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Skeptimedia is a commentary on mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the paranormal, and the supernatural. »Skeptimedia archives

Skeptimedia is a consolidation of  Mass Media Funk and Mass Media Bunk. Those blogs are now archived.

January 14, 2008. Another "mommy instinct" story was featured in the New York Times last week. This time it was Robyn O'Brien, founder of AllergyKids.com. Her story left me with the impression that she's another overzealous mother whose intuition is working overtime along with her imagination. O'Brien thinks there is a conspiracy to hide the fact that food allergies are harming our children. Kim Severson, author of the Times article, writes of O'Brien:

Her [notion] — that the food supply is being manipulated with additives, genetic modification, hormones and herbicides, causing increases in allergies, autism and other disorders in children — is not supported by leading researchers or the largest allergy advocacy groups.

Those with a good "mommy instinct" ignore evidence and research that doesn't support their intuitions. (See "Oprah and the mother warriors against science.") The fact that the evidence is against them is turned to their advantage. They see it as proof of the conspiracy and, in this case, as proof of the power of the "profit-hungry food industry." O'Brien's SuperMom powers, however, have been able to infiltrate the conspirators and uncover the secrets they're trying to hide from us. This is evident from her website, which is a cornucopia of claims about the link between this and that childhood disorder and just about anything non-organic or not natural. No doubt, some of her information is accurate. But who has the time to try to separate the myths from the facts? To many, however, O'Brien is a heroine.

Through creative use of e-mail, relentless inquiry and a persona carefully crafted around the protective mother archetype, Ms. O’Brien has emerged as a populist hero among parents who troll the Internet for any hint about why their children have food allergies.

It may be of interest to some readers to know that that last passage was omitted from the article when it appeared in the Sacramento Bee a few days after it appeared in the Times. Coincidentally, the last third of the article was also cut by the Bee. This not only saved space but tore half of the heart out of the story, the half that shows O'Brien is manipulative and has a great tendency to exaggerate, name-drop, and elevate her ego. If you read only the Bee version of Severson's article, you might come away thinking that O'Brien is a savvy go-getter and wonderful consumer advocate going up against the big guys.

The reference to "creative use of e-mail" refers to O'Brien's tactic of e-mailing big names and, if they respond in a positive way, claiming them as supporters. But her biggest asset, according to Severson, is her "relentless drive to wind together obscure health [notions]." O'Brien claims that "chemical toxins" in foods are corroding our children's digestive "pipes," making them vulnerable to food allergies and other auto-immune disorders. She doesn't seem to know that chemical toxins are natural in fruits and vegetables. They're evolution's way of protecting the fruits and vegetables from insects. The toxins occur in small amounts, however, and are usually not harmful to humans. The artificial toxins in our foods also usually occur in small amounts and are usually not harmful to humans.*

O'Brien's advice is to

throw out as much nonorganic processed food as you can afford to. Avoid anything genetically modified, artificially created or raised with hormones. Don’t eat food with ingredients you can’t pronounce.

I don't remember Dick Taverne mentioning O'Brien in The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy, and the New Fundamentalism, but she fits the description of those enemies of conventional agriculture and food processing who think they have a right to make up facts as they see fit to support their cause. (See my review of Taverne's book for more on these deceivers for a better world. Better yet, read his book!) I wonder if she eats organic carrots? Perhaps she doesn't oppose genetic modification by nature or artificial selection in breeding by farmers. If she did, she wouldn't have much to eat.

O'Brien doesn't trust the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, also started by a mother whose child has food allergies. Why? They got some start-up money from Kraft and they don't believe that the evidence supports the claim that genetically modified foods cause food allergies.

O'Brien is not medically trained and her understanding of what a food allergy is may not be accurate. On her website she uses terms like "toxic overload," terms which have no scientific meaning. According to the International Food and Information Council:

An allergic reaction occurs when a susceptible person is exposed to a specific protein. Because the body perceives this protein (an allergen) as being a threat, it produces a special material—a substance that recognizes allergens—known as Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibody. A person who has a tendency to develop allergies tends to produce increased amounts of IgE. After the initial exposure to a specific allergen (such as "cat" or "dog" protein) the body reacts to future exposures by creating millions of IgE antibodies. These newly produced IgE antibodies then connect to special blood cells called basophils, and special tissue cells called mast cells. These cells are then "stimulated" to release histamine which causes the allergy symptoms: Itchy watery eyes and nose, scratchy throat, rashes, hives, eczema and even life-threatening anaphylaxis.*

Since food additives don't have proteins, they are not going to cause an immunological response.* Even so, some additives can cause an adverse reaction in some people, e.g. sulfites.

