The Risk of Medical Myths

We live in frightening times. There’s no doubt about it. From the Iranian and North Korean nuclear threats to terrorists in Israel, Europe and America, not to mention “ordinary” crime in the streets, there is reason to be anxious.

By the same token, it is good reason not to overstate the perils. Our material and emotional resources are not inexhaustible; they must be directed at real threats, not imagined or exaggerated ones, lest we scare ourselves to death before any actual harm threatens.

Thus, we turn to the latest health scare: a chocolate hazelnut spread called Nutella. The source of the news stories about the product was a study conducted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The EFSA is a responsible outfit — serious, well-meaning folk who are looking out for the health of the citizenry.

However, what was done with their findings was completely irresponsible. The EFSA was looking at potentially cancer-causing contaminants in food products that contain palm and other oils (very common ingredients), and then it estimated how much people ate in their diets. The hazelnut spread was not mentioned in the study.

In fact (yes, there is such a thing), the researchers’ conclusion was that, on the contrary, most people don’t consume anywhere near enough palm oil in their diets to be at even minimal risk. Nor is there is any epidemiological evidence linking palm oil to cancer in humans. All they found was that laboratory rats could get cancer if they ingested such substances in huge quantities. Yet, these nuances were lost in the translation to mass media, and the scare headlines were not long in coming.

However, if you think that health scares of this type are a new phenomenon, belonging to the era of “fake news” and “post-truth,” we have news for you. It isn’t.

Scientific hoaxes have a long history, but just to focus on cancer scares: The first one on record was in November 1959, when the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (the precursor of Health and Human Services), Arthur Fleming, created a nationwide panic by announcing that a weed-killer called aminotriazole sprayed on cranberry products was carcinogenic. The reaction was immediate. Schools banned cranberry products from their lunchrooms, restaurants removed them from menus, supermarkets pulled them from shelves. And, as the warning was issued just before Thanksgiving, millions of Americans decided to play it safe and had their turkey without cranberry sauce that year.

Subsequently, it emerged that you would have to consume on the order of 15,000 pounds of cranberries every day for several years to reach the level of exposure that was found to cause cancer in laboratory rodents. Once that little datum got around, people calmed down.

The American Council on Science and Health has been tracking these things, and reports that from the cranberry episode to 2004 there were 28 other cancer scares.

More recently, besides the palm oil non-peril, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer told us that drinking very hot water probably causes cancer. The IARC was also responsible for the idea that glyphosate (an herbicide commonly used with genetically modified crops) is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

In these cases, too, the WHO clearly went overboard in fulfilling its mission of preventing cancer. By its own admission, there was “limited evidence” for the hot water claim. As for glyphosate, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the United Nations (not known for their recklessness) both determined that it’s unlikely to pose a health risk.

Evidently, it’s a hard lesson to learn — not only for journalists and the general public — that before proclaiming a new cancer-causing culprit the research has to be carefully read and understood, and the nuances duly noted. As we have seen, medical professionals themselves are guilty of fear-mongering.

The reasons for it are not difficult to identify. Scientists and journalists are in an informal collusion, bidding for headlines to please their editors and gain more funding for research. Journalists also labor under frequent deadlines which give them little time for careful review of the technical data, which in any case many of them are not trained to understand.

The harm done by such scares extends beyond the unnecessary anxiety caused to so many people. Public confidence in the medical establishment is seriously undermined when over and over again they discover that a purportedly cancer-causing substance is, in reality, perfectly safe.

A BBC-commissioned YouGov survey found that almost half (46 percent) of people said they do not trust news coverage about the things that affect cancer risk. And because health advice seems to keep changing, 27 percent say they might as well ignore it all and eat what they want — a risky strategy, since in most cases medical warnings are well-founded and should be heeded.

Scientists and journalists need to show more caution with these health issues. The researchers need to do a better job of explaining in plain language the limited applicability of their findings. The journalistic community has got to restrain its appetite for sensational stories.

As for the general public, it behooves us to avoid panic, to at least read past the headlines, to the part that describes the research behind the claims, and see whether it supports the headline.