Junkfood Science: Ignore the man behind the curtain

June 01, 2007

Ignore the man behind the curtain

There’s bad science — and we certainly see a lot of that here — and then there’s stuff so far out on the spectrum it can only be called pseudoscience. It cloaks itself in made-up science-sounding words and concepts that defy plausibility by all known laws of nature and can similarly only be called pseudojargon. We’re treading into the land of Woo, where skeptics love to go.

The most tragic aspect of junk science is how it’s used to terrify and take advantage of people, usually the most vulnerable among us. And when we’re caught up in fear, it can be just as hard to separate bad science from credible science, as it can be to detect outright pseudoscience. Moreso, when we’ve come to distrust science and fear it, too!

A recent news story was so scientifically outrageous and implausible that at first I thought it was a hoax, but as I delved into it, I discovered an enormous network of junkscientists taking advantage of people’s fears of chemicals in ways I never imagined. This story from the Daily Mail was tragic on so many levels, but to dismiss it simply as woo would be to deride the innocent people who’ve come to believe it and miss a chance to help others not be taken in by pseudoscience — claims that are not only scaring them to death, but costing them money and possibly leading to harm.

Is your family toxic?

Like most people, James Ferguson never worried about chemicals in his body, until he became a dad....My concern about pesticides was new....Why...are we in the grip of an obesity epidemic, eating junk food and, I'd just discovered, food riddled with toxic chemicals? ... Some scientists blamed chemical changes in the Western diet for a dramatic increase in a range of maladies such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, hormone-related imbalances, mental illness and even asthma and eczema in children. Some also blamed chemicals for the extraordinary decline in Western male fertility in the past 20 years.

While my fertility had obviously survived unscathed - the birth of Amelia confirmed that - I was becoming increasingly worried about what the chemical contamination of our world was doing to my wife Melissa and her breast milk... We had the test done at a place called Biolab, just off Harley Street in London. There, we saw Dr McLaren-Howard whose qualification was from the American College of Nutrition, an institution I had never heard of. But any misgivings were allayed when I met him. He was clearly no quack. “It's hard to say how bad a given organochlorine is for a person," he told me....

We received the results a few days later. I found myself tearing open my envelope as impatiently as a schoolboy who has just been posted his exam results. The upper limit for Lindane (a pesticide, now banned) was 0.05 mg per kg of fat. My fat, I was horrified to see, contained three times that figure: 0.15 mg. Alone among the test list of chemicals, Lindane carried a footnote that read: “May be hazardous at ANY level." My interest in pesticides poisoning had just turned unpleasantly personal.

Let’s pause for a moment. There is too much here to defuse in a single post, so we’ll begin looking at chemistry over upcoming posts because there are so many misunderstandings of these dark, sinister-sounding things.

How many believe chemicals mean toxins? If you’re even the slightest bit tempted to think that chemicals mean something bad and that your health is in jeopardy unless you live in a pure environment and avoid all exposures to chemicals, check out “What is a chemical?” It will make fun weekend reading for the entire family, honest! :)

Clinical ecology, as we’ve reviewed, is not part of mainstream medicine or science. Clinical ecologists have convinced a lot of people that even the tiniest of exposures to manmade chemicals can make them sick or harm them. The problem is, every scientific review of the clinical evidence has failed to support their scary contentions. They take advantage of the fact that few people understand chemicals or pesticides.

Short of being poisoned, most chemical exposures we encounter are pretty harmless. “Although pesticides in food have been blamed for a variety of ill-defined syndromes, extensive medical studies have failed to implicate them as the cause of any known clinical condition. There are no mysterious unknown diseases caused by the prolonged intake of small doses of chemicals,” said Stanley Feldman, emeritus professor of anaesthesiology at Imperial College London, in Panic Nation. “In fact, the various conditions that have been attributed to these chemicals by the food faddists bear no relationship to any of the known effects of the chemicals.” [emphasis added]

What may surprise people to learn is that plants have their own natural pesticides. That’s how they’ve naturally evolved to resist fungi and pests. Every day, we’re exposed to 10,000 times more natural pesticides than man-made ones, according to research by Dr. Bruce Ames, renowned researcher on mutagenic and carcinogenic risks and professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. While 99.99-percent of the pesticides in our food are there naturally and the average American eats about 1,500 mg a day, he explains, that compares to 0.09 mg of synthetic pesticide residues. Still, as added assurance, the levels of pesticides in our food are carefully monitored and kept well below the most conservative safety levels.

