The not so posh Kettle Chips

October 21st, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, dangers, scare stories, weight loss | 1 Comment »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday October 21, 2004
The Guardian

· Let me take you back two weeks, to the story of Kettle Chips. They are running a slightly improbable ad campaign, slogan “No Science, No Fiction, Just Real”, in which food science technology is the bad guy and high salt, high fat, low nutrient, mass produced junk food – mysteriously – is the natural wholesome maverick alternative. Why attack science? I had to understand, so I rang their head office. Apparently we all misunderstand the brand. “This started when we found that people just think we make high salt, high fat, posh crisps.” Apparently they don’t use flavour enhancers (except salt and fat) and some bloke stirs the big vat with a rake instead of a machine. They must have pretty good PR training, because by the time he got on to not targeting children in their adverts, even I felt sorry for them.

· But I have in my hand, courtesy of vigilant reader Dr James Lloyd, a piece of paper. It’s from the Food and Drugs Administration in the US, and it’s an exploratory study of the amount of acrylamide in various foodstuffs. Acrylamide is used to make polyacrylamide, which is used in cosmetics, packaging materials, plastics, and grouting agents. Acrylamide is also found in cigarette smoke. Stop me if you’ve had enough of this nasty old “science” stuff. Acrylamide also causes cancer in animals (at high doses) and has been shown to cause nerve damage in people exposed to high levels at work. It can be formed by certain ways of cooking food. Like really hot fat and carbohydrates mixed together. Acrylamide, you understand, has only so far been proven to be dangerous at much higher levels than you find in most food. I’m not in the business of starting health scares.

· But guess what? Kettle Chips Lightly Salted Natural Gourmet Potato Chips contain acrylamide at 1,265 parts per billion. They’re in the top 1% for acrylamide content in this FDA exploratory study of over 700 foodstuffs. Kettle Chips say acrylamide content fluctuates over a season. This compares with acrylamide figures given for, say, chips from McDonald’s at only 155ppbn, Burger King 197ppbn, and KFC only 117ppbn. Although don’t go getting all excited about the low figure for acrylamide in KFC: remember, unlike my dead cat, I’m not a “clinical nutritionist” with a phoney qualification, so we don’t go around extrapolating from isolated laboratory findings into self-indulgent nonsensical lifestyle advice. Oh no. Living on junk food is still bad for you. And eat your greens – just like your mother told you.

Who’s the bad guy?

October 7th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, dangers, scare stories, weight loss | 1 Comment »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday October 7, 2004
The Guardian

· What is science? A set of techniques, perhaps, for approaching a problem, or examining and describing the world. It informs, but is different from, technology, which in turn lets us do things like fly disaster rescue missions, phone our parents or manufacture processed junk food, each according to personal taste and preference. Or, if you’re a gullible neo-luddite new age moron, science is the universal bad guy. Like in the new Kettle Chips four-page pullout advert. Strapline: “No Science. No Fiction. Real.”

· Nice. “Our potatoes … ” they say, “one season they’re planted, it rains a bit, then the next season we dig a few up to check they’re ready before harvesting them. Not much science to that.” From what I remember, I’d say the completely amazing story of how a little round potato grows, with water and carbon dioxide and sunlight, into a bushy four-foot green plant with loads more potatoes under the ground, is pretty much our core constituency. And the astonishing unlikeliness of how it all works still blows my mind 15 years after Mr Hollander taught me back in the lower fourth about photosynthesis, chemotaxis, and that amazing stuff where the roots know how to grow down instead of up even in the dark.

· Back to the advert: “Salt and vinegar? No thanks. Sea salt and balsamic vinegar for us_ No Science.” No, heaven forbid. Salt is a nasty chemical that gives you hypertension and heart attacks. Natural sea salt is a different kettle of chips altogether. Now, stop me if I’ve lost what little perspective I once had, but to recap: these are crisps, and this is a junk food company, advertising its junk food which it makes in a big factory somewhere. It’s promoting rubbish food that will make you fat and ugly, and now it’s telling me that “science” is the bad guy that I’m supposed to be afraid of.

