Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Online health myths

Online health myths
Mon, Aug 24, 2009
Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network

BY Michael Tan

Myths and legends are often associated with the ancient past, with heroes and villains who most probably never existed. Or, if they did, their good or evil have been amplified to teach people about human strengths, frailties and vulnerabilities, usually coming from nature.

In the 21st century, even in the world's most modern cities, these stories are still going around but are now called urban myths and legends that are rapidly spread through SMS and the Internet. Like their ancient counterparts, these urban tales often have an element of truth in them and incorporate true-to-life individual events or experiences. Like older myths and legends, our modern ones mirror our anxieties and warn us about threats from people and from nature.

These cybermyths are particularly common as well for health issues, which shouldn't be surprising. Threats to our health are taken very personally, and when cybermyths go around citing personal experiences or quote doctors and health professionals, people feel uneasy, not wanting to believe such stories but not wanting to take chances, either. The health cybermyths also speak of our feelings of helplessness in modern society, often accompanied by fears of technology as well as social prejudices.

How then should we assess the stories we get through texted messages or e-mail?

Trust your instincts. Some of these cybermyths are so incredible it's amazing how people believe them at all. Stories that go, 'This is a true story' should make you wonder. Also check out, which is an amazing site that evaluates hundreds of urban myths and gives the facts.

Except for the myths about bangungot (sudden adult death syndrome) and soy products, the Snopes site rebutted some of the more popular health cybermyths that have been going around. Just goes to show how global these urban myths have gone.

Cybermyth 1: Fruits should be taken on an empty stomach for maximum benefit. If fruits are eaten with a meal, they begin to rot with the other food in the stomach and become harmful.

Facts: Snopes traces this urban myth back to 1998 with an article first produced by a Singaporean culinary writer. It first entered the Internet in 2001 and has been circulating with different versions, some including a claim that cold water after a meal causes cancer. These ideas come from a Herbert Sheton, who was a naturopath (not a physician) and who had been arrested several times for practicing medicine illegally. There is no basis to the claims made in this cybermyth about fruits. Food of any kind gets digested more quickly in a previously empty stomach, but you don't get more nutrients. Moreover, fruits will not rot in the stomach if mixed with other food.

Cybermyth 2: Chicken wings cause cancer. This was based, according to one e-mail, "on a US-based pharmacist who is a cousin of a colleague". A woman is operated on for uterine cysts, then has a relapse and her doctor asks if she takes chicken wings. He then warns her to stop because poultry farms inject chickens with the hormone estrogen, which goes up to high levels around the wings and causes cancer.

Facts: Many poultry farms use estrogen on chickens, but it doesn't have to be the wings alone that get a concentration. Moreover, it is not clear if estrogen in chicken meat will cause cancer. People generally fear hormones, which is why anti-family planning groups are able to scare people by claiming that the pill, which has estrogen, causes cancer. (The reality is that the pill can even protect against some cancers.)

Cybermyth 3: A variation on the estrogen cybermyth: don't give your sons soy milk, taho (a popular Filipino snack made of bean curd, tapioca balls, and sweet sauce) or other soy products because soybeans contain 'estrogen-like substances' which will turn them homosexual.

Facts: High doses of estrogen can cause gynecomastia (enlarged breasts) in males, but the plant estrogens that do occur in soya are not sufficient to make men's breasts get bigger. Moreover, there is no link between estrogen and male homosexuality. This cybermyth clearly rides on homophobia.

And just to set the record straight, lest I end up creating another urban myth: whether you're male or female, soy milk won't give you larger breasts.

Cybermyth 4: Bangungot (sudden adult death syndrome) is caused by dehydration or electrolyte imbalance, which happens if you go to bed thirsty, or after drinking alcohol or eating noodles.

Facts: This is a mix of different theories about bangungot. Early studies suggested acute pancreatitis. When Singaporean researchers looked into bangungot deaths among Thai guest workers, they thought the condition might have something to do with a lack of potassium. Dehydration, alcohol and/or noodles have not been implicated, at least not directly.

There's more evidence now to suggest that bangungot is more of an inherited heart problem, and that individuals who are predisposed can suffer bangungot when they take certain medication. There's still some mystery around this condition, so expect more rumours to go around about its causes.

Cybermyth 5: Antiperspirants cause breast cancer because they prevent you from perspiring and releasing toxins.

Facts: This claim was based on a published study in 2004 that looked into 400 breast cancer survivors. Those who had 'more aggressive underarm habits' were reported to have caught cancer 22 years earlier. The study was criticised for its methodology and statistical analysis. Another subsequent study comparing women with and without breast cancer found no link to antiperspirants.

Another way of refuting this urban myth: Why don't men get breast cancer despite widespread use of antiperspirants? The legend-makers' answer? Men's antiperspirants tend to be sprayed and released into the air, reducing its dangers, while women apply the antiperspirants directly to their skin!

Cybermyth 6: Recycling, heating or freezing thin plastic bottles release dioxins, which cause cancer.

Facts: Plastic bottles used for mineral water and other beverages are made out of polyethylene terephthalate or PET, which will not release chemicals when heated or frozen. Even if it did, PET does not have cancer-causing dioxins. PET bottle manufacturers do recommend that these be used only once, but this is more for hygienic reasons - cleaning the bottles is difficult and bacterial contamination can occur.

Cybermyth 7: Taking shrimps with vitamin C makes you more vulnerable to arsenic poisoning.

Facts: In the unlikely event that the shrimps' habitats are contaminated, they are not likely to cause poisoning to humans who eat the shrimps. The idea that arsenic has a special reaction with vitamin C has no scientific basis.

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