MORNING DISPATCH 9/5/08: McCain vs. Pharma, Science vs. Cancer Claim, plus Smoking, Shots, and Obesity
McCain's anti-pharma stance is misguided
ACSH staffers were extremely disappointed by John McCain's promise to "take on the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries" if he becomes president. "It's offensive and preposterous to equate an industry that kills over 400,000 Americans annually with an industry that saves countless lives," says ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan.
McCain has a contentious history with the pharmaceutical industry, labeling them "big, bad guys" in past debates and supporting drug importations. ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross blames politics -- and McCain's efforts to connect with "everyday working Americans" -- for his misguided statements. "Anytime a corporation or a group of corporations makes huge profits, they become vulnerable to politically motivated attacks," he says. "It's disappointing that McCain seems to be taking the bait [on something] usually associated with Democrats." Dr. Whelan adds, "It is sad to think that the basic American view of the pharmaceutical industry is so negative."
Sound science refutes Vytorin's alleged link to cancer
As the Vytorin cancer scare heated up recently, we were glad to see a sensible commentary about the situation from anti-junk science advocate Steven Milloy. He points out that renowned Oxford University epidemiologist Sir Richard Peto found no link between the cholesterol-lowering drug and an increased incidence of cancer, and that "Peto based his conclusion on the fact that in the SEAS trial, there were no statistically significant increases in any specific type of cancer; the statistically significant result occurred only by adding all cancers together."
"To say a drug like Vytorin causes all different kinds of cancers is ridiculous," Dr. Ross says. "Specific carcinogens only cause certain cancers, or types of cancers, but never all kinds." He points to an illuminating quote from Victor Velculescu of Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in a Wall Street Journal article about cancer mapping: "We used to think there was one enemy that was well-defined, but now we know there are lots of little enemies."
Article downplays dangers of smoking
An article in the British newspaper The Sun lists thirty recommendations for living longer, of which "don't smoke" is number 20 -- well after "read upside down," "have sex," and "don't conform."
"Smoking is treated as just another small risk factor, when really it is the leading cause of preventable death worldwide," Dr. Whelan says, while ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava wonders, "How can we expect people to fully understand the dangers of smoking when articles like this don't emphasize them?"
Driving the point home, a recent CDC report concludes that smoking caused 2.4 million cases of cancer from 1999 to 2004. "And they don't even mention the fact that most of the deaths caused by smoking are not from cancer but rather from heart disease and lung disease," Dr. Ross says. We're curious to see how tonight's Stand Up to Cancer show addresses the dangers of tobacco -- if it does so at all.
Childhood vaccination rate reaches record high
We were thrilled to hear that a large majority of U.S. toddlers got the recommended vaccinations in 2007. With measles on the rise, it seems as though more parents are recognizing that not protecting their children against infectious diseases is more dangerous than a baseless health scare linking vaccines to autism. "People understand that some of these disease can be deadly when children aren't properly protected against them," Dr. Kava says.
Obesity worsens asthma
A new study shows that obese people with asthma are more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than their non-obese peers. "It's even more bad news about obesity," says Dr. Whelan. Look for ACSH publications on both asthma and the health effects of obesity in the coming months.
MORNING DISPATCH 9/4/08: Countertops, Clones, Statins, Smoking, and Knees
Today Show hypes granite countertops scare
ACSH staffers were disappointed to see a segment on the Today Show about the "threat" posed by radioactive granite countertops. "There was nothing constructive about this segment," says ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. "They were still trying to scare viewers even though they had to admit several times throughout the story that there is no evidence the radiation emitted by some countertops is actually dangerous."
Unfortunately, it seems more and more common for networks -- as well as magazines and "health" blogs -- to highlight scare stories with no scientific basis as a way of attracting attention in a crowded media market. We wish science would trump ratings for once, instead of the other way around.
Kraft caves to consumer fears and promises not to use cloned animals
Kraft Foods and several other food companies have pledged not to use meat or milk from cloned animals, a move we find disingenuous and misleading. "We've been manipulating the genetics of animals for centuries," Dr. Whelan reminds us. "Cloning is simply a more exact way of creating animals with the characteristics we want." In fact, the FDA ruled that products from cloned animals are just as safe as those from conventional animals.
ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava points out, "Even without this statement from food companies, no one would be eating cloned animals because they are so expensive" -- around $20,000 each. A few companies have said they will avoid products made from the offspring of cloned animals, which are not tracked or regulated. Dr. Kava predicts, however, "In the future we'll even see organic products made from the offspring of cloned animals because they will be the best around."
In the present, however, we are disappointed by what ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross calls the food companies' decision to "cave to public relations." Dr. Whelan believes, "It's appalling when industries respond to small groups of people who happen to have big microphones."
Statins prevent strokes in older people, too
A new study finds that cholesterol-lowering statin drugs are just as effective at preventing strokes in people over sixty-five as they are in younger people. Despite this and many other benefits, statins are prescribed less often to older people than to younger people.
In light of all the benefits of statins and their low incidence of side effects, Dr. Whelan wonders, "If someone doesn't have bad lipid levels, would a doctor take advantage of the other health benefits of statins and still prescribe one?" Dr. Ross believes, "That's an important philosophical issue that is going to be widely discussed. It might be that doing so is a lifesaving action."
Study predicts arthritis of the knee for 45% of Americans
Researchers say that almost half of American adults will develop knee osteoarthritis, a painful condition that can lead to disability and hospitalizations. "It's an astounding statistic," says Dr. Whelan.
Obese people are at increased risk for developing the condition, since their extra weight puts additional stress on the knee joint -- and since more American adults are obese than ever before, it makes sense that more people would be at risk for knee osteoarthritis. Dr. Ross, however, cautions against taking what may be exaggerated predictions at face value.