· Well shake my pot belly and shower me with emboli, why would a junk food company want to turn me against science? After all, science gave it cheaper ways to make junk food, and imaging advances help us see the damage its food does to our arteries, and epidemiology helps us to notice that its food lowers our life expectancy, and materials research helps surgeons to replace our blocked, rotting arteries so that we can keep on stuffing our faces with its posh crisps. Who’s the bad guy there, fat boy?

Prion and on and on

July 22nd, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, herbal remedies, scare stories, times, very basic science | 2 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 22, 2004
The Guardian

· Bad Science business as usual in the British “news” media. Several of you were delighted to spot the Times worrying us about BSE all over again, with a picture of what caused it: not a prion, mysteriously, but a picture of a nice big bacterium. And It was labelled as the “BSE virus”, which will come as news to the people who spend their time worrying about what to do with the teeny prion molecules on surgical implements. For future reference, the bacteria are the big roundish things with lots of other stuff going on inside them, and the prions are the bendy wee molecules.

· Perry Groves has been reading the Independent on Sunday. “It appears to have taken the viewpoint that all nanoscience is dangerous,” she writes. “It then blows any credibility it may have had for this position with the sentence ‘Nanotechnology, which is set to revolutionise industry and everyday life, deals with particles so small the laws of physics no longer apply.'” So that’s very small, then.

· The naive quest to find some intellectual consistency in the world of alternative therapies continues unabated. Reader Guy Herbert always thought the point of traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine (mysteriously conflated by western magpies) was that old was good, and ideas changing in the light of new evidence was a sinister modern invention. Until he read the London Evening Standard: “Cupping is a healing technique in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine that involves the placing of glass jars over acupuncture points. This creates a vacuum that increases blood circulation and detoxification.” “So,” he writes, with glorious pedantry, “at least now they accept Harvey’s blood circulation theory. But surely something as modern as the 17th century can’t be any good?”

· And the ever vigilant Andy Mabbett sends us news that the Birmingham Evening Mail has exclusive rights on a major breakthrough in microbiology, with a story about a former lorry driver who has “invented a wonder cream which could spell the end of hospital superbugs”. Over to our truck driving genius: “We found it killed everything. It was the first potion that killed every known bacteria.” That’s every known bacteria. “Managing infection outbreaks costs the NHS over £1bn annually,” said Mr Watts, his main investor and the chairman of a recruitment agency. No wonder the Evening Mail think he’s “set to make a fortune”.

Have TV soaps lost the plot?

February 10th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, scare stories | 4 Comments »

Have TV soaps lost the plot?

Television schedules are packed with hospital dramas and medical storylines. But why do they keep getting it so wrong?

Ben Goldacre
Tuesday February 10, 2004
The Guardian

Ronny has been stabbed. He is rushed to hospital, where the doctors realise he has lost a kidney: his only kidney, in fact. Gasp! He urgently needs an emergency kidney transplant, and only his family can help. “He needs the transplant now!” “Ronny is stable, all he’s gotta do is stay that way until we have the tests…”

I’m biting my nails. But only because I’m worried about just how dodgy EastEnders’ medical advisers can be. Real-life donors are a moral and emotional minefield, so let’s just calm things down a bit. Emergency kidney transplants don’t happen. There is a fantastic machine called a haemofilter, invented a few decades ago, which makes rather a lot of money for Baxter Healthcare. They are available on most intensive therapy units and they mean you can potter along for years with no kidneys at all.

Article continues
So what sort of a doctor would make a patient go through a major transplant operation, followed by life-threatening doses of immunosuppressant drugs to stop them rejecting the organ, just after they had been stabbed, when there is a perfectly good way of keeping them alive and well until they are ready for an operation and a donor can be found, gently and appropriately?

