And now the news

May 6th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, electrosensitivity, mail, MMR, scare stories, times | 48 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday May 6, 2006
The Guardian

And now here’s the news they didn’t tell you. You might remember the scare stories about mercury fillings from the past two decades: they come around every few years, usually accompanied by a personal anecdote, where fatigue, dizziness and headaches are all vanquished with the removal of the fillings by one visionary dentist. Traditionally these stories conclude with a suggestion that the dental establishment may well be covering up the truth about mercury, and a demand for more research into its safety.

Well, the first large scale randomised control trials on the safety of mercury fillings were published just two weeks ago, and I’ve been waiting to see these hotly awaited results pop up in the newspapers, but nothing doing so far. They studied more than 1,000 children, some were given mercury fillings and some mercury-free fillings. Then they measured kidney function and various neurodevelopmental outcomes such as memory, coordination, nerve conduction, IQ, and so on, over several years. There were no significant differences between the two groups.

Panorama did an excellently chilling documentary in 1994 called The Poison in Your Mouth. It opened with dramatic footage of men in full protective gear rolling around barrels of mercury. As far as I am aware there is no Panorama documentary in the pipeline covering the startling new research data suggesting that mercury fillings may not be harmful after all. In the UK there is not a single newspaper article to be found. Not a word on this massive landmark study, published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association.

And in other news you didn’t read: “electrosensitivity”. This is a popular worry, with symptoms such as fatigue, dizziness and headaches. A few months ago the Sunday Times and the Mail ran long stories explaining that the government was about to publish a report which would finally acknowledge that electrical interference from household objects really did cause the symptoms.

When it was published, the report in fact said that there were people who believe that their own symptoms were caused by electrical fields, but very little evidence that the fields could cause symptoms. This is an important finding, and in many ways an incredibly interesting one, but it’s a completely different story. Meanwhile the original articles spread like wildfire over the internet, as the electrosensitivity lobby understandably interpreted them as final vindication and proof of their fears, and by the government itself.

· Please send your bad science to badscience@guardian.co.uk


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48 Responses



  1. Tessa K said,

    May 6, 2006 at 5:10 pm

    So mercury fillings are not bad for you? That’s a relief. Of course, now we will have to find something else to blame for children’s behaviour.

    Did you see the Ask Emma section in today’s Guardian Weekend? Someone asked about electric blankets and Emma replied (in part):

    ‘Dangers are thought to stem from the fact that we ourselves produce an electro-magnetic field and any device that produces its own field (…) may clash with and disrupt our energy. (…) Electrical devices that might put one’s energy out of balance are thought to hamper the body’s own healing ability and to interfere with normal body functions such as cell division – although this has not been proven.’

    Nice disclaimer at the end, after all the scary stuff.

  2. Bob O'H said,

    May 6, 2006 at 5:34 pm

    Damn. I can’t blame my fridge now, when I want a day off work.

    Bob

  3. Nettles said,

    May 7, 2006 at 6:52 am

    It just isn’t news, is it? “No problem: film at eleven.”

  4. Richard said,

    May 7, 2006 at 10:33 am

    If fears are raised about mercury amalgam fillings, and a study shows there to be nothing to worry about after all – well, that is news. Quite important news really.

    I don’t know where this idea has come from that only negative news will sell newspapers. My local paper has plenty of good news and nice stories as well as the bad news. Why do national newspapers so often adopt a negative approach?

  5. Tessa K said,

    May 7, 2006 at 4:58 pm

    >

    A lot of people like conspiracies – evil scientists hiding the truth etc.

    Drama sells and ‘drama’ means conflict. That’s why characters in TV soaps are never happy for very long. Other people’s happiness is boring, other people’s misery makes us feel better about our own lives.

    Only really big positive science stories sell – Dr Ben Discovers The Secret Of Life would be a seller. Corrections to false beliefs do not sell as well, partly because people don’t believe them.

  6. raygirvan said,

    May 7, 2006 at 6:29 pm

    A lot of people like conspiracies – evil scientists hiding the truth etc

    And, as you said, they like having someone external to blame for the undefined aches, pains and anxieties that are part of the human condition.