USA Today ignores tobacco in cancer story
We received an interesting commentary from anti-tobacco advocate Jon Krueger -- on a USA Today article about fighting cancer that makes no mention of the leading cause of the disease, cigarettes. "You would never know from the information provided in this story that the number one cause of cancer death is highly preventable," he writes. "You wouldn't even know what that cause is."
Dr. Whelan agrees that the lack of accurate information provided by the article is troubling. "How do you expect people to fully understand the dangers of smoking when an article about cancer risks in a major newspaper doesn't even mention them?"
MORNING DISPATCH 9/3/08: Chickenpox Vaccine, Fat Tax, Women Smokers, Teenage Suicide, Bad Stats
Quote of the day
"It just amazes me that vaccines are not valued, as they have been one of the most successful advances in medicine." --Dr. James King, professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, in the ABC News article "Chickenpox Vaccine Slashes Virus by 90 Percent." See below for the full story.
Alabama plans to tax extra pounds
In order to cut down on health care costs, state employees in Alabama who don't participate in or pass an at-work check-up will be charged $25 extra per month for health insurance. Employees will be screened for diabetes and hypertension and have their cholesterol, glucose levels, and body mass index (BMI) measured as part of the check-up. It is the BMI measurement, which is used to gauge obesity, that has some ACSH staffers worried. "I don't think it's a good idea to single people out for something that may not be totally within their control," says ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan.
ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava points out, "BMI doesn't necessarily give an accurate reading of obesity and overall health, especially for people with high muscle mass. But if insurance companies can charge more for people who smoke, why can't the state of Alabama do this?"
ACSH Advisor and University of California, Davis nutrition professor Dr. Judith Stern sharply condemns the plan, calling it "a dreadful, dreadful policy" that is too intrusive and "discriminates against people with a disease." On the other hand, ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross believes, "Most people can lose weight if they really try, and charging people with a BMI of over 35 more for their health insurance is an incentive for them to lose weight. I think it's mostly positive."
Many parents underestimate chickenpox and forgo vaccine
ACSH staffers were concerned by the news that many parents do not have their children vaccinated against chickenpox. "People perceive chickenpox to be an innocuous childhood disease," says Dr. Kava.
As Dr. Ross reminds us, however, "Chickenpox caused many deaths and significant morbidity each year" before the vaccine was introduced to the U.S. in 1995. The vaccine has reduced the occurrence of chickenpox by 90%, hospitalizations due to the disease by 74%, and related deaths by 75%, with the greatest improvements seen in young children. Doctors are now recommending a two-dose vaccination schedule to further boost immunity, and we hope that parents (and children) across the country take advantage of it. For more information on the benefits of vaccines, see ACSH's publication The Promise of Vaccines: The Science and the Controversy.
Women smokers have a lot to lose due to heart disease
While women usually develop heart disease late in life, those who smoke become vulnerable to heart attacks at a much earlier age. A new study finds that the average age for non-smoking women to have their first heart attack is eighty-one but that it drops down to sixty-six for smokers. Men, who tend to develop heart disease earlier, show only a six-year difference. "The bottom line of this study is that women have a lot more to lose than men do in terms of smoking and heart disease," says Dr. Ross.
Teenage suicides increase after FDA warns against antidepressants
We were disturbed by the news that the number of teen suicides has increased since the black box warning label was put on antidepressants. "The FDA found an increase in suicidal thinking in teenagers on antidepressants but not any increase in actual suicides -- but they decided to put the black box label on the drugs anyway," says Dr. Ross, who has previously written about this topic in the Wall Street Journal. "Of course, the number of prescriptions fell, and teen suicides have gone up since then." We hope the new data help doctors and their patients more accurately assess the risks and benefits of these potentially life-saving drugs.
Statistics aren't always what they seem
Statistics were skewed in two of today's news stories. The first concerns the cholesterol-lowering drug Vytorin, which was attacked in an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine for potentially increasing cancer risk -- even though the researchers who conducted the study on the drug's possible link to cancer said that any increase was statistically insignificant and likely due to chance. "Hopefully the current 'controversy' won't stop doctors from prescribing a drug that can dramatically reduce blood cholesterol levels -- especially those of 'bad' LDL cholesterol -- and can potentially reduce heart attacks and strokes and save lives," says Dr. Ross.
The second story that made use of questionable interpretation of statistics focused on a study concluding that a bike helmet law reduced the number of bike-related deaths among children by 52% -- specifically, from thirteen to six deaths per year in Ontario. "ACSH staffers feel very strongly that bike helmets should be worn by children and adults, but this study was so small as to be statistically insignificant and, therefore, not powerful enough," Dr. Ross believes. "We'd like to see a similar study of bike helmet laws done in a larger population."
MORNING DISPATCH 9/2/08: Chemicals, HPV, Tobacco Tax, Flu, Risk, and Irradiation
ACSH responds to the Denver Post's stance on chemical regulation
The Denver Post published a letter from ACSH's Jeff Stier opposing the paper's unscientific support for banning phthalates and bisphenol-A. "'Growing concerns' among advocates and parents may spur private retailers to modify their product lines, but such vague feelings should not form the basis of government bans," he writes. "In fact, there is no evidence that phthalates in toys cause reproductive problems in either gender, nor can anyone point to health effects from bisphenol-A in bottles."
Stier also reminds readers that thanks to scientific innovation, "Overall health among children, including declining cancer rates, is better than ever," an important fact that is often overlooked by those promoting health scares.
Risk of allergic reactions does not outweigh benefits of HPV vaccine
A new study seems to indicate that young women who receive the HPV vaccine Gardasil may be more likely to have anaphylactic reactions after the shot than those who recieve other vaccines. The raw numbers of severe allergic reactions to the HPV vaccine, however, are still extremely low -- out of the 114,000 young women who received the Gardasil shot in the study, there were twelve suspected cases of anaphylaxis, of which eight were confirmed.
"This story is a tempest in a teapot," says ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross. "The numbers are tiny and of no real consequence, and doctors and their patients should remember to take the vaccine's risk-benefit analysis into account."
