Thursday, November 4, 2004

As a middle-aged physician, I’m risk-conscious. To lower my risks of heart disease, I’m eating more fish and drinking wine regularly and also taking lipid-lowering medications. I have given up smoking a pipe, and my new Audi has airbags in places I didn’t know there were places.

The media constantly bombard us with reports of things that supposedly are good or bad for our health. Increasingly, they seem to rely on the unsubstantiated warnings of activists, or on anecdotes, which only reinforces the news organizations’ credo, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Sounds risky to me.

Some examples:

• The commercial use of food irradiation — a process in which foods are treated with ionizing radiation — was an historic breakthrough in food processing. It makes our food safer and cheaper, by delaying the spoilage of highly perishable fresh fish and shellfish, and by reducing the micro-organisms in spices, meats and poultry.

Although more than 50 years of scientific research has established food irradiation has little or no effect on flavor, and that it is safe and highly effective, the Food and Drug Administation’s gradual approval of new irradiation applications has been opposed at every turn by antinuclear activists. Contrary to their claims, irradiated foods contain no byproducts unique to the process, and the process is hazardous neither to workers nor to environs of treatment plants.

• After a Florida woman developed a brain tumor behind the ear where she had customarily placed her cell phone, her husband blamed radiation from the phone and sued its manufacturer. After his 1993 appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Show,” other similar lawsuits followed. None succeeded however, and within several months, the controversy was forgotten.

This kind of health scare is an example of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy (believing that because two events are temporally related, they must be causally related). Fallacy though it may be, it lends itself to our sound-bite society: “Local woman killed by her cell phone. Details at 11.”

In fact, at the current rate, about 3,600 cases of brain cancer would be expected among 60 million cell phone owners, whether they use them or not.

• Electromagnetic radiation — which is emitted from a variety of sources including overhead power lines, electric blankets, computer terminals and electric razors, as well as cell phones — is a favorite target. In 1980, a Canadian newspaper reported four women in the classified ad department of another newspaper had given birth to children with birth defects, including a cleft palate, underdeveloped eye, club foot and heart defects. The fact all the women had worked with video display terminals (VDTs) during the early stages of their pregnancies gave rise to speculation that radiation from such terminals was responsible.

Subsequently, other such “clusters” of birth defects among users of terminals were reported, leading to aggressive anti-VDT activism. However, over the next two decades, several large studies and repeated analyses concluded the use of VDTs is not associated with birth defects or spontaneous abortions. The CDC concluded the clusters were random occurrences — that is, a function of probability. (If you flip a coin a million times, the final tally will be close to half heads and half tails, but along the way there will be occasional long runs — or clusters — of heads or tails.)

Assessing risk is a matter of probability, not precision. What makes false alarms hard to expose is the virtual impossibility of demonstrating the absolute safety of any activity or product: It is always possible we haven’t yet gotten to the nth hypothetical risk or to the nth dose or the nth year of exposure, when the risk will finally be demonstrated. It is logically impossible to prove a negative, and all activities pose some nonzero risk of adverse effects.

One recognized way to identify risk is through epidemiological studies that can, for example, provide data on which foods or behaviors (such as green vegetables or exercise) are associated with higher, or lower, rates of disease or death.

Some scientific disciplines are tough going, and because of the constant drumbeat of self-interested activists’ crying “Wolf” — duly reported by the media — nonexperts need to do a little work and not merely settle for the headline or the 30-second television spot. Consumers need to make decisions based on what they know, not what they fear.

Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and former Food and Drug Administration official, is the author of the recent book, “The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution.”

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