Consumers believe that natural means safe, so they’re also frequently surprised to learn that natural pesticides have more recently been shown to cause cancer in rodents at high doses, at the very same percentage as man-made pesticides. Although, as Dr. John Brignell, Ph.D., at Number Watch, humorously points out:

[C]ancer-causing means that mice, specially bred to sprout tumours at the sight of a lab coat, responded to tens of thousands times [the] natural concentrations by ... wait for it ... sprouting tumours.

Man-made pesticides are no more carcinogenic than natural ones, and many are less toxic, Dr Ames and the scientific community continue to demonstrate. It wasn’t until years after testing manmade chemicals for carcinogenity, that anyone thought to test natural ones in the same way — and low and behold found them no different! [Dr. Ames, once the idol of environmentalists for his work on the carcinogenicity of manmade chemicals, suddenly wasn’t as popular anymore when he discovered this second fact.] But they’re all in such low levels we don’t need to be alarmed. Our bodies have evolved with our own natural defenses against normal exposures to toxins, so we can eat a tremendous variety of “carcinogens” in our food with no ill effects, said Dr. Ames.

The idea that there is no safe exposure is sheer pseudoscience. Sadly, our Surgeon General doesn’t understand toxicology, any better than those trying to terrify us that a morsel of transfat is the equivalent to 9-11. But it has become popular to test normal, healthy people for chemicals and scare the willies out of them when traces are found. These worried people are told they have “high” levels in their bodies...that aren’t actually anywhere near levels where any harm has ever been shown, as a recent post reviewed. Today’s analytical capabilities allow us to detect ever-tinier traces of chemicals in parts per trillion! But just because we can detect the presence of a substance doesn’t mean it poses any health risk and “should not be misinterpreted to indicate a health risk or potential disease,” cautions the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The EPA’s safe levels, for instance, are arrived at by taking a level of exposure where there was no observed effect at all in the most sensitive of the population with a lifetime of exposure and adds another ten- to 100-fold safety cushion.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School, for example, warned consumers about private commercial “biomonitoring” — labs offering to test your hair, urine, blood or breastmilk for toxins — as their research has found that people labeled mercury toxic actually had no physical evidence of toxicity. But typically, these labs are at the ready to sell some product or treatment to detoxify your body, methods also without credible scientific support. BioLab in the UK is among those Quackwatch cautions in its latest May 7, 2007 update, that have nonstandard practices.

In contrast, the National Center for Environmental Health of the CDC conducts precise and technically reproducible laboratory analyses through the Division of Laboratory Sciences and has been the country’s standard setting laboratory for years. In 1999, it began an enormous project to measure and report the concentrations of environmental chemicals in the blood and urine of the American population. Its latest report, “The Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals,” was released in July 2005 and found concentrations for most chemicals continuing to drop and are well below that associated with any clinical health effects, according to toxicologists Dr. Charles A. McKay, M.D. and Dr. João H. Delgado, M.D. at Hartford Hospital, University of Connecticut School of Medicine, writing for the Environmental Health Research Foundation, a nonprofit scientific research foundation. We don’t have to feel afraid. Dioxins, for example, which are a large group of ubiquitous chemical compounds formed in fires and industry, have varying toxicities. But looking at the one considered most toxic of all, TCDD, they said:

The Third Report notes that blood concentrations of this dioxin have decreased more than 80% in the last 30 years. Currently, even with improved detection limits in blood (lower than 10 pg/g lipid = parts per trillion), most of the population has no detectable TCDD. This should be reassuring especially when considering [their] possible carcinogenic or reproductive/developmental effects have [been] noted in animal studies or suggested in humans at much higher levels of exposure.