The doctors who performed the study seem to agree. "The study's authors still recommend that all adolescent girls be vaccinated against HPV, which is a pretty strong statement," ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava reminds us.
Could the tobacco tax hinder government anti-smoking efforts?
Although ACSH has been making the same point for years, we were nevertheless disturbed by new evidence of the government's dependency on tobacco taxes noted by Stephanie Saul's article in the New York Times. The federal government collects $7 billion annually from sales of cigarettes, and some state governments are attempting to ease their mounting budget deficits by raising cigarette taxes. As the article points out, these figures cannot be ignored when examining the House's overwhelming passage of a tobacco regulation bill that leaves profitable menthol cigarettes untouched.
"The reliance of government coffers on the taxes smokers pay, and on the tobacco settlement money, essentially provides a financial cushion for state governments and could be viewed as a government guarantee for the survival of the tobacco industry," Saul writes. "Would politicians shut down an industry that supplies so much money?"
Stier, for one, doesn't think so. "The government is addicted to cigarette taxes," he says. "We have a bill that could have banned menthol cigarettes and possibly could have caused some people to stop smoking, but that provision wasn't included because the government was afraid it might actually work." Read ACSH Advisor and long-time anti-smoking advocate Dr. Michael Siegel's astute commentary on the issue here.
Doctors reexamine flu vaccine recommendations
The flu vaccine, long recommended for people over sixty-five, might not be as effective in protecting the elderly against the disease as previously thought -- but it likely still provides enough protection to warrant continued widespread vaccination for those at risk. "We have to send the message very forcefully that any protection is better than none," says Dr. Ross. "And even if the vaccine is not fully protective, it could still lessen the severity of the disease."
ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan believes, "We should investigate whether increasing the vaccine's dosage could be more effective in protecting elderly patients" -- especially in light of recent evidence that elderly patients need four times the amount of antigens currently given in a standard dose of the flu vaccine to have the same kind of immune response as healthy adults under forty. "Increasing the dosage could be a life-saving measure," Dr. Whelan says, while Dr. Ross points out that vaccinating all schoolchildren against the disease can prevent many flu-related deaths in the elderly.
Nothing to fear from food irradiation
ACSH staffers were impressed by an article in the Los Angeles Times about the FDA's recent decision to allow spinach and iceberg lettuce to be irradiated. "It's quite rational," Dr. Kava says. "The article makes it clear that the plants do not retain any radiation, and it points out that the low dose we currently use to treat plants does not result in wilted or nutrient-deficient foods." Food irradiation could be a powerful weapon against foodborne illnesses, and we hope the process is approved for more products in the future.
More ways to assess risk
The New York Times and the Journal of the National Cancer Institute appear to be following ACSH's lead by providing broad, clear, and informative risk charts. The Times uses the chart to compare the risk of death from various causes at different ages in smoking and non-smoking women and men. We hope readers take advantage of these new charts, as well as our Riskometer, to gain a clear perspective on various risks.
MORNING DISPATCH 8/28/08: Denver, New York, and the EU, plus Hot Dogs, Cells, and HIV
Jeff Stier reports back from Denver
Jeff is busy spreading ACSH's message of sound science and common sense at the Democratic National Convention in Denver this week. "I went to a very interesting event sponsored by the Pharmaceuticals Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) where the actor Joe Pantoliano spoke about the discrimination faced by people who take medication for mental illness," he told us. Mr. Pantoliano, best known for his role on The Sopranos, suffers from depression.
Jeff has also appeared on various radio talk shows and has been encouraging delegates and politicians to take another look at the benefits of nuclear energy. In keeping with ACSH's nonpartisan status, he will be heading to the Republican National Convention in Minnesota next week. "Any Morning Dispatch readers who will also be there should get in touch so we can arrange to get together," he says. You can reach him on his cell phone at 646-245-1443.
Honorary seats at the table go to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times
We'd like to offer adjoining seats at the ACSH breakfast table to the editorial boards of both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal for their support of the FDA's decision to allow spinach and iceberg lettuce to be irradiated. A journalist from the Wall Street Journal recently interviewed ACSH's Drs. Elizabeth Whelan and Ruth Kava about the same subject, and the information they supplied appears to have contributed to the paper's strong stance. ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross says, "We congratulate both editorial boards for their science-based and rational approaches to the issue of food irradiation."
ACSH joins the fight against EU pesticide regulations
ACSH is proud to add our name to the illustrious list of scientists who have signed a petition opposing the European Union's stringent new pesticide regulations, which are set to go into effect this fall. The regulations will reduce the number of pesticides available for public health uses, including controlling mosquito populations in regions at risk for malaria.
"The list of those who have already signed the petition is a roll call of many of the greatest researchers in tropical medicine and infectious disease," says Dr. Ross. "ACSH is glad to join their ranks in protesting these absurd, chemophobic regulations that unscientifically substitute hazard for risk." Please consider joining us by signing the petition yourself.
Hot dogs singled out by anti-meat activists
With Labor Day just around the corner, "it's time for the annual hot dog health scare," jokes Dr. Whelan. This year's claim -- made by the radical anti-meat group the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which is closely affiliated with the animal rights group PETA -- is that hot dogs increase the risk of colon cancer and, therefore, should be removed from school lunch menus.
John Chickering, who put together our Riskometer, forwarded the story to us with the message, "What a lot of baloney (pardon the pun). With no shortage of need for truth in the world, thank goodness for ACSH." Needless to say, you won't see hot dogs on the Riskometer anytime soon. For more information on this bogus scare, see Dr. Kava's recent blog post.
Scientists explore new strategies in cell research
Researchers have developed a new method of transforming one type of pancreas cell into another in mice, creating new possibilities in the field of stem cell research. The technique does not involve embryonic stem cells, the use of which has inspired controversy and governmental restrictions. "Some people may say that we can abandon embryonic stem cell research because of this new method, but both strategies should certainly be pursued to their fullest extent," says Dr. Ross. Dr. Kava agrees "110%."
