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David Baxter PhD

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Emailed Health Warnings: Hoax or Fact?
By Kathleen Doheny
March 16, 2006

Is that email message alerting you to a new health hazard bogus or valid?

A busy Boston architect, Brooke Trivas gets tons of emails. She usually responds to them quickly, replying or deleting as needed. But a recent email, sent by a friend, was so unnerving it required more attention.

Leading brands of lipstick contain lead, the message warned -- at levels high enough to cause cancer. The warning cited as its source a doctor from a hospital breast cancer unit in Toronto. The message included a plea to share the news, and Trivas did, forwarding the email to 10 friends, worried they had not yet heard about this bizarre health hazard.

Soon, she learned the truth: the email was a hoax.

Health hoaxes, of course, have been around since time immemorial, but thanks to the Internet, disseminating them has never been this quick or easy. In minutes, fearful recipients can forward the warning to their entire address books, sometimes spreading anxiety unnecessarily.

WebMD talked to experts, including those who investigate the health alerts, and asked for the lowdown on 6 popular health alerts. We also asked why it's so hard to ignore them, and got some tips on how to recognize the next hoax before you click "Forward."

1. Lead in Lipstick Causes Cancer?
The email warns readers that one brand -- Red Earth -- recently lowered its price from $67 to $9.90 because "it contained lead. Lead is a chemical that causes cancer," the email says, going on to list seven other brands of lipstick alleged to contain enough lead to be harmful.

The truth? The claim is false. While lead exposure can be dangerous, it's not been linked to cancer. And lead levels in lipsticks are low and not regarded as dangerous by the FDA, which regulates cosmetics, says Rich Buhler, who checked out the lipstick claim for his Internet hoax web site, Truth Or Fiction. His verdict on the lipstick claim: baseless.

2. The Supplement Cold fX "Feeds" Women's Hormonal Cancers?
Soon after this over-the-counter cold and flu remedy hit the U.S. market from Canada in late 2006, the emails began, warning that it could feed hormonal cancers in women.

False, says Barbara Mikkelson, who with her husband David operates the web site Snopes, dedicated to unraveling hoaxes, rumors, and urban legends. She checked in with a variety of sources, including the Canadian manufacturer, who actually had found in a preliminary study that the active ingredient may have anticancer properties.

3. Bananas From Costa Rica Make You Sick?
This email, first circulated in 2001, claims Costa Rican bananas were linked to cases of necrotizing fasciitis -- better known as the life-threatening "flesh-eating bacteria" disease.


The CDC web site has a page called "Health Related Hoaxes and Rumors" where it posts information for the public. After an investigation on the banana rumor, the CDC labeled the emailed warning false, noting that the bacteria that cause the disease often live in the human body and the typical transmission route is person to person. The bacteria can't survive long on a banana surface, the experts point out.

4. Identify Stroke by a Simple Test?
The email says even nonmedical people can figure out if a person is having a stroke (and needs immediate care) with a simple test: Ask the person to smile, raise his or her arms and keep them up, and repeat a simple sentence.

This information is true, according to Buhler. He tracked down a study presented at the American Stroke Association meeting in 2003. Researchers found that the test, used for years by medical personnel, was also successfully performed by bystanders. They could detect weakness in the face or limbs and slurred speech -- all signs that immediate help is needed.

5. Tampons Contain Asbestos?
This email warning first surfaced in the late '90s, but like other health warnings may resurface. The alert alleged that tampons are contaminated by asbestos and dioxin during their manufacture and that rayon fibers in them cause toxic shock syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening disease caused by a bacterial toxin. The asbestos was added, so the story goes, by manufacturers because it promotes excessive bleeding and would be good for business.

According to the FDA, the warnings are not supported by scientific evidence. Tampon use and toxic shock syndrome are linked, but experts do not know the exact connection.

6. Microwaving Foods in Plastic Containers or Wrap Is Harmful?
If you microwave food in plastic containers or plastic wrap, chemicals will leach out and exposure can cause cancer and reproductive problems, so the email warning goes.

Microwave-safe containers and plastics are generally safe. The FDA regulates plastic containers and other materials that come into contact with food, testing the migration of chemicals from the products. The level of migration has to be found to be within a margin of safety before a container or wrap is approved for microwave use. "In general, scientific reviews have shown no health effects from low levels of personal exposure, such as microwave containers," says James Kapin, a chemical safety consultant in San Diego and past chairman of the American Chemical Society's division of chemical safety. However, one chemical sometimes found in microwave-approved containers -- Bisphenol A, or BPA -- is currently under scrutiny by an independent panel of scientists convened by the National Institutes of Health. The scientists are focusing on whether exposure to BPA, commonly found in plastic water bottles and baby bottles, raises risks of reproductive or development problems.

Why Do We Fall for These?
It's easy to be sucked in by messages alerting us to health dangers. "These are 'wow' stories," says Buhler, " ... as in 'Wow, did you hear about Britney Spears?' or 'Wow you should have seen the accident I saw on the freeway.'"

And they sound legitimate, often claiming to come from a reputable hospital, physician, or health organization -- even though the sources named often turn out to be fictitious.

Today's climate is often one of anxiety when it comes to our health, furthering the belief that the health warning could be true, even if it sounds unlikely. "Whoever thought you could get sick and die from eating spinach?" Mikkelson asks.

Why Do We Forward the Emails?
After reading the fearful news, there's often a knee-jerk reaction to share it, says Pauline Wallin, PhD, a clinical psychologist and life coach in Camp Hill, Pa. An emailed health alert may come with a "hook," she says. "It often includes a personal story about someone. It arouses our emotions -- outrage, greed, or fear."

So when the message then begs the recipient to "share this with everyone you know," it's human nature to do so, she says. "When you are emotionally aroused, you are more vulnerable to do what an authority tells you to do," she says. Taking action may be a way to help quell your anxiety.

Forwarding the news might boost a sender's sense of importance among friends. "Some people like to be the town crier, the first one to tell their friends something they might not have heard," Buhler says. "Others send them for sincere reason of concern."

How to Spot the Next One -- Maybe
How to avoid getting fooled next time? There's no foolproof method, but experts have some suggestions on how to spot the hoaxes.

"If the email is the only place you are seeing it [information about the hazard], there is a reason," says Jeff Stier, spokesman for the American Council on Science and Health, in New York. If you don't see or hear the same information on the nightly news, a mainstream newspaper, or a credible web site, be suspicious, he says.

Also, if the alert bases the warning only on a "friend-of-a-friend" story, it's suspect because it lacks firsthand information, says Buhler.

Check the sources before you forward anything. If it's a little unclear where the warning comes from, that's another bad sign. "The first thing you look for is who is making the claim," says Marc Siegel, MD, a New York physician and author of False Alarm: The Truth about the Epidemic of Fear. Find out the credential of the person or organization alerting you to the danger.

Some emailed health alerts smack of "insider information," Buhler says, and that's another reason to be suspicious. The message may even say that "establishment media" or "the experts" don't want you to know this.

While some health alerts begin as intentional hoaxes, Buhler says others may start out as true and get changed along the way due to misunderstandings.

Tracking the origin of a hoax is difficult, even for experts, says Mikkelson. "It's very rare you can get back to the beginning of one," she says.

But after numerous phone calls and Internet searches, Mikkelson and others who specialize in investigating health alerts can usually figure out if one's true or false, although some health warnings remain in "disputed" status -- at least temporarily.

Once a health alert has circulated enough on the Internet, chances are good it can be checked out at sites such as Truth or Fiction, Snopes, or the page maintained by the CDC.
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