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List of health scares

A health scare is a widely reported story about the danger of something, usually a consumer good or medical product. Such scares have been promoted for decades but have become more popular with the advent of the Internet.[1] They may be based on a misinterpretation of scientific studies, or, as has happened more recently, complete fabrication.[2] This page lists widely reported media stories about how some good or product may have a certain adverse health effect, regardless of whether subsequent research confirmed the proposed link, debunked it, or has been inconclusive.


MMR vaccine controversyEdit

In 1998, a paper, of which Andrew Wakefield was the lead author, was published in The Lancet suggesting that the MMR vaccine might cause autism.[3] Since then, many epidemiological studies have refuted this hypothesis,[4] and Wakefield has been found guilty of scientific fraud.[5] The vaccine-autism link, since it has led to declining vaccination rates and, in turn, epidemics and deaths of vaccine-preventable diseases, has been called the "most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years."[6]

Aspartame controversyEdit

In 1998 an email began circulating claiming that aspartame, an artificial sweetener, caused many chronic diseases, including multiple sclerosis and lupus.[2] The email was attributed to "Nancy Markle" and cited sources such as the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation and the World Environmental Conference. However, although it appears credible, the claims made in the email are a complete fabrication,[2] and statements about the toxicity of methanol produced by aspartame metabolism rely on ignoring the small amounts produced by this process.[7]

Cancer-causing shampooEdit

Some types of shampoo contain sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) as a foaming agent. Also in the late 1990s, many websites claimed that this ingredient could, at the doses found in shampoo, cause cancer.[8] However, according to the American Cancer Society, SLS is an irritant, not a carcinogen, and according to David Emery of, this claim is promoted primarily by makers of all-natural personal care products.[9]

Swine flu pandemicEdit

The mainstream media portrayed the so-called "swine flu" outbreak as a serious threat, with the then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden going so far as to advise people against confined spaces, such as airplanes,[10] and the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring it a pandemic in June of that year.[11] The flu itself was responsible for about 18,500 deaths, according to the WHO's estimate, which they described as "almost surely underreported." Nevertheless, this figure was far lower than the number of annual deaths believed to be caused by ordinary flu strains.[12] However, Vanderbilt University Medical Center's William Schaffner stated that the capacity of the Center was "stretched" as a result of the outbreak.[11]

Dangers of power linesEdit

The hypothesis of a link between proximity to power lines and leukemia was first raised in 1979 when a study was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The study contended that children living in homes in close proximity to "an excess of electrical wiring configurations" were more likely to develop cancer.[13] The ensuing public controversy has been described by John W. Farley as a health scare, and has said that there is "nothing to worry about" with regard to the proposed link between power lines and cancer.[14] Although, in 1996, the United States National Research Council concluded that "the current body of evidence does not show that exposure to these fields presents a human-health hazard,"[15] some studies have reported an association between the two, e.g. for myeloid leukemia and Hodgkin's lymphoma.[16]

Cell phones and cancerEdit

The hypothesized link between cell phone use and an increased risk of cancer is based on the fact that these phones emit radio waves, a form of non-ionizing radiation.[17] Since the proposal was first made many studies have been published on the topic. According to the World Health Organization, the results have been "mixed" with regard specifically to glioma and acoustic neuroma; thus, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified cell phones as group 2B carcinogens, meaning they are "possibly carcinogenic."[18] However, given the considerable amount of fear regarding the alleged link, some commentators have described the link as a health scare, regardless of whether or not mobile phone use actually does cause cancer.[19]

Nitrites and cancerEdit

Nitrites are compounds found in processed meat, which have been implicated in causing cancer because they can be converted into nitrosamines in the body, and because of a 1970 study linking nitrosamines to cancer in rats. Additional support to this hypothesis came from a 1979 study in Science that has since been discredited. Critics of the hypothesized nitrites-cancer link argue that the amount of nitrite produced by the human body is far greater than the amount consumed through processed meat.[20] Others, such as the World Cancer Research Fund, disagree, saying that people should limit their consumption of processed meat because "Dietary nitrates and nitrites are probable human carcinogens because they are converted in the body to N-nitroso compounds."[21]


