If you’ve spent any time around humans, you’ve probably noticed that we’re not a rational bunch. We tend to draw conclusions based on our personal prejudices rather than empirical evidence. When confronted with conflicting evidence, we often reject it out of hand. I’m as guilty of this as everybody else; I think it’s a defense mechanism meant to keep our minds from having to reconstruct our worldviews on a daily basis. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s good for us to have a consistent image of how the world works.
Fortunately, we’ve recognized this shortcoming and invented science as a means of by-passing it. We humans use science to know about the natural world, but also to improve the quality of our lives. One of the greatest practical achievements of science is medicine, that vast branch that helps determine what’s good and bad for us.
Of course, not everybody accepts the findings of science/medicine, because – as I pointed out – it’s a lot more comfortable to stick to your ideological guns. Every now and then you’ll come across a meme like this one, which seems to fly in the face of established science. It’s tempting to dismiss this meme as so much bollocks, but let’s take the time to see what evidence is available to confirm or refute each of the author’s claims.
Exposure to the sun generates vitamin D which will protect you from cancer.
If you want to stir up a poop-storm of controversy, nothing stirs faster than the topic of cancer (not the Tropic of Cancer, which to the best of my knowledge is not controversial at all). Claim that something causes or prevents cancer, and soon you’ll have a multitude of angry self-proclaimed medical experts beating down your door to tell you why you’re wrong. Unfortunately these armchair physicians seldom come armed with peer-reviewed studies. What do the real experts have to say about the Sun, vitamin D, and cancer?
According to the National Cancer Institute, an arm of the National Institute of Health, the link between vitamin D and cancer is not well-understood. Here’s what we do know:
Vitamin D helps the human body process calcium and phosphorus, which are essential for healthy teeth and bones. Your skin does indeed produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, but you also get vitamin D in your food. What’s the connection between vitamin D and cancer? Early studies indicated that certain types of cancer were less common – and less often fatal – in people living close to the equator than in people living at higher latitudes. One proposed hypothesis was that since equatorial inhabitants receive more direct sunlight, their bodies produce more vitamin D. Vitamin D does seem to inhibit cancer growth in mice; perhaps something similar is happening in people? Sadly, further studies have been inconclusive. At present, there is little data to indicate what benefit, if any, vitamin D has in keeping people cancer-free.
Furthermore, there are many types of cancer: the NCI never mentions a specific link between vitamin D and skin cancer, which is the kind of cancer most often associated with excessive exposure to sunlight. So, even if vitamin D does protect you from some types of cancer, it might not protect you from skin cancer; ergo, you should probably stock up on sunscreen if you’re going to be outdoors a lot, right? Right?
Sunscreen contains chemicals that actually give you skin cancer.
Ah, so this is the author’s angle. Silly people: the Sun doesn’t cause cancer – the cream you rub on your skin to protect yourself from cancer causes cancer! What cruel irony!
Well, not so fast. Dr Ronald Siegle, writing for the Skin Cancer Foundation, debunks rumors regarding the potential carcinogenic properties of sunscreen. According to Dr Siegle, there is no compelling evidence that the ingredients in sunscreen present a cancer risk to humans. So why do some folks think otherwise?
Probably because some sunscreens contain titanium dioxide nanoparticles. Titanium dioxide in powder form is highly toxic when inhaled, and a possible carcinogen to humans. Some people are concerned that the tiny titanium dioxide particles in commercial sunscreens could penetrate through the skin and enter the bloodstream. Dr Kenneth Portier, writing for the American Cancer Society, says that scientists have been unable to determine what amount of TiO2 actually makes it through the outer layer of skin cells, and to what depth. Dr Portier also points out that not every brand of sunscreen contains titanium dioxide, and echoes Dr Siegle in saying that overall, applying sunscreen is still a smart idea if you’re going to be outdoors. Despite what some people say, sunscreen helps reduce the risk of skin cancer, so slather up.
Al Qaeda is the CIA and your government is the major threat.
This statement opens many cans of worms.
