Media's False Alarms on Health Risks
Every week seems to bring new media reports about dangers to our health. In fact, many of the scare stories are superficial, if not downright wrong and baseless.
Take the announcement that Swedish scientists had discovered that acrylamide, a chemical substance present in french fries and potato chips, causes cancer. "Tests which confirm the existence of a possible cancer-causing chemical in much of the food we eat are causing worldwide concern," the British Guardian warned May 18. It told readers that British scientists had also detected "the potential carcinogen in cooked potatoes, crisps, breakfast cereals and rye crispbreads."
In the United States, the San Francisco Chronicle reported June 28 on the World Health Organization meeting convened in Geneva to discuss the problem. "The overriding thing the committee concluded is that, given that we know acrylamides are cancer-causing in animals and probably in humans, it is intolerable that they are in foods at the levels found, and we have to find a remedy," WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said.
Steven Milloy, the author of the book, Junk Science Judo, published an article July 3 in the Washington Times that cast doubt on the WHO claim. Milloy noted some scientists induced the cancer in laboratory rats by feeding them astronomically high levels of acrylamide. And the rats used in the experiments were bred to be genetically disposed to cancer. Moreover, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has already studied acrylamide, in order to regulate its levels in drinking water. EPA research found that, for a 154-pound human to have a significant increase in cancer risk (similar to the rats), he would have to eat 486 large servings of french fries weighing out at 182 pounds, every day, for life.
Then came the warning on the dangers of hormone replacement therapy for women. "In a move that may affect millions of women, U.S. government scientists Tuesday stopped a major study of hormone replacement therapy on the risks and benefits of combined estrogen and progestin in healthy menopausal women, citing an increased risk of invasive breast cancer," CNN reported July 9.(Hormone replacement)
However, the London Daily Telegraph's science correspondent, Robert Matthews, pointed out July 14 that the HRT case is a scientific scandal involving tricks with numbers that would make Enron's accountants blush. Matthews reported comments made on a BBC radio program by professor David Purdie of the University of Hull. The important thing to keep in mind, explained Purdie, is that although the U.S. study was halted due to a 26% increased risk of breast cancer among those on the therapy, the overall risk of breast cancer is very low. Thus women taking the HRT face a cancer risk that is just 26% more than a very small number -- which is still a very small number. In fact, the trial showed that there would be 8 more deaths per...