Archive for the ‘The Media Blows It Again’ category

Cell phones are not causing teens to grow horns: WaPo blows it

June 22, 2019

The Pediatric Insider

© 2019 Roy Benaroch, MD

Last week the Washington Post (“Democracy Dies in Darkness”) ran this headline: “’Horns’ are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests.”

The headline is entirely correct except for a few minor points:

  • They’re not horns, which point up from the forehead. They’re more like little ½ inch nubs protruding downwards from the back of the skull.
  • They’re not new. There’s no comparison group to show that these are more or less common than they used to be.
  • They’re not “growing” on people’s skulls. There was no follow-up to show that they’re getting larger. They’re just “there”, and may always have been there.
  • Phone use isn’t to blame. Phone use habits weren’t even recorded, and no comparison between phone users and non-users was possible.
  • No research has suggested that any of the headline is accurate.

The article stems from two studies performed in 2018 by a chiropractor and a specialist in biomechanics, both from Australia. One study was on four teenagers whose parents brought them into a chiropractor to address their poor posture. Lumps were noted on their skull x-rays (Why were skull x-rays are needed to assess posture? Who knows. At least there wasn’t something important like a brain being irradiated for no reason. But I digress.) The authors speculated that perhaps the bony lumps appeared as a result of biomechanical stress from the teens’ leaning forward to look at their phones. It’s not an entirely outlandish idea – bones can and do remodel in response to mechanical stress. But it was only an idea, and an entirely untested idea at that. No one had asked the teens if they had used cell phones, or for how many hours; and there was no mention of any symptoms or problems the teens had (other than that their posture was upsetting to their parents.) And there was no comparison between phone users and non-users to help establish that phone use could be correlated with those bone lumps.

Later in 2018, the same authors reviewed 1200 x-rays from patients seen at chiropractic clinics. They found that 33% had these prominent boney lumps on the back of their heads—prominent meaning more than 10 mm, or about ½ an inch. There was no mention of cell phone use; there was no comparison group; and there was no correlation with any symptoms whatsoever. And certainly – I can’t stress this enough – the boney lump nub things did not look like horns.

I think the WaPo editor just like the idea of a headline including the words Horns, Growing, Skulls, Phone, and Blame. That’s a magical combination. Really: put those words in any order, and it’s a winner. But that doesn’t make it an accurate headline.

Don’t get me wrong: when you look around, you do see people hunching forward, clutching their phones. That can’t be good for posture. And I could see that contributing to neck and back pain. But to go from there to “Phones are to blame for head horns” is, well, ridiculous. WaPo, you really should have done better.

Hey! D’ya looking critically at media stories of health issues, maybe poking a little fun, and sometimes finding real gems of good reporting? Learn how to read studies and media reports with a skeptic’s eye, and how to find good, reliable health info in the news. Check out my 5-star course, A Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. You can buy it or stream it, or get the audio-only from Audible. It’s fabulous!

BONUS mix -n- match headline section! Combine the words Horns, Growing, Skulls, Phone, and Blame to make your own Washington Post Style Headline! Put your favorites in the comments! I’ll start:

  • Blame Phone Skulls for Horn Growing
  • Horny Teen Blames Growing Phone Skull
  • Skull Growing? Blame Phone Horn

 

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Chocolate best for cough? How to spot misleading headlines

February 25, 2019

The Pediatric Insider

© 2019 Roy Benaroch, MD

I’ve got a new course out – The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media available in video from The Great Courses or audio from Audible. Both have trial offers, free returns, yada yada, check it out! I didn’t cover the chocolate-for-cough story below in the course, but if you find it interesting, or want to learn more about the best way to review health articles with a skeptic’s eye, this course is for you! Why not buy a copy for a friend, too? (Hey, never hurts to ask!)

Everyone loves chocolate, and nobody likes to cough. So when headlines like these appeared, it made a big media splash:

Apparently Chocolate Might Be Better for Treating Coughs than Honey and Lemon – from UK’s Metro

Chocolate Fights Coughs Better Than Codeine, Says Science – from allrecipes.com

Chocolate Is a Better Cough Suppressant than Medicine, Study Says – from The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Never Mind Honey and Lemon, the Best Cure for a Cough is CHOCOLATE: Leading Professor Busts Common Cough Myths… — from The Daily Mail

Looks good, huh? Chocolate for a cough – and the headlines say it’s better than medicine, based on Science! These are legit, big news organizations (well, maybe not allrecipes.com, but I threw that in there to illustrate just how pervasive these stories can get). You’d think they would have dug a little bit to see if their own headlines were true.