  1. ^ Rowland, Rhonda (8 April 1999). "Bogus health scares on Internet become increasingly common". CNN. Retrieved 25 March 2014.
  2. ^ a b c Flaherty, Megan (April 12, 1999). "Harvesting Kidneys and other Urban Legends". NurseWeek. Archived from the original on 2012-08-22.
  3. ^ Wakefield A, Murch S, Anthony A; et al. (1998). "Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children". Lancet. 351 (9103): 637–41. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(97)11096-0. PMID 9500320. Retrieved 2007-09-05. (Retracted, see PMID 20137807)
  4. ^ Gerber JS, Offit PA (2009). "Vaccines and autism: a tale of shifting hypotheses". Clin Infect Dis. 48 (4): 456–61. doi:10.1086/596476. PMC 2908388. PMID 19128068.
  5. ^ Godlee F, Smith J, Marcovitch H (2011). "Wakefield's article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent". BMJ. 342: c7452. doi:10.1136/bmj.c7452. PMID 21209060.
  6. ^ Flaherty DK (October 2011). "The Vaccine-autism Connection: A Public Health Crisis Caused by Unethical Medical Practices and Fraudulent Science". Ann Pharmacother. 45 (10): 1302–4. doi:10.1345/aph.1Q318. PMID 21917556.
  7. ^ Hattan, David (2 February 2010). "Aspartame". Snopes. Retrieved 25 March 2014.
  8. ^ "The Mouse that Roared: Health Scares on the Internet". Food Insight. May–June 1999. Retrieved 25 March 2014.
  9. ^ "Shampoo". American Cancer Society. Archived from the original on 31 July 2014. Retrieved 25 March 2014.
  10. ^ Editorial Board (28 August 2009). "Swine flu: a plan, not a prediction". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 25 March 2014.
  11. ^ a b Brownstein, Joseph (7 December 2009). "The Top 10 Health Scares Of The Decade". ABC News. Retrieved 25 March 2014.
  12. ^ Editorial Board (13 August 2010). "Chicken Little over swine flu: Learning from the H1N1 scare". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 25 March 2014.
  13. ^ Wertheimer N, Leeper E (March 1979). "Electrical wiring configurations and childhood cancer". Am. J. Epidemiol. 109 (3): 273–84. PMID 453167.
  14. ^ Farley, John W. (27 July 2003). "Power Lines and Cancer: Nothing to Fear". Quackwatch. Retrieved 25 March 2014.
  15. ^ Hafemeister, David (April 1997). "Possible Health Effects of Exposure to Residential Electric and Magnetic Fields". Physics and Society. Retrieved 25 March 2014.
  16. ^ Roosli, M.; Lortscher, M.; Egger, M.; Pfluger, D.; Schreier, N.; Lortscher, E.; Locher, P.; Spoerri, A.; Minder, C. (1 August 2007). "Leukaemia, brain tumours and exposure to extremely low frequency magnetic fields: cohort study of Swiss railway employees". Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 64 (8): 553–559. doi:10.1136/oem.2006.030270. PMC 2078497.
  17. ^ "Cell Phones and Cancer". National Cancer Institute. 24 June 2013. Retrieved 26 March 2014.
  18. ^ "What are the health risks associated with mobile phones and their base stations?". WHO. 20 September 2013. Retrieved 26 March 2014.
  19. ^ Taubes, Gary (1 November 2000). "The Cell-Phone Scare". MIT Technology Review. Retrieved 26 March 2014.
  20. ^ Clark, Libby (5 July 2012). "5 Health Scares You Can Ignore". Men's Health. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  21. ^ Processed meat, nitrites and human health