How rampant are food allergies? Is there any strong supportive evidence for the claim that food allergies are a significant cause of behavioral problems in children?

Although 25 percent of people think they're allergic to certain foods, studies show that about only 8 percent of children and 2 percent of adults have a food allergy.*

...the most conservative estimates indicate two percent of the population in the United States are food allergic.*

True allergies to foods are immunologic reactions involving the class of immunoglobulins (proteins that assist in the body's immune response)....The prevalence of food allergy in the population is much lower than the prevalence of adverse reactions to foods. It is estimated that true food allergies occur in 2-5% of the population.*

Nearly half of us have some kind of allergy. Twenty percent have hay fever, which costs us $3 billion per year in lost time from work and school. Add in asthma and the bill's about $11 billion.*

Food and drug allergies can go away with time but insect allergies and hay fever don't.*

...natural foods account for the majority of allergic reactions. The foods that cause 90 percent of allergic reactions are: peanuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, tree nuts (i.e. almonds, walnuts, pecans), fish, and shellfish.*

Milk allergy is much more common in children than in adults. However, by age 6, over 80 percent outgrow the allergy. Symptoms of milk allergy include hives, vomiting and breathing problems after consuming a dairy product.*

Peanut allergy is the food allergy most likely to result in anaphylactic reactions...only about 0.6% of the population is affected by peanut allergy. The most common food allergies reported by adults are allergies to fruits and vegetables.*

Children usually "outgrow" allergies to milk, eggs, soybean products and wheat. However, people rarely outgrow allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.*

Just thinking you are allergic to a food does not mean you have an allergy. To properly diagnose a food allergy or sensitivity the offending substance must be accurately identified.*

Even though many people claim to be allergic to them, allergists can rarely demonstrate allergy to corn or chocolate in double-blind, placebo-controlled food challenges.*

I can't find any compelling scientific evidence that food or food allergies cause hyperactivity in children.

But, then, I lack the mommy instinct.

p.s. For more on allergies, see Immune System Quackery.

January 13, 2008. The Toronto Star should be given some kind of award for publishing a list of the top ten scare stories on health issues of 2007.

Some of these scare stories have been around for decades. For instance, the fear of nitrites tops the list. That one started with an article in Nature more than thirty years ago. It was resurrected last year by the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, which published a study that linked eating cured meat to an increased risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. According to the Star:

Studies showing nitrites to be harmful have been done in high-dose animal experiments not comparable to the small amounts to which humans are exposed. Also, nitrite levels in cured meat have dropped by 80 per cent since the 1970s and vitamin C is now added to cured meat to prevent the formation of nitrosamines.

Other scare stories include: lead in lipstick, vaccines and autism, ultra-fine particles (UFP) released from office printers, poisonous flowers, and the dangers of fluoridating tap water. That last one never seems to go away. This time the Environmental Working Groupan anti-fluoridation grouppublished an article in their August 2007 Bulletin that misrepresented the American Dental Association as well as a study published in the Harvard journal Cancer Causes and Control.

Rachel Gibson, a lawyer for Environment California, was quoted as saying that "when a child puts a phthalate-laden teether in her mouth, it's like sucking on a toxic lollipop." According to the Star, phthalates (often found in soft plastic toys) have not been shown to be harmful to humans at low-level exposure – only to rats at high exposures. Calling something toxic conjures up deadly poisons and evil, just as calling something natural conjures up healthy and good. Many toxic substances occur naturally in foods, e.g., arsenic in raw almonds, but in doses so small as not to be worthy of concern.*

Papers published in the British Journal of Cancer and the Archives of Internal Medicine linked steak and hot dogs to breast and colon cancer. According to the Star:

The American Institute for Cancer Research assumes a diet-cancer risk exists, then cherry-picks research that supports this notion. Red meat and processed meat often have a high fat content, so if you eat them too often you could get fat – which has been shown to be a risk factor for several cancers, including breast cancer and colorectal cancer. A more accurate report would focus on how obesity as a whole can increase risk for cancer.

Several of these scare stories originated in peer reviewed scientific journals and seem more concerned with supporting preconceptions that with discovery of the truth. Some researchers seem to take for granted that the effects of large doses in animals are highly analogous to effects of small doses in humans. If one ignores the importance and relevance of the dose, scares stories are an invitation to junk science.

further reading

--FDA will look into scientist's possible conflict

--Scientists slam FDA report on bisphenol A chemical

January 8, 2008. A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that as vaccines with the mercury-containing additive thimerosal were removed from use, the incidence of autism continued to rise at a steady rate. If thimerosal were a significant causal factor in autism, the rate of autism cases should have declined along with the use of thimerosal.