Maybe I’m just being picky: after all, it’s hardly the first time television doctors have cocked up, and I am surprised the corridors of Holby City, Casualty, Doctors, and EastEnders aren’t crawling with medical negligence lawyers. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen a baby being waved around in the cold and rushed into neonatal resus before they even bother to dry it off with a towel. Nice try, shame about the hypothermia. Or there was that great life insurance advert, where some old guy is being told there is nothing wrong with his chest x-ray; apart from the large and clearly visible pair of woman’s breasts, which might set off alarm bells in your mind, when looking at a man’s chest film. Or how about that Neighbours episode where they smear electrode jelly on to the defibrillator paddles while charging up, and then rub them together to make sure the stuff is nicely spread around (stand well clear if I were you), before shocking the patient back to life with her oxygen face mask still on.

Intubated patients on intensive care cheerfully holding conversations; surgeons heroically running cardiac arrests while the anaesthetist stands there looking worried (I don’t think so); and I’m sure I saw that Robert Winston get into an MRI scanner once, wearing his glasses (anything made of metal would fly across the room and kill someone).

It is so prevalent that there is even a medics’ drinking game called “Casualty” where you all sit around the telly on a Saturday night, and when some good-looking young doctor sticks up an x-ray the wrong way round, everyone has to stand up and shout “Bollocks!”, and the last one to do it has to down a pint of urine. OK, I made the last bit up.

But is it really so bad? Yes. Kidney transplants, especially from live donors, are a difficult moral and emotional area, and even the BBC has recognised that, running a campaign through Holby City to get more people on the NHS organ donor register. “It’s Tariq’s duty to find out if he can act as a kidney donor…” doesn’t really cover the issues appropriately.

I can understand that they might have needed a clumsy plot device to break the story that Tariq is Ronny’s half brother; but imagine you have been worrying and waiting months and years for a live donor kidney transplant, going through the colossal hassle of being haemofiltered, and then you watch EastEnders. What are you going to think? Here I am waiting patiently, and it must be all these emergency kidney transplants that are bumping me down the list? What are these doctors waiting for? If only I’d been stabbed…

It is hardly an isolated incident. A classic paper in the British Medical Journal gave the first quantitative estimate of the size of the pinch of salt that should be taken when watching soap operas. In an analysis of the deaths in four soap operas over 12 years, they found that the most dangerous job in Britain was not, as previously suspected, a bomb disposal expert, steeplejack, or racing car driver; but being a character in a soap opera. A character in EastEnders was twice as likely to die during an episode as a similar character in Coronation Street, and deaths in soap operas were almost three times as likely to be from violent causes than would be expected from a character’s age and sex. Characters tended to die young, and from a variety of obscure and often violent causes: ranging from the mystery virus in Brookside, which killed three, to a plane crash in Emmerdale, which killed four. The authors recommended protective clothing, and regular counselling for the psychological impact of living in an environment not dissimilar to a war zone.

People have a weird enough view of risk already, and hospitals are scary places. But television even manages to give a distorted view of birth, as well as death. Sarah Clement at Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospital analysed the 92 televised births in one year of television: out of just 92, four babies and one mother died, and another five babies and four mothers experienced life-threatening complications. Labour was portrayed as a quick and unpredictable process, resulting in an unexpected event, such as giving birth in an strange place without a professional in attendance, or without the intended companion present, in a third of the fictional births shown. Most worrying were the low levels of analgesia used during labour: gas and air, opiates, and epidurals were used in just 7%, 3%, and 5% of the births respectively.

I know it is only pretend, but childbirth is scary enough; and there is a plethora of studies showing that television and the media affect people’s perceptions of their own health, and risk, and healthcare, and worse , can change their behaviour. The least we could do is make sure the horror stories are accurate.