But they didn’t. If you want to know what The Science really says, you have to read past the headlines and past the media spin. The best way to do that is to look at the actual study – where the information, originally came from. If you review the articles above, many just point to each other, or quote experts. But with a little digging, I found the actual study that lead to these headlines here.

So what did the study actually show? They didn’t compare chocolate to codeine, or honey, or lemon – so any headline that made that comparison is false. And the study medicine itself wasn’t just chocolate, it was a mixture of three active medicines in a chocolate base. So any conclusion that it was the chocolate itself that made the difference is, well, silly and unjustified.

The study compared the chocolate-mixed medicines (a brand called “Unicough”) to another kind of cough medicine, called “simple linctus,” which contains a single ingredient not found in Unicough. If the authors wanted to look at the potential effect of the chocolate, they should have compared two identical products, one with and one without chocolate. But that’s not what was done.

And: the study itself was negative. That is, for the primary endpoint of the study, there was no difference in cough among people taking the chocolate-containing Unicough versus the “simple linctus.” There were some differences in what are called “secondary outcomes,” but that doesn’t mean the study showed that Unicough was superior. And: the study itself was funded by the manufacturer of Unicough, and one of the authors was a Unicough employee. Somehow that wasn’t mentioned in the fawning media stories.

The chocolate-for-cough study was misrepresented, and its conclusions reported incorrectly. Unfortunately, this is common in media portrayals of health news. There were some skeptical outlets that tried to present the other side of this story, but as so often happens the voice of reason was too little, too late. The story had already developed a life of its own. If you think chocolate might help your cough, go ahead and try it – but don’t be fooled by headlines like these.

Eager to learn more about interpreting media stories? Check out my new course! I cover many more examples of both good and bad reporting, and will teach you how to tell the difference. They’ve got it at Amazon too! What are you waiting for?! Go buy buy buy now!

Just because a chemical is present doesn’t mean you have to worry about it

July 31, 2017

The Pediatric Insider

© 2017 Roy Benaroch, MD

Advocacy groups have been busy lately with their fancy-pants chemicalz detection science instruments, and their press releases have made it into the news. But is there news here, and are these chemicals something parents really need to worry about?

First it was a big lead from the New York Times called “The Chemicals in your Mac and Cheese.” The article started:

Potentially harmful chemicals that were banned from children’s teething rings and rubber duck toys a decade ago may still be present in high concentrations in your child’s favorite meal: macaroni and cheese mixes made with powdered cheese.

Oh noes, not high levels! The chemicals they’re talking about are from a family called “phthalates,” which sounds scary and difficult-to-pronounce. (Words shouldn’t start with four consonants. On this we should all agree.) Phthalates have been in wide use for over 80 years in plastics and other compounds. Though they’re not added to cheese, they’re on the coatings of tubes and platforms and whatever else is used in the machinery to make Magic Orange Cheese Powder. Foods with a high surface area (like a powder) are going to come in more contact with it, and a teeny bit of a trace of a few molecules are going to transfer over.

Important point: these chemicals have been in our food for many, many years. What’s changed is that we’ve now got fancy equipment to measure it. The Times story is quoting a kind of press release – not a medical study, or even anything published in the medical journal. It’s a “study” done by a consortium of food advocacy groups. It’s being promoted by an organization called “KleanUpKraft.Org” (Cutesy misspellings are at least as bad as starting words with four consonants, K?) And their “high levels” are in tiny parts per billion, at levels that are very low compared to amounts that cause adverse effects in animal studies.

Just because you can detect a chemical as present doesn’t mean there’s enough of it to hurt you. Mercury and arsenic are part of the natural world around us, and any food tested with equipment that’s sensitive enough will find at least traces of these and many other chemicals. It is not possible to get the values of phthalates or arsenic or many other chemicals down to zero in our foods.

Speaking of chemicals, this week another food advocacy organization announced that they’d found traces of an herbicide (glyphosate, found in Round-Up) in Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. And in every flavor tested, too, except Cherry Garcia, which is kind of nasty-tasting anyway (I’m sticking with Chunky Monkey, which wasn’t even tested.) But: their press release didn’t even reveal the levels that they found, only that they found it. Maybe it was one part in a zillion. Who knows? But: Do you think if the value were genuinely high they’d hide it like this? No way. It’s there in some kind of teeny amount, and they’re trying to scare you.