NYC's rate of HIV infection is three times the national rate
The rate at which New York City residents contract new HIV infections is three times the national rate. In 2006, nearly 4,800 New Yorkers -- or seventy-two out of every 100,000 residents -- became infected with the virus that causes AIDS. The national rate is twenty-three per 100,000.
"This disturbing news indicates that the message of safe sex has not been thoroughly absorbed by some segments of New York City's population," says Dr. Ross. "The Department of Health should take the lead on pushing for more education, rather than concerning itself with non-issues like trans fats."
Happy Labor Day!
There will be no Morning Dispatch tomorrow because the ACSH breakfast table will be empty in anticipation of Labor Day. We'd like to wish everyone a happy and safe long weekend!
MORNING DISPATCH 8/27/08: JAMA vs. Food, plus Metal, Skin, Clusters, Nuts, and E-Cigarettes
Will the government be able to control what's on your plate?
We were appalled by a commentary in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association calling for government regulation of "unhealthy" food. Authors Dr. Lynn Silver and Dr. Mary T. Bassett of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene argue, "To make the food supply healthier, government should reduce -- either by coordinating voluntary action or by regulating -- ingredients known to be harmful in excess, such as artificial trans fat, salt, and added sugar, and consider a wide range of other interventions to reduce the consumption of unhealthy foods and increase access to healthy foods."
"They really went over the line," believes ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross. "An excess of anything is bad for you, and the idea that the government should regulate our diets is totalitarian." ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan adds, "It's breathtaking that this sentiment is finally uncloaked. I want to hear specific examples of what they are advocating -- could they really get away with saying that Big Macs should be outlawed in the United States?"
ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava poses a practical question about what foods would be deemed "unhealthy" under regulations such as these. "What about full-fat yogurt? Is it healthy or is it unhealthy? These designations aren't so simple," she says.
"Instead of proposing ridiculous regulations, we should be investigating new technologies that can help make certain foods healthier," Dr. Whelan says. "For example, we could use potatoes that are genetically engineered to be high in starch so they absorb little fat when fried, and we could use Olestra to fry food -- if such an application were ever approved by the FDA. Then you could have your French fries and eat them too." Look for an ACSH publication on obesity, technology, and food in the coming months.
Heavy metals found in ayurvedic medicines
A new study detected high levels of lead, arsenic, and mercury in many ayurvedic medicines sold on the Internet. Ayurveda is a traditional approach to holistic health that dates back thousands of years in India and is growing increasingly popular in the West.
"If you take these supplements on a regular basis, you could get a toxic load of these heavy metals," Dr. Kava says. "This study underscores the dangers of self-medicating with unregulated supplements, whether or not they are 'traditional'." Dr. Ross adds, "It is also another example of the risks of buying drugs on the Internet," a topic ACSH recently covered.
Skin cancer survivors may be at increased risk for other cancers
ACSH staffers were troubled by the results of a study linking nonmelanoma skin cancer to an increased risk of lung, colon, breast, and possibly prostate cancer. "This isn't a hard study by any means, but predicting that survivors of one cancer have an increased rate of other cancers is a reasonable hypothesis," says Dr. Ross.
"I always thought of cancers as having totally different etiologies depending on their site," says Dr. Whelan; however, researchers posit that UV light's negative impact on cells' ability to repair DNA damage may contribute to the increased risk of other cancers in skin cancer patients. Dr. Kava believes, "If this news makes people more vigilant about getting check-ups, it's a good thing."
Report of cancer cluster could inspire unnecessary fear
We are skeptical of report of a cluster in northwest Pennsylvania of polycythemia vera, a blood condition that can deteriorate into cancer. "Finding a cancer cluster requires sophisticated epidemiology, and the article didn't include any details on the methods used by the scientists," Dr. Whelan points out. "This is just one of the thousands of stories Americans read reinforcing the myth that cancer is often caused by 'toxic chemicals' at waste sites." ACSH explored this scientifically complex and emotionally charged issue in the publication Cancer Clusters: Findings vs. Feelings .
Diverticulosis patients may be able to enjoy nuts and corn after all
A new study contradicts the long-standing belief that patients with diverticula, or small pouches in the colon, should not eat seeds, nuts, corn, popcorn, and other small, firm foods. "The idea was that small particles would get into the diverticula and ultimately cause infection," explains Dr. Kava. "While these results are interesting, I'd like to see another study that shows the same thing."
Dr. Ross agrees. "No one is going to change their medical practice after decades because of one study."
A new alternative to smoking: the "e-cigarette"
ACSH staffers were intrigued by a bizarre new device called the e-cigarette. "It's a nicotine delivery system that simulates smoking, but it looks like a torture instrument," Dr. Whelan remarks. "There are much easier and more effective ways of reducing harm from cigarettes in nicotine-addicted smokers, including smokeless tobacco."
Dr. Ross adds, "I definitely don't think they will let you carry something that is filled with liquid chemicals on a plane. But it could be helpful for cleaning your car engine," he jokes.
MORNING DISPATCH 8/26/08: Drinks, Measles, Phthalates, Prostates, Neuroblastoma, and Food Poisoning
Drinking age debate rages on
The debate over lowering the U.S. drinking age to eighteen continues this week, after over 100 college and university presidents called for a national discussion of the issue. "There is a logical argument for lowering it -- eighteen-year-olds can get married, serve in Iraq, vote, and buy cigarettes, so why can't they buy alcohol?" ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan asks. "Then there is also an argument based on pure realism -- eighteen-year-olds are going to drink anyway, so why shouldn't we allow them to do it safely and with supervision?"
The drinking age varied by state until 1984, when a federal law slashed national highway funding for states that did not mandate a drinking age of twenty-one. "If we lower the drinking age, we have do it nationally," Dr. Whelan believes. ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross agrees, pointing out, "If you can drive to a state with a lower drinking age to procure alcohol, it could encourage drunk driving."
