Junkfood Science: The tragedy of overwhelming fear

April 29, 2007

The tragedy of overwhelming fear

As if there weren’t already enough scary things in the news, today’s London-based paper, The Independent, heightened concerns over another invisible danger that is tasteless, odorless and supposedly putting children at risk: electronic smog.

Earlier this week, a tragically sad article appeared in another London paper, the Daily Mail, that illustrated the consequences of such scares.

The woman who needs a veil of protection from modern life

Sarah, 51, is one of a growing band of people who claim to be experiencing extreme - and incapacitating - sensitivity to electrical appliances, as well as to certain frequencies of electromagnetic waves. “Wi-Fi, or wireless broadband networks, seem to be the worst thing," she says. “I have to restrict the amount of time I spend on the computer or watching television, and make sure I don't have too many household appliances on at once, because that sets me off as well."

This may sound bizarre, but there is no doubt that Sarah's symptoms are real. To date, they include hair loss, sickness, high blood-pressure, digestive and memory problems, severe headaches and dizziness....She can't work. When she wants to phone friends, she has to use a land-line - a significant advancement, it turns out, because she was so ill at one stage, she says, that she couldn't even touch an ordinary receiver without feeling a violent shock pass up her arm....And she can venture into built-up areas only if she is swathed in a net-and-hat ensemble made from a special “shielding fabric" that makes her look like a bee-keeper....

The first symptoms started about five years ago....A stream of doctors, complementary practitioners and Chinese herbalists all failed to alleviate any of her symptoms or come up with a diagnosis. Instead, she found an answer on Google - through websites ...All her symptoms seemed to match those of people who believe they are allergic to modern life....Convinced that she had almost certainly found the cause of her illness, she ordered, from the internet, some special rolls of foil wallpaper and a fabric called Swiss bobbinet - a netting made from polyester filaments dipped in silver. Both promised to “shield" her from any emissions from phone masts or wireless broadband systems. Within a few weeks of the wallpaper going up and the windows being hung with netting, she began to feel better....

While her bee-hive get-up was the brunt of endless cruel jokes around the world, these sufferers sincerely believe in their illnesses. And clinical ecologist practitioners and lay support groups are quick to reinforce their anxieties. It doesn’t matter how comprehensive the medical evidence or how many careful studies have been conducted or how many scientific and medical experts have investigated concerns, and found no support for environmental illnesses, such as multiple chemical or electrical sensitivity. Victoria Moore, the Daily Mail reporter, reiterated the lack of scientific support for these sensitivities to modern life:

The World Health Organisation's position is that “there is no scientific basis to link ES symptoms to EMR exposure. “Further, ES is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem."... In one “provocation" study, a number of people who claimed to have electrical sensitivity were placed in a room with a mobile phone and not told whether or not it was switched on. Asked by a researcher how they felt, they failed to establish any link between physical symptoms and the alleged trigger.

What is Electrical sensitivity (ES)?

ES is an environmental illness that clinical ecologists claim is triggered by common levels of electromagnetic fields (EMF) from power lines, motors, computers, cell phones, televisions, etc. It’s also been called radiowave illness and microwave sickness. According to Linda Grant, a support group advocate and author of The Electrical Sensitivity Handbook, those who fall prey to ES are usually also patients with multiple chemical sensitivity, where they develop symptoms with any level of exposure to modern chemicals. “Other at-risk groups for developing ES seem to be chronic fatigue syndrome patients and those experiencing mercury toxicity from dental amalgams,” she says.

For many, it includes a belief in chi — the energy force that they believe influences moods, emotions, physical energy and health; and which feng shui followers believe needs to move freely throughout a home and can be affected by colors, shapes and materials. Artificial light is believed to be unhealthy. Plants, especially peace lilies, are said to help minimize the effects of electrical radiation.

Overall, electrical sensitivity is more publicized in Europe than the United States, partly because of the Swedish Association for the ElectroSensitive which began in 1987 as a support group to disseminate information on the “problem.” Its members report a lot of computer-related symptoms, which just so happen to match the “warning signs” of ES in their literature — dry eyes and irritations, blurred vision, problems concentrating, headache, jaw pain and muscular aches, cold-like symptoms. If those sound a lot like common symptoms everyone spending too many hours in front of the computer experiences, you’re right; but when members are told it’s low-level electricity harming them, the nocebo effect kicks in and not surprisingly, they find their symptoms “gradually worsen.”