Don’t fall for all of this “The Sky is Falling, There’s Chemicals in My Food” hype. Just because something is hard to pronounce doesn’t make it dangerous, and just because something is present doesn’t mean it’s going to kill you. We’ve all got enough to worry about without being scared of Mac and Cheese and Ice Cream. In fact, a little comfort food in these troubled times would probably be good for all of us. Maybe even the grumps at KleanUpKraft.org.

By the way, I don’t disagree with one thing – homemade Mac n Cheese is at least as good as that boxed orange stuff. Though sometimes, I won’t deny it, the orange stuff sure does hit the spot…

Homemade slime isn’t hurting your child

March 20, 2017

The Pediatric Insider

© 2017 Roy Benaroch, MD

Another day, another internet scare. This time it’s about that homemade slime, and all the toxins and poisons in it – the ones that are pretty much killing our kids. Except there aren’t any toxins, and kids aren’t getting sick.

This rumor started with an article from the Daily Mail, a British “newspaper” that Wikipedia has deemed “generally unreliable.” In the fine tradition of crappy supermarket tabloids, the Daily Mail is on a par with the National Enquirer, the Star, the Sun, and Weekly World News – it’s a site that makes stuff up, or blows things crazy out of proportion to sell newspapers. Admit it – you were tempted to buy that cheap paper that proclaimed that Hillary was from Venus, or that there’s a Miracle Cream that Allows People to Grow a Sixth Toe. The story was amplified by a blog post at “This talk ain’t cheap”, where the author points out in the second sentence that she’s “not a doctor or a scientist or a chemist.”

As is the manner of clickbait about things hurting children, this one has been posted -n- reposted on Facebook and parenting blogs. In an effort to make sure the barn door is firmly bolted shut now that the horses are long gone, let me give you the quick version: there’s nothing in homemade slime that’s likely to hurt anyone, as long as it’s “used as directed.” Don’t eat the stuff, rub it in your eyes, or lie in a bathtub of it for an hour. Other than that, it’s safe.

We’ve still got an unopened box of borax and bottles of glue downstairs from my youngest’s “slime phase” last year. You mix up a bunch of chemicals (See! Chemicals! That’s your first warning, right there!!) to make a sort of gooey, hand-clinging, squishy mess. It even makes comical sounds when you squarsh it around between your hands. Harmless fun?

The Daily Mail article focuses on one ingredient in homemade slime, pointing out that boric acid (Borax) is labeled by the European Chemicals Agency as ‘toxic to reproduction’, and potentially irritating to eyes and lungs. The box in my basement says those things, too. Don’t eat it, and don’t rub it in your eyes, and don’t stick your face in the box and whiff it. If your children are too young to handle this on their own, they probably shouldn’t be making slime without supervision. Apart from the breathless and frightening tone, The Daily Mail’s critique of Borax is at least reasonably close to the truth. It’s conceivable that an unsupervised or particularly reckless child could get hurt by the stuff. It’s also possible that some kids could have more-sensitive skin, and could end up with a rash or the itchies (do I need to say: if your child gets irritated skin after playing with slime, he or she should stop playing with slime. The same is true if your child gets itchy skin after petting a cat or eating finger-fuls of cookie dough.)

But the blog post goes a step further, heading off the rails of the worry train. The blogger points out imaginary dangers of other ingredients, like glue. She says white glue – essentially, Elmer’s – can cause anxiety, convulsions, seizures (both convulsions AND seizures!), respiratory failure, and loss of appetite. Except none of this is true. In the manner of googlers-who-call-themselves-researchers everywhere, the author mistakes one kind of glue for another. Elmer’s white glue causes sticky hands, but is otherwise non toxic. What she’s quoting are side effects of huffing industrial glue or model cement, which is a different product entirely, and is not an ingredient in homemade slime.

There’s also shaving cream – which the blogger implies contains carcinogens and “very controversial” ingredients. I think of it as something people rub on their faces (men, typically), legs (often women), or all over the walls of the shower (children). If you’re afraid of your children touching shaving cream, I cannot help you.

By the way, homemade slime also contains water (AKA deadly dihydrogen monoxide) and often food coloring (I believe green is best, but mixing green and purple makes a hideous and wonderful color called “ocky” that has a certain charm.) A complete recipe is here. You can also make it with other, non-borax compounds like cornstarch or laundry detergent.

Parents, if your kids are taking a break from their iPhones to do something fun and icky with their hands, let them enjoy themselves. It may get messy, and you don’t want them (or the dog, or even the cat) eating their homemade slime. But it’s pretty much harmless fun. Today’s lesson: don’t let the internet scare you.