Let’s look at Lindane, mentioned in this article, as an illustration of how easily we can be misled and scared by these toxin lab tests. As the CDC notes, Lindane is an organochlorine pesticide that’s also used in certain prescription shampoos and lotions to treat head lice and scabies. There have been reports of illness from accidental ingestion of Lindane by people mistaking it for an oral medicine, such as cough syrup. [For that reason, pharmacists don’t bottle it in medicine bottles anymore.] The CDC found that Lindane levels have been declining in the U.S. population since 1970. Back then, it reported that the average blood level in citizens was 0.36 nanograms/gram of lipid. But today, the Third Report found that across the population, levels are “below the limit of detection.”

To get an understanding of levels considered within safe exposures, it reports that the UK uses as safe blood levels for workers of “approximately 1,700 nanograms/gram of lipid and the German Commission for the Investigation of Health Hazards of Chemical Compounds in the Work Area sets the biological tolerance value for Lindane as 3,300 ng/gram of lipid.” This is parts per billion!

Yet, this father was told any exposure was hazardous and that his lab results were three times higher than the limits of safety. According to the story, the lab report showed he had 0.15 milligrams/1,000 grams of lipid which would be 150 nanograms/gram of lipid. Believing he has 150 times more than any American through everyday exposures, even though this pesticide hasn’t been used for decades in the UK, just as here, is a stretch of the imagination. Perhaps, either he or the reporter mistook milligrams (mg) for nanograms (ng) and his reported levels were 0.00015 nanograms/gram — parts per billion — a level far below biological plausibility of clinical harm. And more in line with the rest of us.

But his worries didn’t stop there and after a litany of frightening “abnormally high” results in his blood, they turned to his wife’s breast milk, which also found traces of chemicals.

Our newborn baby's diet contained DDT, DDD, DDE, HCB, PCBs, PBB (BDE) flameretardants, p-Dichlorobenzene, Carbaryl, Chlordane and, of course, Lindane....”Oh God," said Melissa, hiding her face in her hands. “I think I've just killed our baby."

This poor mother. There are countless numbers of new mothers here, too, who’ve been led to believe that their breastmilk has been contaminated by toxins that could harm their new baby. Her anxious husband went on to scare them both with incorrect information he found on the internet (topics for another day), but his wife was most concerned with how to get rid of all of the toxic poisons in their bodies. Biolab to the rescue:

BIOLAB, I told her, had advised using an infrared sauna because it mimics the energy emitted naturally by the body, so the heat gets deeper into your fat cells than a conventional sauna and the toxins are sweated out on the skin. You have to scrub yourself in the shower afterwards, though, or the toxins are reabsorbed....Melissa and I booked in.

The Physiotherm, an enclosed wooden box with seating for two, hummed gently in the corner, blue light spilled through its glass door. “Blue is associated with spiritual awareness," purred the receptionist, “but you can choose a different colour therapy if you want."... With the help of a promotional pamphlet picked up at the entrance, I began to explain how the wavelength of the rays emanating from the machine was set to mimic the natural infrared heat generated by the human body.

“Thanks to something called resonant absorption," I went on enthusiastically, “fat molecules and clusters of contaminants in the body vibrate until they break up into particles small enough to pass out as sweat through the cell membranes. “Scientific analysis shows that infrared-induced sweat contains five to six times more toxins and impurities than normal sweat. Isn't this great?”

The article concludes with a call for making getting rid of toxins a priority and ensuring infrared sauna sessions are available through their National Health Service.

I consulted physicists who just rolled their eyes, explaining in far more complexity than even I could follow how actual resonance absorption is used as an approach to isotope separation and would be useless in the human body. Suffice it to say, that even if you could agitate the molecules inside your body and blood using a special infrared sauna, there would be no way to selectively activate the “toxin” molecules and leave the others alone. But even if it could, what would that get you? Actual radiation capable of activating a toxic molecule would also do very bad things for your DNA molecules, for instance — that’s why UV radiation in sunlight can be harmful. So, of course, these saunas are not actually using radiation that might do things like create dangerous free radicals, they’re using infrared radiant heat which is at wavelengths of about 7-10 micrometers at the edge of visible light, which simply warms molecules without really activating them.