When the sums don’t add up

January 15th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, scare stories, statistics | 2 Comments »

When the sums don’t add up

Ben Goldacre
Thursday January 15, 2004
The Guardian

Like most people who know the first thing about science, I don’t usually bother to read scare stories in the media, as I know they’re not going to tell me anything useful. Parabens from deodorant in breast cancer cells? That sounds interesting. Oh, you haven’t measured it in normal cells yet. Thanks for wasting my time. Four minutes poorer, life goes on.

And the stories always fit that anti-science, anti-government, anti-industry, anti-medical agenda, as if they were the same thing, with shared blame. But here’s some real news: we’re not doing so badly. In the chemical industry, red-list discharges – releases of the most noxious substances – have fallen by 95% over the past decade.

So I’ll tell you what I want to know from a scare story, or any science story. If it’s about an experiment, I want to know what the experiment was, what the results were and where it was published. That’s not so much to ask. If it’s a story about risk, based on population data, I want to know the number of people looked at and the statistical significance of the data – the figure that tells me how reliable the data is. That’s really not unfair.

Look at the crimes of scare stories. They extrapolate from speculative laboratory data pretending the population data really exists. Or they leave out key information. So this week, eight newspapers reported a possible link between pancreatic cancer and aspirin in women. Most managed to report fairly accurately that it was a study of almost 90,000 women, that those who took two 325mg tablets of aspirin a week for 20 years had a 58% increased risk of pancreatic cancer, and that in women who had taken two tablets per day, the risk increased to 86%. Although only the Times and the Daily Mail reported that the total number of cancer cases was 161 over 18 years. Crucially, only the Times made it clear the 86% increase was only associated with high consumption for at least four years.

Perhaps the public have got their heads screwed on anyway. It’s been shown that scare tactics have little long-term effect on public behaviour: that’s why all those well-intentioned lies about illegal drugs never worked. If the media are to be believed, the day after the salmon story, fish were lying unsold in the ice of Smithfield market, but less than a week later sales are back to normal, just like beef and baby milk.

It looks like the public, unconsciously, apply what those who formulate public policy informed by science call “the precautionary principle”: act cautiously, over a speculative finding, until further data fails to back it up. We stop buying salmon for a day or two on the one in a thousand chance that we’re not being misled, shrug, and get on with our lives. As Bill Hicks once said: “I’ve got news for you: non-smokers die every day.” Two thousand of you will die this year from accidents at home; 200, I’m afraid, will be assaulted and then die; 500 will be accidentally poisoned. Tie your shoelaces, check the milk, and stop looking at my bird, if I were you.

Killer virus to wipe us all out!!

September 16th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, MMR, references, scare stories, statistics | 2 Comments »

Killer virus to wipe us all out!!

Ben Goldacre on the risks of reading health pages

Tuesday September 16, 2003
The Guardian

Let’s look at what last month’s news stories would have done for your health. You would be worried – quite inappropriately – about giving your child MMR, putting your child and whole community at risk; you would have stopped your HRT and your Seroxat, or made a panicked beeline for your GP; you would be terrified of the “superbug” that “may kill 150,000”; and you would be convinced that we are four times more likely to die after surgery under the NHS than in the US.

Article continues
Journalists aren’t employed to keep you healthy, or even informed: it is our job to sell readers to advertisers, to entertain you, and experience has taught us that we can do this very effectively with scare stories. The health pages aren’t here to inform anyone, let alone health professionals, who find them uniformly irritating: they are here for hypochondriacs.

So it’s all the more ironic that the King’s Fund today published a study that blames media hype over health scares for actively putting your well-being at risk, by encouraging people to “change their behaviour in ways that are not in their own best interests”, and by allowing media scares to drive public health policy. The latter would never have happened, of course, in the good old days when doctors ran the health service instead of politicised managers. But we have lost our faith in doctors, largely thanks to these scare stories, and that’s the key point that this study misses.