Fight the Fearmongers: MTHFR variants are nothing to worry about

March 13, 2017

The Pediatric Insider

© 2017 Roy Benaroch, MD

Another day, another scare. Honestly, if you take Facebook and The Interwebs seriously, we’d all be dead three times over already.  (By the way: Facebook and the Interwebs would make a good name for a 2000’s cover rock band.)

Here’s one that’s come up a few times at my office this month: parents worried about MTHFR “mutations” that are making themselves and their children sick and vulnerable to all kinds of diseases. It’s another example of alarmists taking advantage of a tiny speck of science to scare you and sell things. Don’t believe any of it.

Background: MTHFR stands for…. Ah, forget it. Who cares what it stands for. It’s a shorthand name for a gene that encodes a protein that does important things involving the metabolism of the vitamin folic acid.

It turns out that there are hundreds of variations in the MTHFR gene we all carry. Genes, actually, with an “s” – we all carry two copies. Some variations work more or less efficiently, and a few very rare ones don’t work well at all. But the important thing to remember is that these are examples of the normal variation of our species. Having a different MTHFR gene from your neighbor doesn’t make you strange or broken.

In fact, having these variations is very common – so common, that variation is the rule, not the exception. As we learn more about these variations, the percentage of people with “variants” continues to go up – maybe about 60% of us, now, have at least 1 copy of a “variant.” And since almost all of the variants work just fine, this doesn’t matter at all.

 Part of the problem comes from the language of genetics, and the way gene science is depicted in the media. Use the term “mutant” and you think Patrick Stewart lifting things with his mind. A mutant is changed gene – and in science, that term is used for one-time or rare events. These MTHFR things are NOT mutants, at least not in the way a genetic scientist would use the word. Having one of them will not give you a tail, allow you to change the weather, or make lasers shoot out of your eyes. It also won’t make you or your child more likely to get sick.

The correct, more-specific word for what I’ve been calling “variants” is “polymorphisms.” These are genes that are different in subtle ways, and have become fairly common in a population. Hint: if a polymorphism made you sick, people with it wouldn’t reproduce, and the polymorphism would become rarer. Polymorphisms that don’t change health (like these MTHFR polymorphisms) can spread and linger in a population, like blue eyes or the ability to taste a tiny speck of cilantro.

Nonetheless, there are scads of web sites out there pushing MTHFR testing, and trying to sell books and products to people with these polymorphisms (which, as I mentioned, are most of us.) This is called “fear-mongering” –creating fear of a non-existent disease to get attention and make money. I’m not going to link to any of these sites, but here’s a sampling of some of the headlines and what the sites are pushing:

  • The MTHFR Gene Mutation And How To Rewire Your Genetics – Note the use of the scare-word, mutation. And, of course, you cannot rewire your genetics. Nonetheless, this site pushes worthless genetic testing, suggests treating non-existent yeast infections, encourages the use of a dozen supplements you don’t need, and suggests “detoxing” with coconut charcoal. Absolute, bat-shit nonsense – all for a made-up health scare.
  • Someone calling themselves “Your Functional Medicine Expert ®” (followed by 16 letters – do not trust anyone who has more letters in their “degrees” than in their own name) has her own top ten list of things to do for what she calls your “mutation.” Some of these are perfectly healthy for all of us: get exercise, eat leafy greens, spend time in the sauna. But she goes off the rails, too, referring people to a “trained biologic dentist” and “dry skin brushing” to detox da chemicalz dat’ll killz ya.

There are also alt-med freakshow sites that somehow link MTHFR variants as a warning against (of course) vaccines. This is an absolute crock.

Bottom line: genuine medical geneticists do not recommend MTHFR testing. Just because something sounds sciency doesn’t mean it’s something that is going to kill you. Don’t worry about things because you read about them on the internet. Go hug your kids, enjoy some sunshine, and take a break from Facebook and the Interwebs. Their show is starting to get old, and you’ve got better and healthier things to do with your time.

Protect yourself from cell phone radiation journalists

May 31, 2016

The Pediatric Insider

© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD

The media is agog over a new study, one tailor made for clickbaiting. Staid, boring old Wall Street Journal proclaimed “Cellphone-cancer link found in government study.” Mother Jones called the study “Game Changing”, and NaturalNews’s headline screams “Massive government study concludes cell phone radiation causes brain cancer.” (They also say “On all of these issues, Natural News has always been right!” Google it if you want. I’m not providing a link.)