  7. le canard noir said,

    May 7, 2006 at 11:07 pm

    I notice that on the same day as your article Ben, the Independent write about the dangers of ‘electronic smog’ .

    news.independent.co.uk/environment/article362557.ece

    People being ‘alergic to electricity’, lots of anecdotes and no balancing voice. I notice one of the main sources of the story is Dennis Henshaw from Bristol University. He was befind a lot of the radon scares from a few years back. My! how fashions change.

  8. scottm said,

    May 7, 2006 at 11:27 pm

    What is the title of the second study on “electrosensitivity” or who are the authors? As an electrical engineer, it drives me a bit crazy to hear my friends concern about harm EMF from household appliances. It would be nice to have access to recent studies.

    I find it funny (and is in “ha-ha”) that both those worries about our health and those trying to find ghosts both rely on a poor understanding of EMF in their respective (though into respectable) endeavors.

  9. Ben Goldacre said,

    May 7, 2006 at 11:33 pm

    it genuinely astonishes me that any journalist writing on electrosensitivity should feel no need to refer to this excellent systematic review of the subject:

    iddd.de/umtsno/emfkrebs/rubin2005emf.pdf

  10. John A said,

    May 8, 2006 at 8:24 am

    AAAAAARGGGGG!!!! Be careful what you wish for Ben, the Today program just covered electrosensitivity. I imagine it is on Listen Again soon if you wish to expose yourself.

    Their idea of a guy to ask about the mechanism of any possible illness – Tony Scott Morley. As in the bioresonance guy who was also the go-to-guy in the BBC News 24 piece discussed on one of your earlier columns. He contributed something along the lines of “Particles have fields, the body has fields, EM waves interact with those fields”. Also doctors are “baffled” at one guys miraculous health since installing some quack device that converts EM fields into zeros in the manufacturers bank account, a vaguely ad hominem + strawman statement about “skeptics” thinking people are just hypochrondriacs, etc, etc…

    Finally they state briefly that “double-blind studies show that those claiming to be electro-sensitive could not detect electric fields” and that the research is “inconclusive”. No explanation of what any of that means what-so-ever. So after all the set-up covering the background to the study, the core finding of the study isn’t even explained.

    Thus, it seems like even negative findings (i.e. no rejection of null hypothesis) are just an excuse for the media to speculate on the alt. hypothesis, give airtime to the irrationalists to air their beliefs and mislead the public.

  11. JQH said,

    May 8, 2006 at 9:14 am

    I notice that “Emma” preceded her scary assertions with “it is thought that….”. This makes it impossible to prove her wrong as there are people who do think EM fields are dangerous (how do they protect themselves from the Earth’s magnetic field, I wonder?). What she doesn’t say is who thesae people are. It is thought that they could be fellow cranks or people she met down the pub.

    Regarding the mercury in your fillings scare – to be fair, mercury is a known toxin so I can understand that some people have concerns about it. I have concerns too – about the fact that journalists who publish or broadcast these potential scares never issue equally prominent retractions.

  12. Robert Carnegie said,

    May 8, 2006 at 10:34 am

    If I didn’t mishear, apparently it is thought that millions of Americans have been abducted from Earth by flying saucers and then, unfortunately, brought back again.

    Mentioned in
    www.virtuallystrange.net/ufo/updates/2005/mar/m13-004.shtml

    …possibly the result of a small, poorly designed or poorly reported, and unrepresentative survey being scaled up inappropriately to the U.S. population.

    I suppose if you’re the media, designing a survey carefully to avoid creating a misleading impression that a relatively large proportion of the population holds extraordinary views is not top left on the do/not-do list.

  13. Robert Carnegie said,

    May 8, 2006 at 10:46 am

    Oh, anecdotal… the comics writer Kurt Busiek claimed to have had relief from chronic and professionally crippling sinusitis – or something on those lines – by getting all his metal fillings removed, presumably replaced.

    Mind you, there are pictures where he looks seriously overweight.

    I suppose that, just as there are cowboy landscapers who will pave your drive with an unsuitable treatment that doesn’t last (one tall tale that I’d love to see proved apparently involved a truckload of condemned peppermints), there may be dodgy dentists out there who put dangerous stuff into mouths instead of a properly mixed formula – and they wouldn’t necessarily volunteer to take part in an epidemiological trial comparing different therapies, because they might be caught out. For that matter, preparing dental materials evidently is a skilled task, and maybe in some places the people doing it aren’t skilled enough. Having said that… most people probably do more damage to their health with what they put into their mouths themselves.

