Fact or fiction?
Separating real health hazards from urban legends
multiple sclerosis, blindness, Parkinson’s and lectured on urban legends. She
disease, birth defects and a number of finds that the most difficult stories to
neurological conditions. The e-mail eradicate are those involving health
quotes a number of firsthand accounts fears – often the result of an alleged
and multiple doctors’ reports as testa- conspiracy within the government or
ment to the truth. large corporations.
But wait – before you toss your diet “People have a natural interest in
cola in the trash can, here is a fact the e- health issues,” she said. “Some of the
mail does not mention: Just about every toughest myths to dispel are ones about
health agency around the world – includ- health and products: cancer, dangerous
ing the Food and Drug Administration – chemicals.”
has repeatedly declared aspartame safe She also finds that a general distrust
for human consumption. of “big business” and an assumed collu-
UK medical journal The Lancet states, sion with government lead people to
“Virtually all of the information offered readily believe that their health and
[in the e-mail] is anecdotal, from anony- safety are knowingly put at risk for
mous sources and is scientifically implau- financial gain.
sible.” The European Food Safety So why do otherwise rational people
By Lauretta Claussen Authority recently reviewed and dis- continue to believe in urban legends
missed findings in a study that suggested almost beyond all reason? To answer the
An e-mail arrives in your inbox and you aspartame can act as a carcinogen. question simply: fear.
click to open it. It comes from a trusted The FDA, which deemed aspartame Some of the most prolific urban leg-
friend and cites an official-sounding safe for consumption in 1981, said the ends take place in a familiar setting or a
authority: a doctor-lecturer at the World agency “has not been presented with common situation. “A lot of these sto-
Environmental Conference. “If you are any scientific information that would ries are believed because, given the
using aspartame and you suffer from support a change in our conclusions right circumstances, they could be plau-
fibromyalgia symptoms, spasms, shooting about the safety of aspartame. Those sible,” Davison said. Indeed, freak acci-
pains, numbness in your legs, cramps, conclusions are based on a detailed dents with all of the typical markings of
vertigo, dizziness, headaches, tinnitus, review of a large body of information, an urban legend sometimes occur.
joint pain, depression, anxiety attacks, including more than 100 toxicological Often, warnings are spread by well-
slurred speech, blurred vision or memory and clinical studies regarding the sweet- intentioned friends and family mem-
loss – you probably have ASPARTAME ener’s safety.” bers, rather than from an impersonal,
DISEASE!” the e-mail shouts. This e-mail is a classic example of outside source. As a result, people may
Aspartame is a popular artificial an urban legend. These false or exagger- feel more compelled to take to heart
sweetener used in many low-calorie ated stories of distorted reality appear advice they receive from a concerned
products, including diet soda. everywhere – and spread even more party. In turn, many feel the responsi-
According to this fear-inducing e-mail, quickly now in the age of the Internet. bility to further share these stories to
drinking up to four cans of diet soda a spare loved ones from the dangers
day can lead to the condition. In addi- Why do people believe? described.
tion to the symptoms listed above, Lorraine Davison, project manager Seven “urban legends” are listed on
aspartame disease is also said to be with the Canadian Centre for Occu- the following pages. See if you can tell
responsible for causing systemic lupus, pational Health and Safety, has studied fact from fiction.
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Antiperspirant is a leading director of breast and cervical cancer
cause of breast cancer. for the Atlanta-based ACS.
FALSE “Unfortunately, the ‘leading’ risk
Not so, according to the American factors for breast cancer are things that
Cancer Society. “There is absolutely no women cannot do anything about:
scientific evidence that antiperspirants being a woman, aging, and having a
cause or even increase a woman’s risk personal or family history of breast
for breast cancer,” said Debbie Saslow, cancer,” she said.
Dangerous levels of lead have The FDA’s own lab studies concluded
been found in lipstick. those fears were unfounded. Although
FALSE there is no established tolerance limit
According to the FDA, reports of dan- for lead in cosmetics, the FDA’s test
gerous lead in lipstick have been found lead levels present in some lip-
around since at least the 1990s, when a sticks did not even exceed trace
commercial testing lab raised concerns. amounts.
Plastic containers release toxins. Toxicology Program recently indicated
UNDETERMINED that the substance is of “some concern”
The chemical bisphenol-A has been in for fetuses and infants. More studies
the news a great deal recently. are planned on the effects of the chem-
Commonly referred to as BPA, the ical. In the meantime, a number of
chemical can be found in many food bottles and other products that bill
containers, such as baby bottles and the themselves as “BPA free” are available
lining of cans. Although no danger has for purchase.
been conclusively proven, the National
Dangerous levels of asbestos found small amounts of asbestos in
can be found in crayons. crayons in 2000, but deemed the level
FALSE “scientifically insignificant.” However,
This myth is actually false on two even if higher levels were found, it
accounts – crayons do not contain dan- would pose little danger. Asbestos is not
gerous levels of asbestos, and, even if a poison and is only a risk when the
they did, asbestos in this form would fibers are inhaled – not a viable threat
not be harmful to humans. The when the substance is mixed in a waxy
Consumer Product Safety Commission crayon.
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Children can become “drunk”
by eating hand sanitizer.
Many people use alcohol-based hand
sanitizers to clean up when no soap or
water is available, but caution must be
taken when using these gels on chil-
dren. Most contain at least 60 percent
alcohol by volume – the equivalent of
120 proof. According to the Alexandria,
VA-based American Association of
Poison Control Centers, just 2 teaspoons
would be enough to make a toddler
sick. Extreme caution must be taken
when using the gels around children. If
ingested, contact a Poison Control
Center immediately at (800) 222-1222.
Microwaving water can cause “super heating” is more likely when
it to “explode.” water is boiled alone in a clean cup,
TRUE without the addition of instant coffee or
While this may sound impossible, it is a drink mix. To mitigate the risk, the
in fact true. An extremely rare – but FDA recommends only heating water
possible – reaction to boiling water in for the appropriate amount of time, and
the microwave is combustion. The FDA not overheating.
warns that this rare phenomenon of
Deadly disease can be trans-
mitted through dirty soda cans.
In 2001, rumors began circulating on
the Internet about a store clerk who had
died of hantavirus – a disease transmit- Could it be true?
ted through contact with rodent drop-
pings. Although the disease is real, the Next time you receive
claim is not. Shortly after the rumors an e-mail with a health
surfaced, the Centers for Disease or safety warning,
Control and Prevention released a state- research it.
ment indicating that there had been no
reported deaths from the disease. Snopes.com
Although cleaning off soda cans before www.snopes.com
drinking might be a good idea, it is
likely that the most dangerous thing the
cans contain is germs from other
humans who have come into contact About.com: urban legends
with it. FS&H http://urbanlegends.about.com
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