Binge drinking is a serious problem on many college campuses, and ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava argues, "Lowering the drinking age could mean that teenagers wouldn't feel the need to binge drink." Dr. Whelan agrees, remembering an article she wrote in Newsweek that highlighted "some of the disasters that occur on college campuses when students drink surreptitiously."
CDC blames parents for measles outbreak
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a statement saying that parents who do not vaccinate their children are to blame for the current measles outbreak, which is the worst one the U.S. has seen since 1996. "What I found distressing about this article is that it does not mention why parents are not vaccinating their children," Dr. Ross says. "It doesn't say anything about the impact of the superstitious fear that vaccines cause autism."
Dr. Whelan would like to see more criticism leveled at extremists touting their misguided views on the dangers of vaccines in the media -- as well as at doctors who don't speak out against them. However, as Dr. Kava points out, "There have been enough articles denouncing and debunking those fears. Maybe we should blame the parents to a certain extent."
Phthalate ban could encourage use of precautionary principle
An article from the Inside EPA website explores how the recent phthalate ban could lead to a more precautionary approach to chemical approval and management. While ACSH also foresee such a trend, we believe wider use of the precautionary principle would hinder scientific development and be detrimental to our high standard of living.
"Some activists want to take everything off the market now until they can prove the chemicals are completely safe -- which is an impossible standard," says Dr. Whelan, who has written about the hazards of the precautionary principle.
"One of the objections to phthalates and bisphenol-A is that trace levels of the chemicals can be found in our bodies," Dr. Ross says. "But what about the replacement chemicals? According to simple laws of physics, they will also gain access to our bodies in low amounts."
Dr. Whelan was also less than pleased with the industry response to the hysteria over phthalates: "While there is no scientific basis for restricting the use of phthalates in children's products, we understand the overall concerns that consumers are feeling," the American Chemistry Council said in a statement. "It sends a mixed message," Dr. Whelan says. "They should be focusing on the scientific evidence -- or in this case, lack thereof."
Approaching a prostate cancer diagnosis -- rationally
An essay about prostate cancer in the New York Times health section illuminates the pro-surgery mindset that dominates cancer treatment -- even when surgery may not be necessary. "People just want to have the surgery and get the cancer out," Dr. Whelan says. "What about watchful waiting?"
Dr. Ross advises, "A doctor should lead a patient into a discussion of the pros and cons of any treatment. In the case of prostate cancer, which is only infrequently fatal, the decision to have surgery should be based on the patient's age, family history, and the results of a biopsy."
Scientists identify gene linked to neuroblastoma
ACSH staffers were intrigued by the news that doctors have identified a gene that seems to be responsible for many cases of the childhood cancer neuroblastoma. Dr. Ross says, "Scientists are also discovering the effects of more and more genes. Even though we've mapped the human genome, we still have millions of associations to find."
"Scientists seem to be linking more and more genes to cancers," says Dr. Whelan. "Perhaps this will counter the alarmist fear that many cancers are caused by environmental exposures." Dr. Kava disagrees, saying, "They can still argue that the genes may not be fully expressed without an environmental stimulus. There's no longer a strict nature vs. nurture division in this debate."
More food poisoning deaths linked to deli meats in Canada
Twelve deaths have now been linked to deli meat contaminated with listeria bacteria sold in Canada. The total number of confirmed cases of food poisoning from these products is up to 26, while officials are investigating 29 more suspected cases. "How many times do we have to say that irradiation would help prevent this problem?" Dr. Kava wonders. "How many times does the food industry have to go through this to realize that it would be cheaper to irradiate their products?"
MORNING DISPATCH 8/25/08: Vaccination, Irradiation, Brain Stimulation, Love Canal Myth Creation, and Dragons
The American Council on Science and Health offers a seat at its breakfast table to the entire New York Times editorial board for its uncharacteristically wise stance on childhood vaccinations. The Times notes that a recent measles outbreak is the sort of thing Americans can expect to be confronted with more often if people increasingly succumb to superstitions about vaccinations (purportedly causing autism and other problems) and thus avoid having their kids inoculated.
ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava notes that part of the problem is that while people fear alleged vaccine side effects, most people now living have no fear at all of the terrible diseases that vaccines prevent, such as once-rampant polio: "No one in this generation has any idea what that was like."
ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan expressed concern that more outbreaks may occur "if superstitious fears trump medical science on the benefits of vaccines" and hopes that it won't take such outbreaks "to wake people up to the reality of saving lives."
For now, notes ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross, many states allow "religious exemptions" for people wanting to use public schools without getting their children vaccinated, "and about eight states still have so-called 'philosophical exemptions'," meaning parents can simply decide they don't want their kids vaccinated -- making it harder and harder to maintain "herd immunity" as more people opt out. "That's why we need stronger and more uniform laws requiring kids to be protected against communicable infections before allowing them to attend school or daycare."
Food Poisoning Kills, Radiation Saves
Dr. Whelan notes that the Food and Drug Administration's declaration that irradiating food to kill pathogens is already being met with outrage from some activists: "They're criticizing the government for going for 'technical solutions'." CNN demagogue Lou Dobbs has been ranting against it, on the vague, populist grounds that radiation is mysterious and thus threatening (he should read ACSH's publication on Irradiated Foods for reassurance).
"On the other hand, three people died from listeriosis in Canada, likely from meat," says Dr. Kava, "and irradiation could have prevented that." (Investigators are working now to determine whether deli meats may have been the source of the problem.) Some 5,000 people die of food poisoning in the U.S. each year, and still people act as if it is food irradiation that is risky (they should examine ACSH's Riskometer for some perspective).