  14. Robert Carnegie said,

    May 8, 2006 at 11:15 am

    As for abductions – the poll I think I was talking about is misleading according to Dr Susan Blackmore at www.susanblackmore.co.uk/journalism/ns94.html (New Scientist, “Mad Doctor Magnetized My Brain”) so I apologise.

    “A recent, highly publicised, Roper poll claimed that nearly four million Americans may be abductees. The poll itself is a nightmare of assumptions and logical leaps. The four million is extrapolated from the fact that two per cent of the respondents reported certain experiences. Yet they did not report abductions; they simply answered “yes” to a number of questions about sleep paralysis, sensations of flying or leaving the body, seeing unusual lights and finding puzzling scars on their body. This does not add up to having been abducted.”

    And as I said: why bring them back?

  15. Tessa K said,

    May 8, 2006 at 12:30 pm

    John A:

    >

    Cows have fields too. Are they at risk?

  16. Coobeastie said,

    May 8, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    Electrical devices have a tendency to blow up or otherwise malfunction round me. I posit this is not due to any kind of clumsiness on my part, but rather a reverse EM sensitivity. My ‘field’ is so strong that I overpower hapless electrical items.

    More or less likely than the independent article?

  17. Delster said,

    May 8, 2006 at 2:38 pm

    Well i have proof positive of allergy to electricity…

    Everytime, without exception, that i end up connected to an electrical current (and it happens more often than you’d think in my job) i experience symptoms ranging from tingling through to involuntary muscle spasms, and as further proof i have noticed that the higher the electrical dosage the worse the symptoms……. See… proof!

  18. Michael Harman said,

    May 8, 2006 at 3:23 pm

    It’s only just struck me – proof positive that flying saucer aliens have advanced powers. Every single one of the peopel they abduct, without exception, is a nutter. What are the chances of that, eh?

  19. JonnyW said,

    May 8, 2006 at 6:34 pm

    All this talk about fields and UFO’s reminds me of the recent BBC article, in there story about the release of an MOD report about UFO’s or UAP’s as they call them see news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4981720.stm
    there is the following couple of paragraphs

    “People who claim to have had a “close encounter” are often difficult to persuade that they did not really see what they thought they saw. The report offers a possible medical explanation.
    “The close proximity of plasma related fields can adversely affect a vehicle or person,” states the report.
    “Local fields of this type have been medically proven to cause responses in the temporal lobes of the human brain. These result in the observer sustaining (and later describing and retaining) his or her own vivid, but mainly incorrect, description of what is experienced.” ”

    Is anyone able to elaborate or explain what there on about here, just exactly how close do we have to be to these plasma fields to effect our temporal lobes? Or is this secret MOD mind control weapons that work over several miles of open sky! I don’t actually have a clue about plasma related fields so if someone can tell me what they are I’d be gratefull.

  20. ayupmeduck said,

    May 8, 2006 at 7:50 pm

    Ben, is there a URL link to the mercury fillings paper that you refer to? To be honest, it’s a scare story that I’ve often thought was not to far fetched. My German dentist tries to stare people away from mercury fillings, but to be fair to him he says it is only precautionary, as there is (was) not yet any solid eveidence either way. So I’m sure he’ll be interested in this paper. Thanks.

  21. Dr* T said,

    May 9, 2006 at 12:22 pm

    Monsieur Noir,
    Is it word-for-word from the Independent article, or did both journalists copy and paste whatever tosh briefing the propagator (and usually benefactor in some way) threw at them?
    Either way it’s lazy arsed journalism and indeed, money for ropey old rubbish.

  22. Tristan said,

    May 10, 2006 at 11:45 am

    In response to Tessa K: “Drama sells and ‘drama’ means conflict. ”

    i agree, which is why I think positive science stories should be turned into conflict ones. For example, the mercury fillings one could have got much more press if the authors of the research had offered to head butt anyone who still said mercury fillings were dangerous.

    That would have been reported!