A related story in the news this past week illustrated just how devastating these environmental illnesses can be. A couple from Allentown, Pennsylvania, is hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt from bills for the wife suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity. Her husband recently purchased a modular housing unit with filtered air and water to put in the backyard for his wife when they could no longer afford for her to stay in a specially designed chemical-free house in Texas. The structure has resulted in conflicts with neighbors and community officials, however. According to The Morning Call, her self-reported symptoms include headaches, vertigo, stomach pain, tight throat and irritable bowel syndrome.

Which brings us to this morning’s scary news. The first uncritically-researched article targeted parents and reported that wireless computer networks in schools could be damaging children’s health. It said some feared hazards of Wi-Fi gadgets, such as mobile phones, as possibly causing cancer and premature senility and are calling for an inquiry and more research. Among those quoted was the chairman of the Electromagnetic Radiation Research Trust, an independent lobbying organization, creating news about electro-magnetic radiation and its effect on health, and seeking funding for research on the health problems of mast emissions and cancer clusters.

A second article reported “Scientists demand inquiry over Wi-Fis,” inaccurately claiming “the research hasn’t been done” on the safety of things like lap top computers and cell phones and that “no one is really aware of what we are dealing with.” This article quoted Dr. George L. Carlo, the chairman of the Science and Public Policy Institute, an impressive sounding organization but is simply the Safe Wireless Initiative, run by the author of the book Cell Phones: Invisible Hazards in the Wireless Age. He is organizing “a global registry of people suffering from symptoms relating to the technology,” the paper said.

Unlike scientists supporting investigations into the health risks, he doesn’t, saying:

Most of the public has been tricked by the industry and government agencies into believing that the answers to all of the question lie in more research on cause and effect. That is perhaps the biggest ruse of all. Cause/effect research done today, helps no one today, and it may not even help anyone tomorrow. In my view, what we need to help people exposed today is surveillance related research aimed at identifying high risk groups for intervention.

An epidemiologist’s lack of support for research to identify cause and effect might not surprise some. The notion that electric power lines can cause cancer originated with a single, flawed epidemiological study in 1979, according to John W. Farley, Ph.D., physics professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

In fact, the root of virtually every modern health scare is brought to us by epidemiology which dredges through factors — environmental, dietary or physical — looking for correlations to some disease or affliction. Of course, researchers can pull out thousands of meaningless associations and scare people endlessly. And they have. No matter that the correlations often contradict each other and are nonsensical, they slowly erode through our consciousness and leave increasingly more of us believing that our everyday life is dangerous and virtually everything can hurt us.

Most consumers have been led to believe that these studies can help them in some way and that the associations are actually things that lead to a disease, but that’s the farthest thing from the truth. These correlations are not the same thing as a cause or contributing risk factor to a disease. Yet this is one of the most promoted myths of our time.

An early epidemiologist, Austin Bradford Hill, proposed criteria that epidemiologists could use to help them judge if their correlations could even point to a possible cause — but practically none of today’s health scares could even meet those criteria and don’t even try! Among his standards were:

· a powerfully strong association (associated with many times the risk, not minor percentages) that is graded (the greater the exposure, the greater the risk);

· the correlation stands despite all confounding factors (not just select ones convenient for the researcher);

· the association is consistent and can be replicated by different researchers and among different populations;

· the association is specific (an exposure is associated with a very specific disease, not broad symptoms or illnesses);

· the exposure precedes the onset of the disease and is consistent with how the disease naturally progresses;

· the association is reversible (remove the exposure and risk drops);

· that experimental evidence is consistent with the association;

· and that the correlation has a biological plausible explanation.

Even with these rigid criteria, however, epidemiology can never establish causality. Epidemiological research only finds correlations. (Correlations are not causations.) Its greatest value for us today, and its greatest strength, may most lie in its ability to disprove a possible causation — thereby debunking a fear — by failing to even show a correlation. Those negative studies are our friends.