There is a vocal community of (mostly) parents who believe that mercury causes autism and that vaccines such as the MMR vaccine (or the "autism shot" as Jenny McCarthy called it on the Oprah show) should not be given to children. The MMR vaccine has never contained thimerosal.*

The new study was authored by California Department of Public Health researchers Robert Schechter and Judith Grether. They got their data from the California Department of Developmental Services, "considered a gold standard for autism epidemiology."*

Thimerosal was removed from vaccines not because the evidence shows it is dangerous but to placate a vocal and litigious anti-vaccine community. Of course, the removal of thimerosal then gave the anti-vaccine community the opportunity to say "well, they wouldn't  have removed it, if it weren't dangerous."

Brandon Keim of Wired argues for a plausible connection between thimerosal and autism based on his observations of a video of some mice allegedly injected with "thimerosal doses proportionate to those received by human babies." The mice allegedly exhibited autism-like behaviors. The video was shown to him by Columbia University epidemiologist Mady Hornig.* However, Hornig's work has been questioned by, among others, the blogger who goes by the name of Autism Diva, who writes:

None of the mice described in peer reviewed version of Hornig’s study showed any horrible effects from the thimerosal. She had more than 4 dozen of the SJL/thim mice, and more than 4 dozen SLJ/J mice that didn't get thimerosal and besides them she had mice of 2 other strains in the experiment. The post-mortem part of the Hornig study suffers from the fact that they only bothered to dissect 3 of the SJL/J thimerosal dosed (SJL/thim) mouse brains. Hornig found changes in those 3 autopsied mouse brains, but what Hornig found does not map onto changes found in autistic people’s brains. Even though the Hornig group was looking for what they had defined as the likely mousey correlates of autistic behavior, they found none. Even though the SJL/J mice are supposed to be extremely sensitive to mercury and extremely sensitive to just about everything, they did pretty well.

The upshot of all of this is that “there’s no there there” in the Hornig study, even though it was hyped at the time as proof that thimerosal containing vaccines could cause autism in susceptible individuals. Even though the abstract and introduction of the paper might lead one to believe that they found something that could be related to autism, there’s nothing there that can be related to autism. In spite of this, Mady dear is going to do another study and inject the mice with thimerosal and this time try to cure them of whatever she thinks they have with more heavy metal, that is, with gold salts.*

Keim concludes his article by commenting:

The autism-thimerosal link appears, for public health purposes, to be dead. But rather than mocking the understandable anger of confused parents trying to grapple with early and imperfect science, critics ought to be grateful that vaccine carelessness didn't wreak havoc on the mental development of a generation.

If Keim had followed this story for the past five and a half years, as I have, he would know that the anti-vaccine parents were not confused by early and imperfect science. They followed a leader (Dr. Andrew Wakefield) who had provided them scarcely any substantial evidence of a connection between mercury and autism. For the most part, they have no interest in the science, as is evidenced by the fact that every time a proper scientific study finds no connection between thimerosal and autism, they find some reason to reject the study. Many of the anti-vaccine crowd fall back on the impossible-to-disprove claim that maybe some people are especially sensitive to thimerosal and studies can't identify them. Many of these parents think that they are experts on the subject by virtue of the fact that their child is autistic.

The likelihood that the new study will quiet the anti-vaccination crowd is small.

update: January 10, 2008

Autism activists unmoved "Many scientists are satisfied that mercury in vaccines is not the cause of the condition, but some parents reject the research and reassurances that immunizations are not to blame." By Stephanie Desmon, Baltimore Sun

Study finds link between genetic flaws, autism By Delthia Ricks  Newsday

Most research into the causes of autism looks for a genetic link. Such research doesn't rule out environmental factors, but it is less likely to lead to wasting time and money chasing after possible associations like thimerosal. This new study was a collaborative effort, involving researchers from 14 leading universities and medical centers. The scientists scanned the entire human genome and discovered that sections of chromosome 16 are either deleted or duplicated in some people with autism spectrum disorders.

The study involved examining the DNA of more than 3,000 people, including 1,441 autistic children. They also examined the DNA from the parents of the autistic children and from people without the disorder. They found a segment of 25 genes on chromosome 16 that was missing in some of the children in the study. None of their parents possessed the flaw. Thus, this flaw was not inherited. However, in other children whose DNA was analyzed, they found a duplication of these genes on chromosome 16 that also occurred in at least one parent.

In other words, they found one small piece of a very large puzzle. But it is progress. Most researchers know that the best hope for both developing an accurate screening method for autism and for finding effective treatments for the disorder will be found by molecular geneticists.

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