Teen Smoking, Ambiguous Film-Viewing
Another study suggests that smoking imagery in movies may influence teens to smoke. Dr. Ross even suggested a few years ago that smoking should perhaps be a factor in the rating of films, with smoking contributing to an "R" rating. One drawback to some such studies, though, is that they may simply show that smokers are more likely than non-smokers to recall having seen smoking imagery in movies. This could, of course, simply mean that the smokers and non-smokers saw equal amounts of smoking imagery and that the smokers find such on-screen moments more memorable, not that one's odds of becoming a smoker were actually greater depending on how much such imagery one saw.
Nonetheless, tobacco companies certainly seem to believe that film imagery can either promote smoking or at least brand indentification, and they continue to pay big bucks for such product placement. That fact in and of itself seems reason enough to discourage smoking in movies.
Shocking Alzheimer's News
Can electro-shock brain stimulation improve memory in Alzheimer's patients, as a new study suggests? It may seem counterintuitive, but then again, says Dr. Ross, "It's counter-intuitive to think electrical shocks will help treat depression -- yet it does...[for a time in some cases] the depression is lifted."
That doesn't mean we yet have sufficient evidence in the case of Alzheimer's, only that the idea shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Says Ross, "The best thing you can say about this very small study is that it's harmless and the technique warrants more investigation."
Love Canal Myth-Maker Profiled Thirty Years Later
Lois Gibbs, a concerned mother from the Love Canal area back when it was found to contain toxic chemicals, admits she has only a high school education but has nonetheless become head of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice -- and news organizations like CNN continue to take her earnest warnings about deadly chemicals at face value, scientific evidence or no scientific evidence. "She's been doing this for thirty years," says Dr. Whelan. "This is her career."
Dr. Ross notes that CNN gave their Gibbs-friendly article the appearance of scientific accuracy by such gimmicks as linking to the Mayo Clinic's website, but "I went to the Mayo Clinic site and searched every relevant term I could think of -- there's nothing there about this claptrap."
I [Todd Seavey, guest-writing this Dispatch for Wade] interviewed Hugh Carey, the governor of New York during the Love Canal scare, in 2004, and he now says the real problem at the site was needlessly scaring so many residents.
More Sacrifices to the Dragons May Be Called For
It's not a public health crisis of the sort common in Western nations, but Dr. Ross notes a problem with increased attacks on children by carnivorous komodo dragons in Indonesia. Part of the problem, it appears, is that Western environmentalists have pressured Indonesians to stop sacrificing animals to the dragons -- and the dragons have begun seeking other food sources. If this is not a perfect illustration of the principle of "unintended consequences," we don't know what is.
MORNING DISPATCH 8/22/08: Irradiation, Measles, and Cigarettes
Newly-approved food irradiation will make produce safer
We were glad to hear that the FDA is now allowing fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce to be irradiated. Treating the produce with a small amount of radiation will kill bacteria like salmonella and E. coli, minimizing the chance of future outbreaks of foodborne illnesses associated with the irradiated foods.
"This is really great news," says ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava. "Now we have an important tool to help assure the safety of these produce items. Hopefully the FDA will also allow irradiation of many more foods in the near future." For more information on this important scientific tool, see ACSH's publication Irradiated Foods.
Measles infections rise as vaccination rates drop
After years of being controlled through widespread vaccination, measles is on the rise again. Doctors blame falling vaccination rates due to unfounded fears that vaccines cause autism. "The fact that people are getting needlessly ill is tragic," Dr. Kava believes. "Parents are giving into a truly baseless fear and actually exposing their children to a proven risk."
"This is why what we do at ACSH matters," says ACSH's Jeff Stier. "We go to work everyday to make sure misinformation about vaccines doesn't spread -- unlike other organizations that are committed to starting the health scares, whether over vaccines or phthalates. The choice is simple -- whose side would you rather be on?"
Cigarettes on the silver screen hold allure for teenagers
We were disturbed -- but not necessarily surprised -- by the news that tobacco promotions and depictions of smoking in movies encourage teenagers to take up cigarettes. "Tobacco companies keep saying that they're just trying to ensure brand loyalty with these tactics -- but at this point, who believes that?" Dr. Kava remarks. "I wonder if it would have an effect if only evil characters in movies were shown smoking, rather than young and attractive ones."
While this study should inform further anti-smoking campaigns, we hope that it does not increase support for the misguided bill that would allow the FDA to regulate tobacco.
MORNING DISPATCH 8/21/08: Studio Nearer, Rodents Slimmer, Statins and HPV Vaccine Scrutinized
Thank you for your support of our studio!
Morning Dispatch readers are so generous. Thank you to those who have already donated to help staff our new studio. Construction is moving along quickly, but we still need your help to get it fully up and running. If you haven't donated yet, today would be a great day to join the others who have generously contributed. Donate online or by calling Judy D'Agostino at 1-866-905-2694. Thank you for your past and continuing support!
Rodents slim down thanks to new obesity treatments
As American waistlines expand, many researchers have tried to find novel solutions to the problem of obesity. One clue may lie in brown fat cells, which burn energy to warm an animal's body after hibernation. Humans, however, have more white fat cells, which are designed to store energy. "People have been trying to find brown fat in humans for years, but they can't," says ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava.
Researchers are currently exploring methods of revving up the body's production of brown fat, which could help burn more calories. They have identified a molecular switch that turns immature muscle cells into brown fat cells and a particular protein that seems to promote the development of the helpful tissue. "These studies were done in mice, however, which already have brown fat," Dr. Kava points out. "These preliminary results may be hopeful for humans, but there's a lot more work to be done."
Another team of researchers studied the weight loss effects of the epilepsy and addiction drug vigabatrin (GVG) in rats. Genetically obese rats given injections of the drug for 40 days lost up to 19% of their weight, while normal weight rats lost 12 to 20% of theirs. "The effects were dose dependent, so it really sounds like it was the drug that did it," says Dr. Kava. "The researchers say they didn't see any side effects in the rats, but that doesn't mean there wouldn't be any in humans."