  23. JQH said,

    May 10, 2006 at 11:45 am

    Going back to electromagnetic fields, did anyone see the article on addiction in Friday’s ES magazine? It stated as fact that a “bioresonance” machine can be used to cure addiction. I know this piece of quackery has been covered in previous columns but instead of saying that the machine “cancels out” the molecules to which the body is addicted the line now is that it resets the addict’s bodily electromagnetic field to the non-addicted condition.

  24. Ben Goldacre said,

    May 10, 2006 at 11:55 am

    hey, i’d really like a copy of the ES article, has anyone got it?

  25. kayman1uk said,

    May 11, 2006 at 10:01 am

    Had anyone had a look at the ElectroSensitivity-UK website recently? It’s at www.electrosensitivity.org.uk.
    They’re quite pious (“Well being outspoken… seems to have earned us our rightful snub”), slightly preachy (“The Health Protection Agency is… proving itself an increasingly irrelevant and non-authorative source for scientific pronouncements in this area”), slightly barking (“Even the ‘sham’ mobile phones used for comparison emit EM radiation”) and have the standard conspiracy response to people ignoring them (“So crawl away … threaten a whole house of cards … very big interests, shut-up crawl away, suffer alone and die”).
    And for some reason, they don’t seem to like you very much Ben (“…his ludicrous dismissal of the evidence we send him… well Ben … do your job”)

  26. pedro said,

    May 11, 2006 at 12:47 pm

    are you able to comment on the work of other guardian columnists?
    see Emma Mitchell’s crazy claims about electric blankets here
    lifeandhealth.guardian.co.uk/experts/emmamitchell/story/0,,1768661,00.html

    She seems to have been reading www.electrosensitivity.org.uk too

    …a search for blankets reveals an article by Dr David Dowson MD., Ch.B containing the following advice

    “2. Avoidance. Patients should be advised to avoid exposure by not using mobile phones or digital cordless phones (the latter are more of a risk.) They should not use electrical items which are close to the body such as hairdryers, electric blankets etc., and to maintain a distance from such items as computers, TV’s and so on.”

  27. TroyKnight said,

    May 11, 2006 at 5:10 pm

    I wonder how many people here actually would take the time to look at electrosensitivity properly and discover for themselves whether it’s real or not. Anyone who beleives that electromagnetic fields from everday appliances/mobile phones/computer/power lines and so on, cannot be adverse to your health hasn’t looked at the problem in any great detail.

    I am myself electrosensitive. You can read my story here – www.electrosensitivity.org/mystory.htm. My facial skin burns, itches and develops clusters of lesions when I use a traditional computer monitor, or am in the same room as a television for too long.

    Although this site appears to take more of a light-hearted approach to science news, than a technical one, I will tell you that 250,00 people in Sweden alone are sensitive to electricity (official swedish government figures) and the World Health Organisation recognises electrosensitivity as a disabling condition.

    As far as scientific studies go, Olle Joansson of the Karolinksa Institute, Sweden, a world reknowned dermatologist, has examined skin biopsies of electrosensitive people after being exposed to televisions. He found skin damage simular to that caused by Ultraviolet light and ionizing radiation.

    We, as a society, have been at this junction so many times before. 20 years ago, if you had told somebody that you could not get out of bed and felt tired all the time, people would have laughed at you. Now Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is recognized the world over. Look back a number of decades and you will see that they told us smoking was not harmful to your health – we know how rediculous that sounds today.

    It’s very easy to mock & make light-hearted fun. However, look into it deper and you will find out for yourseelf the shocking truth of what electricity around us in our homes and workplaces can potentially do.

    Gro Harlem Brundtland, voted 4th most influential person in europe in the last 25 years, behind the pope, margaret thatcher and gorbachev, suffers from electrosensitivity. She cannot use laptop computers or be within a few meters of a mobile phone without suffering extreme headache and other symptoms.. She is herself is a trained physician.

    Food for thought!

    Troy

  28. jordanglassman said,

    May 11, 2006 at 6:14 pm

    What do the following medical complaints have in common?

    Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
    Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
    Fibromyalgia
    Environmental Illness
    Sick Building Syndrome
    Electrosensitivity
    Mercury Amalgam Allergy
    (to name a few)

  29. TroyKnight said,

    May 11, 2006 at 6:49 pm

    Precisely

  30. Ben Goldacre said,

    May 11, 2006 at 11:53 pm

    but the underlying symptoms can be incredibly disabling, and deserve to be taken properly seriously, even if the supposed explanations for them (mercury, buildings, yeast, electrical fields etc) are bogus. the people who suffer from them are not hypochondriacs, they have unexplained symptoms for which they quite reasonably want an explanation, and to my mind the dubious explanations for these symptoms represent a kind of placebo diagnosis, or placebo explanation.

  31. coracle said,

    May 12, 2006 at 9:19 am

    TroyKnight,

    Is mentioning the WHO supposed to be some claim to the proof?

    From the WHO factsheet
    “EHS has no clear diagnostic criteria and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure. Further, EHS is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem.”

  32. ronanos said,

    May 12, 2006 at 10:01 am

    An unexplained, or poorly understood phenomenon can be very attractive to quacks. They can jump on it, and claim that a scientific approach cannot explain it, and so a supernatural (or pseudo-science) explanation is the correct one.

    If people do suffer from symptoms (burning skin sounds pretty extreme to me), then there should be a proper explanation for it. Dismissing it as hypochondria is at least as bad as making up some imaginary cause and equally imaginary cure.

    New scientific discovery is risky, so either someone makes a breakthrough and discovers if there really is a problem, or we’ll catch up with the solution in a measured way. In the meantime, people on one side will dismiss those suffering, and those suffering will flock to the only people taking them seriously… however questionable they may be.

  33. Ben Goldacre said,

    May 12, 2006 at 11:22 am

    “In the meantime, people on one side will dismiss those suffering…”

    you see, i think this is really interesting. surely it’s possible to be dubious about the explanation of what causes the symptoms of eletromagnetic hypersensitivity without being dismissive of the actual symptoms and distress, which are clearly legitimate, real, and horrible?

  34. Delster said,

    May 12, 2006 at 11:30 am

    JQH,

    it’s well known that sunbathing will cook you from the inside out just the same microwave oven will do…… oh hang on….

    Troyknight,

    We’re not actually saying that there are not people who have these symptoms, what we actually spend our time mocking is the way the science news is presented, the blantent misinterpreting and utter bull that the journalists come up with plus the incredibly inaccurate claims that certain people make to promote their product / service *coughs* Gillian McKeith* et al.

    Have a read through some of the previous months items, i recommend feb if you have any knowledge of audio apparatus!.

  35. jordanglassman said,

    May 12, 2006 at 6:27 pm

    >> What do the following medical complaints have in common?

    ANSWER:

    No plausible etiology.
    All or mostly intangible symptoms.
    Diagnosed by elimination.
    Often psychosomatic and treated as a psychological disorder.
    Fad diagnoses.
    Affect mostly middle class, middle aged women.
    If you have one, you probably have several.
    Expensive to “treat.”

    All manifestations of the same thing.

  36. kim said,

    May 12, 2006 at 8:50 pm

    Got a problem with middle class middle aged women, have you?

    Just don’t bring your Oedipal issues here, jordanglassman.

  37. TroyKnight said,

    May 12, 2006 at 9:34 pm

    >> No plausible etiology.

    So your seriously trying to imply that conditions like Chronic Fatigue and Fibrromyalgia do not exist????

    >>All or mostly intangible symptoms.

    According to you, yes.

    >> Diagnosed by elimination.

    And what’s your point? Lots of conditions are…

    >> Often psychosomatic and treated as a psychological disorder.

    Almost never physchosomatic, but it’s trendy to think so when you can’t be bothered to look into it.

    >> Affect mostly middle class, middle aged women.

    As far as I am aware I’m a 22 year-old working-class male.

    >> If you have one, you probably have several.

    Which makes a lot of sense, as they are all manifestations of toxic overload in the system.

  38. Robert Carnegie said,

    May 14, 2006 at 9:11 am

    I had been wondering why electric power lines were said to be dangerous just from living within sight of them whereas houses filled with electric wiring seem to be perfectly safe. I am extremely sceptical of claims, nevertheless, but I do not dismiss them.

