Health Scares At The Drop Of A Rat

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Beginning in 1976 with a book entitled Panic In The Pantry, the team of scholars that went on to found the American Council on Science and Health and to form its first trustees and Scientific Advisory Panel, have been clarifying, as the Wall Street Journal called our mission, the difference between a health threat and a health scare.

By the mid-1970s, promoting fear and doubt about food and chemicals and the environment was already big business. And the techniques have only gotten more outrageous. Writing in Canada Free Press, Jack Dini, author of Challenging Environmental Mythology, recently noted that the levels of a chemical needed to get an effect in animal models, most often rodents, can be rather extreme -- no person is going to drink 800 cans of soda in a day, or consume 7,000 packets of aspartame, or slam down 10,000 shots of scotch. But in rats, that is entirely possible, using gavage ("dosing") where a tube is inserted into a rat's stomach and the tissues are covered in a surfactant to facilitate absorption. Using gavage, chemicals are pumped straight into the animal.

It's a valid technique in a prospective, well-controlled study. But it can be abused by people who are out to create a scare "at the drop of a rat," as The Council termed it long ago.

What is often left out of Scare Journalism stories reporting on the latest chemical narrative is something basic, yet unquestionably essential to the debate: Rats are not people. They have six pairs of mammary glands, and so an increased likelihood for tumor development, and they can't vomit.

But by declaring that rat studies are definitive the net result of this type of research is that thousands of harmless substances are branded as carcinogenic," to quote the Wall Street Journal again.

They're just often wrongly considered such.