It’s obvious that scare stories undermine people’s ability to make sensible decisions about their health. But when you undermine doctors, you also undermine the strong placebo effect of any therapeutic intervention, not to mention the morale of everyone who works in the health service.

Last week’s news story – that patients are four times more likely to die post-operatively under the NHS – is an excellent example. It was backed up by a moronic study that compared one famously mediocre district general hospital in the UK, covering everyone in a poor and difficult catchment area, against Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, a private teaching hospital, where you can’t move for professors and which treats only the very rich.

Do I need to remind you that Britain did rather well in the last World Health Organisation ranking of healthcare systems, whereas the US, which spends more than twice as much of its GNP on healthcare, without even managing to provide it for everyone in its population, came in 72nd? Apparently, I do. The US came below Cuba (ranked 36); El Salvador (37); Grenada (49); Columbia (51); Iran (58); and only a nose ahead of Nicaragua (74) and Iraq (75). Britain came in 24th, but we were robbed.

I don’t want to get grumpy, but if you wanted to undermine the morale of all the hundreds of thousands of people who work in the NHS for very little reward, you could at least have the decency to do so with proper data.

But health stories aren’t about data, or a realistic appraisal of risk. If they were, you’d have seen massive coverage for what’s known as the SSSS study, which is famous in the medical world: millions of people are on statin drugs to reduce cholesterol, so it’s clearly relevant – they were a major breakthrough – and this study of 4,444 people (catchy, huh?) showed that the treatment of 100 patients for six years would prevent four deaths from coronary heart disease and seven non-fatal heart attacks at little cost.

Let me tell you, this is much more important than anything you’ve read this week about a glass of wine for your heart, or some ridiculous vitamin for your joints, or chocolate for stress, or some esoteric branch of stem-cell therapy that won’t be available until 2008.

The paradox, of course, is that it’s almost all irrelevant. Because everybody knows how to stay healthy, it’s just that lots of us can’t be bothered. You don’t need a doctor, or a journalist, to tell you to stop smoking, drink moderately, eat your greens, and get regular exercise. If you get that far, and use your GP sensibly, then you’ve covered almost all your risks.

But people get a peculiar thrill from health scares; it’s the same thing that drives them to complementary medicine. We like to feel informed, but we don’t want to feel guilty about our unhealthy lifestyles; we like to feel that we can get one up on doctors, but we can’t spend the time reading up the whole of medicine; when we’re worried about our health, we feel out of control, and we want to get some of that control and understanding back. Perhaps most insidiously, in the UK, where healthcare is provided universally and free at point of access, by the state, we are suspicious of doctors, as agents of the state, rather than our paid servants, which is what they should be.

Maybe we should encourage doctors to manage our anxieties about our health better. But as a recent study on doctors’ careers in the BMJ showed, the media going on the attack, and scaremongering is now being cited by doctors as their reason for leaving the medical profession altogether. And you know what that will do for waiting times. Scared yet?

Our very own health scare

September 11th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, dangers, detox, nutritionists, scare stories | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday September 11, 2003
The Guardian

· Monday’s Daily Express gave details of an exciting treatment called “thalassotherapy”. Basically you sit in a bath of salt water, seaweed, algae and mud, and then… “because the seawater is at body temperature, mineral ions pass into the blood and encourage toxins to pass out,” says the paper. This is terrifying information. I’d always been quietly pleased with my skin, it being relatively impermeable since my ancestors moved out of the sea. But apparently not, and the implications are terrifying: does this mean all that time I’ve spent in the bath, things have been leaching out of me into the bath water? Or have I been sucking water in? No wonder I’m so big and puffy.

· But apparently it’s more than just ions: “All the vitamins, minerals and trace elements are at exactly the same level and [sic] concentration as they are in your body… by a process of osmosis, your body will take in any nutrients it needs from the seawater. It’s a highly effective treatment,” says Dr Christian Jost, “a consultant in thalassotherapy, from Inchydoney Island Lodge and Spa Thalassotherapy Centre in West Cork, in Eire”. So if you want to lose weight without the Atkins, why not sit in a bath of pure water, and let the “nutrients” just seep out of you? Or help yourself to that extra serving of pasta, and then go for a walk in the rain to gently wash it all away?