GVG is useful for treating cocaine and methamphetamine addictions because it interferes with the brain's dopamine reward system. The same mechanism may be at work to counter overeating, although Dr. Kava again cautions that the results of preliminary animal studies should not be assumed to hold true for humans.
"With all this news about obesity, the one thing we can be sure of is that there's not going to be a fat mouse or rat in the world," she jokes.
Statins don't cause cancer
A new study found that taking statins to lower cholesterol does not cause cancer. "There has been some data suggesting that people with low LDL levels are more likely to develop cancer -- the question was, is it causal?" Dr. Kava explains. "This study showed that on average, there was no increased cancer risk in people who were taking statins to lower their LDL levels. Any fears about statins causing cancer appear to have been another case of confusing association with causation."
Researchers question cost-effectiveness of Gardasil
Harvard researchers released data arguing that Merck's HPV vaccine Gardasil may not be cost effective when given to women over eighteen years old. "This argument may apply on a societal level, but individuals can still benefit from getting the vaccine when they are over eighteen," Dr. Kava says.
The study compares the cost of vaccine plus the cost of regular pap smears to the cost of pap smears alone. "This is a population based study that assumes all women -- even those who are eighteen or nineteen -- have regular pap smears, which they often don't," Dr. Kava adds.
ACSH's Jeff Stier recommends applying the same logic to all health care decisions and predicts that we would be surprised by the results. "This study isn't bad economics or science," he says. "But if you accept the concept, you should apply it across the board and see what we should really be paring down. There are probably many more interventions we take for granted that are far less cost effective than vaccinating nineteen-year-old women against HPV."
MORNING DISPATCH 8/20/08: Videos, College Drinking, Arsenic, Bowel Cancer, and STDs
Construction continues on ACSH's new studio
We had to find a new place for our morning meeting today, since construction is underway to turn our conference room into a media studio.
The studio will allow us to record videos and reach out to a wide variety of media outlets, but we can't do it without your help! Make a gift to ACSH today to fund the additional staff we will need to make it happen. Donate now by visiting this website or by calling Jeff Stier at 1-866-905-2694. Thank you for your past and continuing support!
Universities call for drinking age discussion
A group of university and college presidents is attempting to spark debate over whether the U.S. drinking age should be lowered from 21 to 18. "There's always a possibility that lowering the drinking age could lead to a decrease in binge drinking," says ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava. "I don't see why it couldn't be tried."
According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, about 90% of alcohol consumed by those under 21 in the U.S. is in the form of binge drinking. Some have linked the problem to the country's relatively high drinking age, which causes many young adults to drink clandestinely during high school and the first few years of college. Universities and colleges must confront the paradox of enforcing the underage ban while still encouraging moderation and providing support, counseling, and medical attention to students who need it.
ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan previously wrote an op-ed on the issue, questioning why at age 18 young adults "can drive cars, fly planes, marry, vote, pay taxes, take out loans, and risk their lives as members of the U.S. armed forces. But laws in all 50 states say that no alcoholic beverages may be sold to anyone until that magic 21st birthday." She encourages "schools and parents alike" to teach teenagers about "safe drinking" -- how to "drink gradually, safely, and in moderation." As Stier jokes, "I'll drink to that."
Arsenic allegedly linked to diabetes
A new study claims that slightly elevated levels of arsenic in drinking water is linked to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. "This could simply be another case of attributing causation to something that is just a correlation," Dr. Kava points out.
Most places where drinking water contains more than the government limit of 10 micrograms of arsenic per liter rely on wells, prompting Stier to ask, "Could there be correlations between areas that get their drinking water from wells and known causes of diabetes, like obesity?" Stier continues, "Ensuring clean drinking water globally is a very big public health issue, but not because of very low levels of arsenic."
Dr. Kava adds, "I would be more concerned about water that is contaminated with bacteria or with human or animal waste." Learn more about the relatively low risk of arsenic on ACSH's Riskometer.
Stem cell test might influence bowel cancer treatment
Researchers have identified a stem cell marker that could indicate whether a bowel cancer patient has a more serious form of the disease than doctors may have originally thought. "People whose bowel cancer is caught in the early stages are not usually given chemotherapy, but the presence of the stem cell marker protein Lamin A could indicate that they have an aggressive form of the disease," Dr. Kava explains. "These patients might benefit from chemotherapy in addition to surgery."
Gardasil marketing is questioned
An article in the New York Times explores the marketing of Merck's HPV vaccine Gardasil, noting that the pharmaceutical company employed an aggressive advertising campaign and trained doctors to speak about the benefits of the vaccine.
"By cynically questioning Merck's marketing strategies, the article unfairly suggests that Gardasil is not that effective," Stier believes. "Instead of phrases like '[the vaccine offers] some protection against infection from sexually transmitted viruses,' the author should have written, 'Gardasil offers significant protection against some viruses' -- the four strains of HPV it is meant to protect against." As for the advertising, Stier says that in the process "Merck is doing a lot of public health education -- but instead of getting credit, it is being blamed."
ACSH is a strong supporter of the widespread use of Gardasil, both in the U.S. and abroad. Read ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross's letter to the Los Angeles Times for a defense of the vaccine against baseless health scares.
MORNING DISPATCH 8/19/08: TV, AID, '18, ED, D, and Pneumonia Vaccinations
ACSH needs your help
Work begins today on developing our brand new media studio, which will be used to record video interviews that will be made available to the media. "We will be able to record videos on topics similar to the ones you read about in Morning Dispatch and distribute them to a wide variety of media outlets," explains ACSH's Jeff Stier.
The studio and all its equipment are the result of a generous grant from a foundation; however, in order to make the studio work, we need more staff to make it happen, and the grant does not provide us with enough funds for this. We can't do it without you! Please make a gift to ACSH today to underwrite our continuing efforts to promote common sense and sound science in public health.
We need your help! Donate now!