It has certainly been rumored that the United States armed and supported Al Qaeda during the latter operation’s formative years. Is there any truth to these rumors? Predictably, that depends on who you ask. The supposed link between the CIA and Al Qaeda goes back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The United States, in an effort to stymie the Soviets, provided support to the local Afghan mujahideen (Islamic guerilla fighters), but denies ever having been intimately connected with so-called foreign, or Arab, mujahideen who laid the foundation of Al Qaeda. United States government officials argue that there were plenty of indigenous mujahideen invested in repelling the Soviet invasion force; ergo it was unnecessary to bring in foreign fighters, particularly those who were already well-funded by Muslim sources and openly hostile to Americans.
Remarkably, Osama bin Laden, a co-founder of Al Qaeda, agreed with the United States government’s portrayal of the U.S./Al Qaeda relationship in those early years; i.e. that there was none. And yet…
Other sources, notably Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, have claimed that Osama bin Laden expressed gratitude toward the United States of America for its role in helping the Afghan mujahideen. This seems to contradict most other depictions of Osama bin Laden, who was never portrayed as being a fan of the United States.
Flash forward to September 11, 2001, when terrorists linked to Al Qaeda hijacked four airplanes and intentionally crashed three of them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Despite an extensive investigation showing that the 9/11 attacks were in fact the act of a radical Islamic terrorist organization, many conspiracy theorists leapt headfirst into the conclusion that the United States government either orchestrated the attacks themselves, or knew about them beforehand and was complicit in allowing them to happen.
The conspiracy theorists point to what they perceive as inconsistencies and physical impossibilities in the events leading up to the attacks. I don’t have the time or energy to review and debunk every conspiracy theory that has popped up in the wake of 9/11 (nor do I need to, as many sources, Popular Mechanics, e.g., have already done so). I don’t expect the diehards to be convinced; conspiracy theories are born of a need to have an explanation that fits one’s prejudices, regardless of whether the explanation is true or even plausible.
So where does that leave us? Is Al Qaeda the CIA? Is our government a major threat? There’s no evidence to support a positive answer to the first question, and I don’t think the second question even has a defensible answer. Sure, the government has done some shady stuff; in fact, it continues to do so. But just because our government has done some bad things doesn’t mean it has done every bad thing. We must be careful when leveling such accusations.
Diet products contain aspartame and aspartame causes brain cancer.
Some diet products contain aspartame, but aspartame has never been scientifically linked to an increased risk of brain cancer in humans. Many of the misconceptions about aspartame are probably connected to a hoax email that has been circulating since at least 1998. The Food & Drug Administration has responded to the email, saying that it is full of pseudoscientific nonsense. Both the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society attest to the safety of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners.
“But wait a minute,” you might say, “What about that study showing that aspartame increased cancer risks in men who drink diet sodas?” People who already wanted backing for their pre-formed conclusions that aspartame was dangerous leapt on the report like a lion on a gazelle. They seemingly had their smoking gun. Nevermind that the report’s authors – who pre-maturely promoted it – recanted their support almost immediately when the report was finally released. They called their own findings weak and untenable; in other words, they no longer felt comfortable hanging their confidence on it. Similar studies purporting to show hidden dangers in aspartame have likewise been called methodologically unsound by the international scientific community. Aspartame is one of the best-tested food additives in existence, and the available evidence – from laboratories all over the world – shows that it is safe.
Mammograms expose you to ionizing radiation which will give you cancer.
Life exposes you to ionizing radiation. Every day, every second, your body is being bombarded by charged particles and high-energy photons moving at fantastic speeds. Although these particles are sub-microscopic, they pack quite a wallop on the molecular scale; in fact, they can damage your sensitive genetic code.
In many cases your cells are able to catch the damage and repair it before it can spread. In other cases the cell is sacrificed to save its host: you. Your body has myriad ways to protect itself from the effects of ionizing radiation.
In very rare situations, a cell suffers a mutation that shuts off the mechanism that tells it when to stop growing. If your body’s defense system fails to identify and destroy the cancerous cell, it will grow and divide out of control, threatening the survival of tissues, organ systems, and eventually its own host. It’s a testament to the power of our immune systems that these aggressive cancers seldom get beyond the single-stage cell, but when they do, the results can be devastating.
If we increase our exposure to ionizing radiation, we increase the likelihood of developing cancer. Scientists have made careful measurements and estimates of the amount of radiation received in various situations, and these measurements inform dosage recommendations. Check out this website to learn about how much radiation is too much. While you’re there, be sure to click on the diagram for a closer look; it’s really informative.