· And as for the paper’s claim that “joint mobility and range of movement are 10 times easier in sea water?” I hold my head in my hands and wonder: what can that possibly, possibly mean?

· These tabloids are getting so lame at starting health scares, I’m thinking about seeding a few of my own. The Daily Mail can’t even manage to backtrack on its previous adulation of the Atkins diet without making claims like high fat diets double your risk of breast cancer, an assertion for which the data is famously conflicting. But I’m hunting bigger game. So here goes: one traditional Chinese herbal medicine has just been reported as having 11 sudden deaths attributed to it in just two years. But I’m not going to tell you which one. Until next week. Or maybe never. After all, with the stampede that doctors have to endure with every new health scare, I quite like the idea of a nation of hypochondriacs from the “natural means safe” school beating a path to the door of their local snake-oil salesperson to find out…

Don’t throw away those drugs

August 14th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, express, independent, scare stories | 2 Comments »

Don’t throw away those drugs

Ben Goldacre
Thursday August 14, 2003
The Guardian

· After the slightly overplayed HRT and breast cancer editorial in the Lancet, I was itching with delight at the prospect of another pill scare, especially in the week that MMR vaccination rates – the scientific illiterati’s last major public health victory – were shown to have dropped into the red zone of 70% in parts of the country. The Lancet report was the latest of many pieces of research over many years showing that HRT, as with all drugs, is a tricky matter of weighing up risks and benefits. Or as Joan Smith of the Independent on Sunday put it: “Trust me, I’m not a doctor…chuck away the tablets.” Yup, stop ’em suddenly, the readers’ll thank you for that one in the days to come. Christa Ackroyd of the Sunday Express has been contemplating a move into scientific research as an ideas powerhouse. “The survey begs many answers to many important questions, but how about this one for starters? If 1.5 million women in the UK are already on it, why is this the world’s first study into its long-term effects?” Good point, Christa. After all, there have only been 1,594 articles published referring to HRT and breast cancer in the past two decades. And as for the columnists who don’t like having “chemicals” in their bodies, can I suggest dialysis as the most effective way to remove your own hormones.

· A reader has stumbled upon timely advice for anyone travelling with homeopathic remedies from the website “Try not to put homeopathic remedies through airport security x-rays as it will render their healing properties less effective.” I wonder who made that one up. You should also “pack them well away from strong-smelling substances, ie essential oils, perfume, after-shave, toothpaste etc”. And bullshit, presumably. Perhaps they got their ideas from the Society of Homeopaths’ leaflet series: “You can protect them by using a lightweight lead-lined bag of the type sold for photographic films, or carrying them in your pocket.” Evidence on a postcard please. Speaking of which, may I draw your attention to point 72 of the society’s code of ethics: “To avoid making claims implying cure of any named disease.” Transgressions of that on a postcard please. Although an email would do.

· And lastly, it was a treat to see the BBC cottoning on to the snake oil industry explosion, with their one-off TV show the UK’s Worst Quacks last week. Although many of you were surprised to see a homeopath on the programme’s panel, merrily passing judgment…

So what has ozone ever done for us?

June 26th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, celebs, oxygen, scare stories | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday June 26, 2003
The Guardian

· What is it with alternative therapists and oxygen? Last week’s Time Out offered a glowing report on ozone therapy, and the fact that they called it O3 (with a superscript) should be enough to tell you that whoever wrote it wasn’t necessarily paying attention during basic chemistry. God only knows what its sub-editors think they’re playing at. They go on to tell us that “O3 is a clear blue gas (hence the colour of the sky)”. I hate to use the same gag twice in a month, but if you really want to know why the sky is blue, and I know this is getting boring now, you only have to type “why is the sky blue?” into any search engine on the internet, and you will be instantly directed to, where your question will be answered. And it has nothing to do with ozone.

