NYT19991102.0069

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 BC-LAMB-COLUMN03-COX     Get used to frightening science
     By Kevin Lamb
     c. 1999 Cox News Service

   Now that Halloween is safely behind us, some people will no
doubt go back to letting themselves be frightened by underarm
antiperspirants, irradiated food and spiders in the toilet. Those
are only a few of the popular health scares that are actually no
more dangerous than a skeleton mask.

   There will be bogus health scares as long as there is money to
be made off frightened people by removing their dental fillings or
selling them gizmos to eradicate dust mites, and the Internet
circulates those scares faster than ever. Other groundless alarms
will always be motivated less by greed than by ignorance,
gullibility or the sheer enjoyment of seeing people become
hysterical.

   That second category includes sincere phobias that power lines
and antiperspirants cause cancer, which science has refuted
repeatedly. And of eating genetically modified food, which prompts
DNA co-discoverer James Watson to say, ``I am worried about a lot
of things, but not about modified food.'' And of food irradiation,
which is proven to substantially reduce such foodborne infections
as E. coli without raising radiation levels.

   And of pesticides for fruit and vegetables, which three of four
Americans believe increase their chances of cancer. The American
Institute for Cancer Research not only has found no evidence to
that effect but also has warned that the fear is causing people to
avoid fruits and vegetables that can reduce their chances of
cancer.

   Science doesn't know everything, certainly, but frights often
distract us from real risks that we can avoid. There's evidence to
suspect cell phones might cause brain tumors, for example, but no
conclusive proof. Using headsets is a sensible precaution. But an
even better argument for headsets is there's no doubt about the
connection between cell phones and car accidents.

   Then there are the outright hoaxes so easily circulated by
e-mail. Waterproof sunscreens do not cause blindness, the sodium
laureth sulfate in shampoo does not cause cancer and three women in
Chicago did not die mysteriously after being bitten by spiders in a
public restroom, according to the authoritative Internet hoax Web
site, urbanlegends.about.com _ which currently is stressing that
Mountain Dew is not an effective contraceptive for males who drink
it.

   David Emery of About.com points out how the spider hoax e-mail
typically debunks itself. It refers to the nonexistent United
Medical Association and Blare Airport and Big Chappies restaurant
in Chicago.

   Deceptive sales pitches are harder to spot, but it helps to ask
what's in it for whoever is spreading the news. As soon as word
came out that chocolate contains cancer-fighting antioxidants
similar to vitamins C and E, the Mars company promoted a Web site
dedicated to timely information ``on chocolate and health.''

   As consumer scams go, that was hardly more deceptive than ending
price tags with ``.99.'' The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
announced this summer that after one day's research, it told 800
Web sites their false or unsubstantiated health claims broke
federal laws.

   Beware, says the FTC, of broad claims, big words, testimonials
instead of scientific research, products available from only one
source and the terms ``scientific breakthrough'' or ``ancient
remedy.'' When you hear something can't hurt you because it's
natural, remember arsenic is natural.

   The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says the most fertile
fields for health fraud are products to treat arthritis, cancer and
AIDS; to help people lose weight quickly or improve their sex
lives, and to reverse baldness, eliminate wrinkles and enlarge
breasts.

   The Web site www.quackwatch.com is the most comprehensive
resource on health frauds and how to spot them, although it tends
to give all alternative remedies the dismissal that only most of
them deserve.

   WellnessWeb.com is more open-minded about classical medicine
without opening its arms in embrace, pointing out that just because
something is not proven doesn't mean it can't be true. It wasn't
long ago, after all, that mainstream medicine was sure heart
disease had nothing to do with diet.

   People want to believe in miracle cures and short cuts to good
health, and it only confounds us that some people really do feel
better after having their mercury amalgam fillings replaced, and
some who live near power plants die of leukemia. But preceding
something isn't the same as causing it, no more than alarm clocks
cause sunlight. Don't forget: Practically anything will cure a cold
within two weeks.

   Kevin Lamb writes for the Dayton Daily News, Dayton, Ohio.

   Story Filed By Cox Newspapers

   For Use By Clients of the New York Times News Service

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