Meaning, it’s pretty harmless fun. Believing blue light brings greater spiritual awareness is one thing, but it won’t detoxify your body. Yet, a surprising number of companies are selling these infrared “fitness and wellness” saunas...at hefty prices. Sitting in a box with full-spectrum lights is claimed to give an amazing list of health benefits beyond detoxification, including weight loss (of course); pain relief; removal of excess cholesterol and toxic heavy metals from your body; improve the immune system and circulation; cure Lyme disease to Candida; rid “unclear thinking” and depression; and provide relief for fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and even cancer.

According to the Sunlight Sauna website: “The optimal micron output range is between 7 and 14 microns which is very close to the resonant frequency of a water molecule....This range, sometimes called ‘Vital Rays’ appears to have special regenerative effects on the body.”

The Klinghardt Neurotoxin Elimination Protocol also warns that toxins can move from one part of the body to another unless you also ingest enough supplements of cilantro, garlic, fish oil and chlorella (green algae) to ensure elimination. A “microcurrent foot bath” also stimulates the excretion of toxins via the plantar skin and lymphatics.” The protocol is classic clinical ecology reading, with pages of nondescript symptoms and self-limiting medical problems claimed to be due to exposure to toxins.

The Physiotherm website says their sauna can be used with aroma therapy and describes how Dr. Ralf Kleef Head of IWIT Vienna uses these complimentary therapies for his heart patients: “The aromas were selected accordingly to balance deficiencies. Patients with depressive moods received first of all vitalising, lightening aromas, patients with anxiety conditions or nervousness received more sedative aromas. This method was also applied to the adjustments for colour therapy.”

Far Infrared Saunas, says the infrared heat actually pushes out the toxins [is that like popping a zit?]; treats “eczema, acne and psoriasis;” and that the results are so striking for those suffering from skin, muscle and joint complaints, they are able to discontinue their pain medications. “Furthermore, at each session the muscle length is increased, regular use may result in a permanent increase of 12%. For athletes it creates a unique opportunity for warming up and cooling down.” For those who’ve tried dieting and not lost weight, they say: “A single sauna session [20-40 minutes] will burn 200-500 calories, as many as rowing a boat for 30 minutes or running several miles. FIR saunas are the ONLY natural, healthy way to burn calories without exercising!”

This is all mumbo-jumbo, of course. But, we’re saving the best woo literature for last. Prime Alternatives Infrared Sauna explains that the infrared rays “vibrate at the same frequency as all organic matter. These rays are a sympathetic energy to organic matter [and] are emitted from our palms. These emissions play a role in the ‘laying on of hands’ healing techniques. The FIR segment of sunlight is absolutely essential for all living things, including human beings.” It goes on to say:

We live in a polluted world. There is a direct correlation between external pollution and the internal pollution of the human body.... These toxic conditions become the breeding grounds for disease and degeneration. Toxemia is the root cause of all disease. The only real way to cure any chronic disease or degenerative condition is to eliminate the root cause by ridding the body of toxins that pollute the blood and tissues, attract germs and weaken resistance and immunity. ... Sweat produced from an Infrared sauna is found to be 80-85% water and 15-20% toxins! These toxins contain metals (such as mercury, lead, cadmium, nickel, copper, sodium, aluminium), pesticide residues, petroleum-based toxins, chloride, fluoride, as well as fat....

For a more effective detoxification: a) increase the oxygen in your blood by regular deep breathing b) Alkalise your body by strictly limiting acid-forming foods and drinks (refined sugar/starch, soft drinks) and increasing alkaline forming foods like fresh fruit and vegetables and juices). Drink plenty of water; ideally ionized, alkaline microwater. As this water has small clusterrs, it will hydrate your body quickly and effectively, and aid the detox process.

Ionized alkaline water? That took me to an entire new land of woo and hundreds of companies eager to sell revolutionary new water treatments “to impart back into water the missing ingredients which nature usually provides- proper alkaline pH and OH- or hydroxyl ions....Hence you have water that is one half the size, or ‘wetter’ water. The negatively charged electrode in the microwater machine draws to itself the alkaline minerals: sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, creating water similar to that found in areas that are home to the healthiest and longest-lived people.”

This alkaline water is supposed to have small water molecules that “act as a powerful antioxidant in the body, destroying harmful free radicals, just as do vitamins A, C, and E, which are also antioxidants.” According to Microwater’s website, doctors have reported it improves: “diabetes, constipation, ulcers, blood pressure, allergies, circulation, migraines, obesity, osteoporosis and menstrual irregularities.” Another system promised it actually reverses aging and that after discovering alkaline water, the inventor is “planning to live in good health till 150 at least.”