The new data is from a preliminary release of data from 2,500 rats and mice. It hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet, or scheduled for publication. We have no idea what happened to the mice involved in this study – they weren’t mentioned. Maybe they were busy.

The rats were kept in an underground bunker (which protected them from the sun, a much larger source of radiation exposure.) Special enclosures exposed the experimental rat volunteers to cell phone radiowaves starting at gestation, through the first two years of their lives. Intense radiowaves bathed their entire bodies for 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off, 18 hours a day. For two years. Extrapolating from rat lifespans, that’s equivalent to about 50 human years. Think about that exposure: 50 years, starting before birth, using cell phones mashed up against your entire body for 9 hours a day. I get it, they want to use an absolutely maximal exposure to find even a small signal of increased risk. But does that sound remotely realistic?

Compared to the control rats, male (but not female) exposed rats had small numbers of cancers in their brains and hearts – in most groups, 1 or 2 out of 90. The control rats had zero across all of the subgroups, which is itself a surprise – these were lab rats bred to develop cancers, so cancer-causing exposures could be studied. The control (unexposed) rats also had a weirdly high early death rate (remember, this group didn’t have cell phones. They were bored to death, maybe.) In all seriousness, that seems to be a big flaw. Since cancer takes time to develop, rats in a shortened-lifespan group would almost certainly have fewer cancers at autopsy. Still – zero? Were they looking hard enough?

The new study certainly raises some good questions. How could radiowaves contribute to cancer? There’s no established plausible mechanism at these levels. Why were the results only seen in male rats? What about the mice, were they similarly affected? Why did the non-exposed rats die off early, and could that explain the effect? How do these exposures compare to a typical human way of using a cell phone, holding it in your hand to text or use an app? These are good questions. Too bad journalists covering the study didn’t try to answer them.

Ironically, just a few days earlier, a much larger study (of 45,000 people) showed exactly the opposite. What, you didn’t hear about the huge Australian study that showed no increased risk of brain cancers since the introduction of cell phones 29 years ago? Perhaps the science media is more concerned about rats than Aussies. They’re certainly more eager to get your clicks than to provide accurate or useful information.

A rat.

Whole milk best for children? Not so fast

April 25, 2016

The Pediatric Insider

© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD

A flurry of recent reports has supported the health benefits of whole-fat milk. Increased dairy fat has been linked to lower rates of diabetes, and to improved cardiovascular health. The traditional advice – that low-fat or skim milk can help reduce weight, and help improve health – may have been based on faulty assumptions about the way ingested dairy fat affects metabolism. These new studies of dairy fit in with a shift away from the “fat is bad” story to a more nuanced “some fat is bad, but other fat is good, and it’s complicated” way of looking at things.

But it’s important to remember that none of the studies driving this change were done in kids. We don’t really know the long-term health impact of full- versus low- versus no-fat milk in infants or children, and there are still some good reasons to think that lower fat dairy might be a good choice for many families.

Until about ten years ago, the AAP recommended full-fat milk starting at age 1. That changed in 2008, when a position statement about cardiovascular health supported the use of reduced-fat dairy products starting at 12 months of age if there were any concerns about overweight or a family history of obesity or heart disease (that would include just about everyone.) This recommendation was based on research showing three things: (1) growth and neurologic function was the same in children raised on low-fat milk (ie, extra fat was not needed for brain and body development); (2) lipid profiles and weights were healthier in children raised on low-fat milk; and (3) children who consumed low-fat milk tended to have healthier diets, overall, than kids drinking whole milk.

That position statement “expired”, as all AAP statements do, 5 years after it was published. Currently, the AAP officially has no position on the relative merits of these varieties of milk. (They do have a position vaguely endorsing chocolate milk in schools, and another position strongly discouraging unpasteurized milk. All AAP policies can be searched here. There are a lot of them.)

The bottom line, now: there really isn’t any solid, new information from studies in children since that 2008 AAP position. Though I agree that the adult studies are compelling, adults and children are very different, especially when looking at metabolism, growth, and the long-term health consequences of dietary choices. For example, milk constitutes a much higher proportion of caloric intake in kids than in adults (children drink more milk, and they’re smaller. Usually.) They need proportionally more calcium and vitamin D and phosphorus for growing bones. And we know overweight children are very likely to continue to struggle to maintain a healthy weight as adults.

The best current evidence in children supports the use of reduced fat milk. If that changes, I’ll let you know.

Edward Elric does not like milk