. DeBakey participated in an ACSH press conference and media tour about the top three controllable risk factors for heart disease: elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, and cigarette smoking. "I had the honor of appearing on a number of radio and television shows with him that day in 1989," Dr. Whelan remembers.

In addition to developing several innovative surgical techniques, Dr. DeBakey was one of the first physicians to link lung cancer to smoking. "As long ago as 1939, Dr. DeBakey, with his colleague Dr. Alton Oschner, declared that the sudden increase in lung cancer in the United States was causally linked with the relatively new habit of cigarette smoking," Dr. Whelan says.

Dr. DeBakey's groundbreaking work transformed the field of heart surgery and has saved thousands of lives. He will be greatly missed.

Melanoma on the rise in young women
Melanoma rates have risen by 50% in young women since 1980, which is probably related to increases in sun exposure and the use of tanning salons in the last few decades. "Despite all the warnings, many young people, and especially women, want to get a nice bronze color," says Dr. Gilbert Ross (who is back in the office and doing great after his knee surgery!).

Wearing protective clothing, avoiding the sun's rays, and using sunscreen can all protect the skin against harmful UV rays and lower the risk of melanoma. Despite the recent groundless scare about "harmful chemicals" in sunscreen, Dr. Whelan says, "The message is clear: be careful of the sun."

Britain introduces even more confusing food labels
We often criticize the misuse of food labels such as "natural," so we were initially excited to read that the UK's Food Standards Agency has revised its food labeling guidelines in an attempt to provide clearer advice to manufacturers and consumers. But once we saw its alternative terms -- with "seasonal" replacing "natural" and "finest" standing in for "garden fresh" -- we were even more confused than before. "I'm not sure this is going to help anybody," says Dr. Ruth Kava. "The alternatives make no sense and seem even more confusing."

Researchers identify genetic risk factors for autism
New research has identified six genes that appear to underlie at least some fraction of autism cases, reinforcing the idea that the condition is caused by a range of environmental and genetic factors. "So many people are seeking a single cause and blaming things like vaccines, but there doesn't appear to be just one trigger," says Dr. Whelan.

The genetic mutations appear to disrupt the formation of neural connections in the brain at early stages of development, but the success of intervention programs that provide enriched learning environments suggest that there are ways to bypass the damaged pathways in the brain. Ultimately, identifying autism treatments could be just as complicated as finding its triggers.

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.