If you prefer to make your contribution by phone, call Jeff at 1-866-905-2694, and thank you for all of your support in the past!
Quote of the Day
"If everybody switched to organic farming, we couldn't support the Earth's current population -- maybe half." --Nina V. Fedoroff, science adviser to the Secretary of State and administrator of the Agency for International Development. From the New York Times article "An Advocate for Science Diplomacy."
Bacteria may have contributed to flu pandemic's toll
New research suggests that the 1918 flu pandemic was so lethal because the virus weakened the immune system to such an extent that common bacterial infections were able to colonize and become deadly.
"The traditional wisdom is that the 1918 virus caused an overwhelming immune response that produced a lot of fluid in the lungs and essentially drowned the victim," says ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava. "But this research found that many of the deaths occurred a week to two weeks after the patients got sick, indicating that they were the result of secondary bacterial infections."
"This could be good news when planning for another flu epidemic, since the field of developing antibiotics is very robust," Stier points out. "The underlying science is in good shape."
Dr. Kava adds, "We hope the pharmaceutical companies will pay attention to these findings and keep their research on vaccines robust as well."
Scientists find new use for erectile dysfunction drugs
Erectile dysfunction drugs may also help treat symptoms of an enlarged prostate. Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) can cause men to have trouble urinating, and drugs currently on the market for the condition carry many unwanted side effects, such as dizziness, low blood pressure, and sexual dysfunction.
Taking the erectile dysfunction drug Cialis, however, improved many men's symptoms with very few side effects. "These results ensure that the market for such drugs will continue to be potent," says Dr. Kava.
Vitamin D makes headlines again
Vitamin D has been in the news a lot lately, and now different sets of researchers have linked low levels of the vitamin to increased risks of hip fractures and of death, especially from cardiovascular disease.
"The connection made between vitamin D levels and an increased risk of death is just a correlation," Dr. Kava says. Stier agrees with her advice to be skeptical at this point, adding, "I'd like to see some more specific studies done to see if the relationship is cause and effect."
Diabetic people should be vaccinated against pneumonia
A new study found that people with diabetes are more likely to be hospitalized for pneumonia. "It emphasizes the importance of having diabetic individuals vaccinated with the pneumococcal and flu vaccines," Dr. Kava says. "Another important finding to keep in mind is that the longer people have diabetes, the greater their risk of developing serious pneumonia."
MORNING DISPATCH 8/18/08: DNC/RNC, FDA, HPV, plus Fat, Flu, and Asthma
ACSH goes to the conventions
ACSH's Jeff Stier will be attending the Democratic National Convention in Denver and possibly the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis in the coming weeks. "While ACSH is non-partisan, it is important for us to get our views out to moderates of both parties," he says. If any Morning Dispatch readers will be at the conventions or have any contacts -- or suggestions regarding how to have the most impact while there (invitations to events, etc.) -- please let Jeff know.
Honorary seat at the table goes to the FDA
We would like to offer a seat at the ACSH breakfast table to the FDA for its announcement that the trace amounts of bisphenol-A (BPA) that leach out of food containers are not a threat to human health. "It's wonderful that the FDA is paying attention to the science," says ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava.
Still, some anti-BPA activists are claiming that the FDA's conclusions are not valid because the agency used information from "industry-funded studies." "This is a government report, and people are still saying that industry involvement makes it unreliable," says Stier. Dr. Kava adds, "Some people are never going to be happy with anything that contradicts their preconceived notions." For more information on the relationship between science and industry, see ACSH's recent publication Scrutinizing Industry-Funded Science.
Dr. Ross defends HPV vaccine
ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross has a letter in today's Los Angeles Times taking on the paper's "grossly misleading" article about baseless fears surrounding the HPV vaccine Gardasil.
"Of course 'some doctors and parents' have concerns [about the vaccine] -- it would be impossible to get unanimity on any medical topic," he writes. "But all pediatric and vaccine experts, as well as all federal health officials, advocate vaccination of preteen and young teen girls against human papilloma virus." We hope Dr. Ross's voice of reason quells any fears the original article may have raised.
Obesity and diabetes team up to increase risk of heart disease
A new study quantifies the increased risk of heart disease experienced by people who are both obese and diabetic. Normal-weight women who do not have diabetes have a 34% risk of developing heart disease. Diabetes alone raises their risk to 55%, while obesity alone results in a 47% chance of developing heart disease. Women who are both diabetic and obese, however, have a risk of 79%. The pattern is similar for men, but their risk is even higher, rising to 87% for men who are both obese and diabetic.
"This is a confirmatory study because we already knew that diabetes and obesity increase a person's risk of heart disease," Dr. Kava says. "But the results illustrate that there is definitely a big increase in risk when these conditions are combined."
Gathering influenza clues -- and maybe cures -- from a past outbreak
Researchers report that some survivors of the 1918 flu epidemic still produce antibodies that protect them against the virus. Moreover, those antibodies can be used to cure infected mice, leading researchers to believe these experiments might be helpful for developing emergency treatments for future flu outbreaks -- including a potentially dangerous one of bird flu.
"The 1918 outbreak killed primarily young adults by causing their bodies to have a very strong -- and often deadly -- immune response," which made the disease particularly frightening, says Dr. Kava. ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan wrote about the devastating 1918 outbreak, which killed an estimated 50 million people, in a review of Gina Kolata's book, Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It.
Eczema may increase asthma risk
Children who have eczema are more likely to develop asthma well into adulthood. While researchers posit that the relationship is a causal one, Dr. Kava suggests, "Maybe these kids' immune systems are just primed for both conditions. It would be interesting to know if they are more likely to develop autoimmune disease, like rheumatoid arthritis, as well.
Elizabeth Wade is a research intern at the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org, HealthFactsAndFears.com). Receive ACSH Morning Dispatch in your e-mail in-box each weekday by donating to ACSH and then requesting subscription. (Todd Seavey wrote the 8/25/08 Dispatch.)