· Now it occurs to me that since the World Health Organisation is worried about monitoring levels of ozone that exceed guidelines by a few micrograms per cubic metre – since it has been implicated in all kinds of conditions, including exacerbation of asthma and bronchitis, headaches, fatigue, nausea and respiratory problems – we might all be a little concerned about Enrida Kelly, a “naturopath” in west London, flogging ozone therapy “mixed in a ratio of 99 parts oxygen to one part ozone”. But not our experts at Time Out. In fact, they reserved special praise for its deployment in colonic irrigation, “bringing the benefits of oxygenation, and cleaning the parts of the body that can benefit most”. Check out Kelly’s website at Lots of wonderful promises: “Many people have had their limbs saved by such therapy.” And a lovely disclaimer: “Though we will be glad to assess and supervise sessions aimed at improving your well being, we do not ‘treat’ or aim to ‘cure’ disease.” But not a randomised control trial in sight.

· Speaking of experts, WebFusion was lucky enough to get Philippa Forrester, “Tomorrow’s World presenter and technology expert”, to endorse its products in its latest round of advertising. “WebFusion has always represented innovative thinking, the best technology, and great value,” she says. Forrester, you may remember, is so technically adept that she was last seen in the paedophilia edition of Brass Eye, holding her (big) head behind a T-shirt printed with a tiny body, saying: “Wearing a T-shirt like this, the paedophile can disguise himself as a child.”

Is there a link between breast cancer and antiperspirant?

June 19th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, scare stories | 3 Comments »

Is there a link between breast cancer and antiperspirant?

Ben Goldacre
Thursday June 19, 2003
The Guardian

This scare started in 1999 with a circular email claiming that toxins were “purged” through perspiration, and that when the armpit sweat glands were blocked, toxins built up in the lymph nodes behind them, causing cancer in the upper outer quadrant of the breast.

While it’s true to say that an excess of cancers occur in this quadrant of breast tissue – the one closest to the lymph nodes – it is also by far the largest area of breast tissue.

Furthermore, sweating is certainly not the primary means by which the body rids itself of toxins. But the email caused so much concern at the time that the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute issued statements to reassure people, and scientists began to study the issue.

If you really want to get to the bottom of whether an environmental factor is causing an illness, it’s good to be able to compare one group who were exposed to your toxin, antiperspirant for example, with a group who weren’t. In 2002 a large study was published looking at 1,600 women and found no link between antiperspirant use and breast cancer. It was testament to the influence of the original “hoax” email (as Harvard medics called it) that they also went out of their way to study its specific claim that shaving before using antiperspirant increased the chances of it causing cancer, because toxic chemicals could get in more easily, and again found no link.

This week the story rose again when Dr Philippa Darbre, a molecular biologist from Reading University, published a speculative hypothesis paper, in a small but respected academic journal, describing the effects of some of the ingredients of antiperspirants on non-living tissue in the laboratory, in other peoples’ experiments. Specifically, that aluminium has been reported to at least bind to DNA, and also to alter gene expression in some situations, and that parabens (preservatives used in some cosmetic creams) have been reported to work similarly to oestrogen in some experiments.

This has certainly generated more media interest than any of her other more eminent papers on, for example, IGF-II receptors and breast cancer, although she tells me that she never sent out a press release, but happened to mention it to a friend who worked for the Sunday Times.

Science is all about testing interesting hypotheses. In this case we have an interesting but half-finished laboratory-based story against a convincingly large study of real people that showed antiperspirants to be safe.

Unfortunately, it looks like the largest risk factors for breast cancer at the moment are the ones we can’t control such as age, sex, and family history; or the ones we might not want to such as smoking and age at childbirth.