    Alternate explanations include psychosomatic illness: psychosomatic doesn’t mean not real. For that matter, phobia is an intense reaction to a stimulus that ought to produce only mild or no anxiety. May there not be a category of psychological disorder which does not include conscious fear but nevertheless includes an intense physiological reaction?

    The observation that there are deadly illnesses scientifically believed to be caused by bacteria or viruses which nearly everyone carries while remaining essentially healthy – such as the fact it seems that tens of millions of Britons are walking around with MRSA – underscores that etiology is something of a creative art, a work of imagination – then to be proven. Basically it’s like having a lottery ticket in your pocket; you won’t “win” the unusual illness if you don’t have the ticket, but nearly all of the people who do have a ticket won’t win, either. (It’s a matter of choice whether the common £10 prizes should be included in the metaphor, as well as the jackpot.)

    It is not surprising that many people suffer physiological malfunction without an evident cause. Our bodies are very complicated systems, and are liable to suffer from an extraordinary number of complicated and catastrophic system failures. “To live at all is miracle enough”, wrote Mervyn Peake. Yes indeed: it’s amazing that we don’t all just drop down dead.

  39. Robert Carnegie said,

    May 14, 2006 at 9:35 am

    Head butting contrarians… interesting. At least one astronaut seems to be willing to punch anyone who says he didn’t go to the Moon.

    It is paradoxical that mercury metal is recognised as quite dangerous, is to be banned shortly in batteries and is already discouraged, and yet we pay to have it loaded into our mouths. I have quite a lot of it, by the look of things, and have swallowed some.

  40. AitchJay said,

    May 15, 2006 at 9:30 am

    Finally, something that I actually have some experience of.. (Two weeks without an ADSL router kills me)
    The mercury in fillings is only about 3% by weight, and while set in situ, is completely inactive. It acts as part of the matrix to allow the material to flow; the only time it can be airborne (and therefore harmful) is during the mixing of amalgam (mercury filling material) and during removal, as this almost always involves drilling or grinding. Yes, that is ironic, that you are more likely to get a ‘dose’ by having your fillings removed..
    I don’t have any fillings, but I’d be more worried about the mercury in the fish I eat, rather than amalgam.

  41. guthrie said,

    May 15, 2006 at 12:50 pm

    The only thing I find faintly worrying is that this kind of research on mercury amalgam fillings has not been done before. Ideally it should have been done years ago.

  42. AitchJay said,

    May 15, 2006 at 2:39 pm

    Yeah, I think you’re right. The research to disprove the BS should have been done much earlier, and considering the amount of money involved in the promotion of most dental products, it’s a shame that it wasn’t..
    The Dental Associations in most places are pretty good at self-regulating, and can weed out the bad seeds, so to speak..

  43. Ben Goldacre said,

    May 15, 2006 at 3:07 pm

    well, you know, it was STARTED years ago, but they had to wait for time to pass to collect the results and see what happened to people over time!

  44. AitchJay said,

    May 16, 2006 at 10:20 am

    Testing would have been done before the product was used, surely..
    Generally, it’s done on pigs, but amalgam has been around for a long time (according to wiki, the 7th Century) so maybe the testing was not what it should have been when it was first used commercially, but as standards improved I’m sure it would have had to meet those regulations.
    Do you know when the test started? It should have happened as soon as the idea that the compound was harmful..

  45. sciencefan said,

    May 20, 2006 at 8:42 pm

    TroyKnight:
    Are you unaffected when using a computer with a flat screen (LCD) monitor?
    A traditional cathode ray tube is a form of particle accelerator (or so I’m reliably informed by my scientist friends) and there are (Swedish-based) TCO certification standards aimed at reducing their emissions of eletromagnetic radiation in office environments. I can imaging that there might indeed be a causal relationship between your symptoms and the use of a CRT monitor; surely it should be quite easy to prove this one way or the other. Or have I missed the point somewhere?

  46. drj11 said,

    June 10, 2007 at 8:52 am

    Ben, do you have a reference to the mercury filling study? I’d like to make sure my dentist has seen it.

    Thanks.

  47. Contemplating the inverse… said,

    February 16, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    […] see what sort of research was out there, and turned up this nugget from Ben Goldacre back in 2006: And now the news. It basically lays out the formula for tonight’s programme – obviously three years before it […]

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