The most feared diseases are those that kill most of us — cancer and heart disease — and literally thousands of things have been reported to be associated with them. But the fact always ignored is that old age is the most significant association, with about 1,000 times risk associated with cancer, for example, and dominates and outweighs any other associations reported by epidemiologists, according to Dr. John Brignell, Ph.D., a British scientist and engineer, publisher of Number Watch, and author of The Epidemiologists — Have they got scares for you!

Epidemiological research is endlessly easy to manipulate to conclude pretty much whatever a researcher wants to find, and it’s a favorite and fertile technique for just about any entity with an agenda. [Look at the nonstop fears associated with obesity!] “‘Health’ is a surrogate for their real interests,” said Dr. James LeFanu, M.D. in “Body Politics” published in a 1994 issue of GQ Magazine:

The first are the environmentalists who have found the best way of gaining support for their campaigns is to exaggerate the threats to health from industrial progress. So comprehensive is their doom-mongering, it is surprising there is a healthy person left on the planet — nuclear plants, nitrate fertilisers, lead in petrol, vehicle exhaust emissions, chemicals in the water supply, synthetic pesticides and suchlike are all allegedly responsible for a bewildering variety of cancers, heart disease, bronchitis and asthma as well as adversely affecting children’s intelligence.

Next are the food activists, whose animus is directed at a wicked food industry adversely affecting our health with hidden fats and sugars, or concealing their harmful products with irradiation, colourings and additives.

The net effect of this scaremongering is to create a public neurosis. People quake at the sight of a hamburger for fear of what harm it might do to their arteries, feel guilty about having bacon and eggs for breakfast, worry about...

Scares about health risks associated with exposures to electricity have a lot in common with other health scares, said Dr. Farley:

Magnetic fields are not understood by the public. Nor can they be felt, tasted, seen, or touched. This makes them mysterious, easily portrayable as threatening, and profitable to their advocates.

“Public distrust of utilities, big business, and established scientists also plays a role” in their perpetuation, he says. And once a health scare has been raised, the concerns persist for decades, despite evidence to the contrary. According to Dr. Farley, since that first flawed study, “subsequent epidemiologic and animal studies have failed to find a consistent and significant effect [and] no plausible mechanism linking power lines and cancer has ever been found.” He adds:

In recent years, the verdict from large-scale scientific studies has been conclusively negative, and scientific and medical societies have issued official statements that power lines are not a significant health risk. In short, there is nothing to worry about.

Even though science can’t prove a universal negative, there have been so many studies over two decades that it’s virtually certain that if there was any real hazard, it would have been discovered by now, said physicist Dr. Farley. He explained the science and agendas behind these fears in an article, “Power Lines and Cancer: Nothing to Fear,” in which he began by saying:

The fields produced by power lines are very small. Power lines produce both electric and magnetic fields. The electric field is greatly reduced in magnitude within the human body, because the body is an electrical conductor. In fact, power lines produce electric fields inside the human body that are much smaller than the electric fields that normally exist in the body.

Dr. LeFanu also urged reliance on reasoned risk assessments using credible science, over groundless speculations, saying:

Mobile phones transmit radio frequencies of such low intensity that their biological effects can scarcely be detected; even the most high-powered devices...The question as to whether they may have any long-term adverse effects has been examined in over 15 years in nearly 200,000 employees of Motorola. The conclusion?

You could buy a mobile [phone] tomorrow and use it continuously for 2.7 million years without fear that it might be doing you any harm.

Today’s fostering of epidemiology-driven scares, said Dr. LeFanu, “deprives the few valid official health warnings of any force or meaning.”

That doesn’t help anyone.

Dr. LeFanu, who also authored the book, The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine, wrote of the madness of epidemiology and government officials who simply relent to “anxiety-mongering by consumer health watchdogs,” falling back on the fact it’s impossible to prove a negative and guarantee absolute safety. It’s regrettable, he said, because “it suggests, falsely, that scientific investigation cannot distinguish truth from falsehood.”

In fact, good science can go a long way towards alleviating needless worry and enrich our sense of well-being and help us to get a little more pleasure from life.

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

Bookmark and Share