As you can see, the average radiation dose from a mammogram is 3 milliSieverts. The maximum yearly dose permitted for U.S. radiation workers is 50 milliSieverts, so you could have sixteen mammograms in a one-year period without exceeding the recommended maximum dose for people who routinely work in high-radiation environments.
You would have to receive a yearly dose of 100 milliSieverts (about 33 mammograms) before you had an increased risk of cancer. I don’t think too many people will receive 33 mammograms in a year. Bottom line: the radiation you receive during a typical mammogram is far below the level needed to increase your risk for developing cancer.
To be fair, it takes only one radiation particle to get the cancer ball rolling. The longer you live, the more likely you are to take a critical hit in your DNA. Ironically, that makes it more important that women over 50 get regular mammograms. It’s a measured risk: the microscopic impact in your yearly radiation budget is more than countered by the likelihood that you’ll detect breast cancer in its early stages.
Most vaccines contain thimerosal (mercury) that will kill you.
In a word, no. Thimerosal is not mercury; it is an organic compound that contains mercury. That’s an important distinction, because it changes how the chemical is absorbed and processed inside the body. Many vaccines used to contain thimerosal as a preservative because it would prevent the growth of harmful bacteria in the vaccine medium. According to the USFDA, thimerosal was eliminated or reduced to trace amounts in most vaccines in response to growing concerns about its safety. Today, most of the vaccines recommended for children under 6 are thimerosal-free, with the exception of flu vaccines (and you can even request a thimerosal-free flu vaccine). Contrary to this meme’s assertion, most vaccines do not contain thimerosal.
Now let’s address the second part of the statement: can thimerosal kill you? Well, it’s no secret that mercury is exceedingly bad for you, but different compounds of mercury behave in different ways. Thimerosal is a derivative of a compound called ethylmercury. The Center for Disease Control explains that ethylmercury, unlike elemental mercury and methylmercury, is broken down and eliminated by the body. It doesn’t slowly accumulate to dangerous levels; furthermore, the few vaccines that still contain thimerosal have it in exceedingly low concentrations.
You’ve no doubt heard stories of people who claim that they or their children were made ill by a vaccine. There will always be people who react badly to certain vaccines, but it almost certainly has nothing to do with mercury. As with mammograms, vaccines represent a miniscule risk, and the benefits far outweigh it.
One more question needs answering: if thimerosal is so harmless, why did the FDA request that vaccine manufacturers remove it from most of their products? The FDA and its European cousin, the AAP, followed a better-safe-than-sorry approach. They opted out of thimerosal in the remote chance that it was harmful, reasoning that there was little harm in being overly cautious. Unfortunately, the destructive and now discredited ex-Dr Andrew Wakefield confused the issue by releasing a study supposedly establishing a link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. To the conspiracy-minded, the timing was too good to ignore: of course the FDA knew that vaccines cause autism; that’s why they rushed to eliminate thimerosal. By the time the dust settled on the Wakefield scandal, the damage was done. Too many parents still refuse important vaccines for their children in the mistaken belief that they pose a health risk. Subsequently, dangerous diseases that were once under control are making a roaring comeback.
Fluoride is poison and it will give you cancer and kill you and cause dental fluorosis.
It tickles me that dental fluorosis is thrown in almost as an afterthought. Fluoride will kill you…and your teeth will be ugly at your funeral!
At any rate, I’ve written about the “dangers” of fluoride before. To summarize: the fluoride levels in toothpaste and drinking water are far below dangerous levels. You would have to gobble down many tubes of toothpaste (at once) before you stood a better-than-average chance of being harmed by fluoride. There is no credible evidence to suggest that our health is being jeopardized by the fluoride we regularly consume. Warnings on toothpaste tubes are put there to protect the companies, not because their product is actually dangerous.
So that’s it. This meme was a whole lot of nonsense, but I think we’ve gained a valuable insight into the mind of its author. The author hates and distrusts the medical establishment and the government, and is willing to accept anything as long as it confirms his beliefs. Let’s consider this a cautionary tale…not of the evils of Big Government, but of the evils of uncritical thinking.