There is no need for me to debunk the pseudoscience surrounding water quackery, as a chemist from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, has devoted years to this subject and offers a fascinating and completely entertaining website — H2O dot CON — that explains the science and answers absolutely any question or claim about water you have ever wondered about. Dr. Stephen Lower offers an entire section on ionized and alkaline water, which he calls “Snake oil on tap.” What’s the bottom line? He says:

Here, in a nutshell, are a few basic facts that I believe anyone with a solid background in chemistry or physiology would concur with:

· “Ionized water" is nothing more than sales fiction; the term is meaningless to chemists.

· Most water that is fit for drinking is too unconductive to undergo significant electrolysis.

· Pure water can never be alkaline or acidic, nor can it be made so by electrolysis.

· Groundwaters containing metal ions such as calcium and magnesium can be rendered slightly alkaline by electrolysis, but after it hits the highly acidic gastric fluid in the stomach, its alkalinity is gone.

· The idea that one must consume alkaline water to neutralize the effects of acidic foods is ridiculous; we get rid of excess acid by exhaling carbon dioxide.

· The claims about the health benefits of drinking alkaline water are not supported by credible scientific evidence.

· There is nothing wrong with drinking slightly acidic waters such as rainwater. “Body pH" is a meaningless concept; different parts of the body (and even of individual cells) can have widely different pH values.

· If you really want to de-acidify your stomach (at the possible cost of interfering with protein digestion), why spend hundreds of dollars for an electrolysis device when you can take calcium-magnesium pills, Alka-Seltzer or Milk of Magnesia?

· Electrolysis devices are generally worthless for treating water for health enhancement, removal of common impurities, disinfection, and scale control.

But if you ever doubted the power of placebo and nocebo, you won’t after reading the testimonials of customers of alkaline water. They believe this water has cured them of constipation and stomach problems, relieved their joint pains, balanced their pH levels, cured them of hypertension and heart palpitations, cured their skin blemishes and allergies, helped them sleep better, made them more alert and energetic, and even cured their toe fungus and their dog’s fleas!

If only this were just fun and games. But tragically, clinical ecologists typically catch people when they are the most vulnerable and desperate for help. The February 28, 2005 issue of Newsweek portrayed a family with two young autistic children. According to the article:

[Their parents] have tried a dizzying array of therapies: neurofeedback, music therapy, swimming with dolphins, social-skills therapy, gluten-free diets, vitamins, anti-anxiety pills and steroids. To reduce the boys' exposure to environmental chemicals, which the [parents] believe might aggravate their conditions, the couple replaced their carpeting with toxin-free wood floors and bought a special water-purifying system. They even installed a $3,500 in-home sauna, which they think will help remove metals like mercury and arsenic from the boys' bodies. Warm and loving parents, the [parents] spent $75,000 on treatments last year alone. “I'm willing to try just about anything if it makes sense," said the mother.

This stuff isn’t harmless. You may remember the heartbreaking cases against the Edelson Center for Environmental and Preventive Medicine back in 2004. The parents of one young autistic child had been told his autism was due to toxins and had paid $11,720 for diagnostic tests, followed by prescribed detoxification treatments. Another family was told the lab tests showed that toxins had caused their child to have "neurotoxicity," "allergic diathesis," and "hyperactivity." Detoxification treatments, costing the family $40,000 and necessitating them to mortgage their home, included chelation, a massive regimen of supplements, and daily sauna treatments. A third family had been charged $43,700 and told their son had been “damaged immensely by poisons” and needed similar detoxification. The suffering each of these children went through is hard to read.

Coming back to the couple in the news who believe a session in an infrared sauna has removed the toxins from the body, it hasn’t. But if it had — since infrared is used in wireless communications, cordless phones, modems and computers, motion detectors and fire sensors — then, we all must be nicely detoxed.

Speaking of which, those folks who’ve been spreading fears about the dangers of Wi-Fi (wireless) in Britain might want to talk with the infrared guys. :)

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

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