The Myth-Buster

January 01, 2000  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Fumento

Want to know whether the latest health hazard is scare or scam? Ask Michael Fumento

A Seattle comedian, mocking a rival station's alarmist consumer reports, made up a typical headline: "What you don't know about gravy can kill you." This got a big laugh, but the (unintentionally) funny thing is that many in his audience were probably thinking: "Gravy, huh?" Ever since the World Health Organization announced in the 1970s that most cancers were due to environmental causes, everything in our environment has been seen as a threat.

November was a good month for threats. Page A1 news across the world November 6 was the story headlined by the National Post as "Common pesticide linked to Parkinson's." The Post explained, "About 100,000 Canadians suffer from the brain disease, which results in muscle stiffness and rigidity and slow and unsteady movement. There is no cure and it is usually fatal." No cure, usually fatal ñ so who needs Curex Flea Duster, Chem-Mite and Green Cross Warble Powder?

The next day page A1 of the Post was occupied by this: "Stroke link brings warning to avoid cold remedies." The Post explained that Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had warned that phenylpropanolamine (PPA), a decongestant contained in many popular over-the-counter medicines, "could be the cause of deadly hemorrhagic strokes in 200 to 500 people under age 50...every year." Long odds, but not long enough ñ so who needs Dimetapp, Contac, Alka Selzer Plus and about 50 others? Suddenly they were as popular as Tylenol With Cyanide and were yanked from shelves.

One problem with both these threats is that there is no physical evidence that the pesticide rotenone causes Parkinson's or that PPA (widely used for over 50 years) causes strokes. Scientists at Yale University found that women (and only women) who used medicines containing PPA were found to have a slightly elevated risk factor for stroke: 1.23 to 1.5. This is circumstantial or "epidemiological" evidence. Scientists at Emory University found that rats fed rotenone intravenously developed lesions similar to those found in the brains of people with Parkinson's. But people do not normally mainline rotenone.

The pesticides-Parkinson's link is old news to Michael Fumento. "What does it tell you that I wrote about the latest scare two years ago?" he exclaims. "The conclusion was the same then as now: people confuse 'environmental' with things people put into the environment. Wrong! Environmental means non-genetic. Reporters and activists turn this around and say that environmental means pesticides."

Mr. Fumento, a voluble 40-year-old investigative journalist and author, has become something of a legend among skeptics. In the 1990s he exploded two of the great myths of our time: that second-hand cigarette smoke causes cancer and that "everyone" is at risk from AIDS. His 1990 book, The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS made him one of the most hated writers in America. Since then Mr. Fumento has published: Science Under Siege, Polluted Science and The Fat of the Land. His next book is about the promise of biotechnology.

There is now a comprehensive archive of Mr. Fumento's "Mythbusters 'R' Us" articles and reports at It contains his debunkings of the cell phone scare, asbestos and breast implant scares, Gulf War syndrome and many others.

Pesticides, he explains, have been the bÍte noir of junk science ever since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published in 1962. This book led to the banning of DDT, which in turn led to a deadly increase in malaria. What is ironic about the rotenone scare, Mr. Fumento says, is that it is a naturally occurring pesticide: "It's not pumped out by Monsanto; it's used on the stuff you buy at stores called Nature's Fields or whatever." Mr. Fumento is not a fan of "organic" food. "People are paying more for food that is slightly inferior," he declares. "Why do they do that? Because organic food has added value. If you take a pair of jeans that cost $2.50 and slap the name J.C. Penney on them, it's a $20 pair of jeans. If you slap the name Tommy Hilfiger on them, it's a $60 pair of jeans ñ that's organic food in a nutshell."

He does not dismiss epidemiological evidence, even if it does not indicate cause or correlation. "Take syphilis. Throughout history, people didn't know how people got syphilis, but they knew if you didn't have sex, you didn't get syphilis, and that was a very useful marker." Risk factors are particularly useful markers when they are high: 5 and higher. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, even after rigging the data, could not massage second-hand smoke's risk factor higher than 1.19. Meaningless, Mr. Fumento says.

For that reason, Mr. Fumento dismisses the contention that abortion is linked to significantly greater risk of breast cancer. "Some bishop's assistant was so upset at me for saying that," he relates. "I told him, 'I'm not saying abortion is good, but I can't honestly tell people that a 1.2 risk factor for second-hand smoke doesn't mean anything, and that 1.2 for abortion does.' The media, of course, does exactly the opposite; they say that 1.2 is deadly when it comes to smoke but meaningless when it comes to abortion and breast cancer. They're very good at that. It stinks."

Given that North Americans are living longer than ever before despite lack of exercise and near-endemic obesity, how does Mr. Fumento explain the popularity of health scares? "Two words: entertainment value. It took me a long time to realize this was what was going on. People only partly believe this stuff. I'm sorry to say that I used to worship scientists. But too many people have their hands in the cookie jar. Positive studies pay off in so many more ways than negative studies: getting grants, getting your paper published, getting on TV, getting on page A1 of the newspapers."

Mr. Fumento concedes that, despite his objections to science by press release, increased attention to risk does result in longer lives. Unfortunately, however, many people no longer believe any scientific studies. "I was on a talk show," he says, "and this guy told me, 'I don't believe that three packs of cigarettes a day is harmful. Remember how the government lied to us about AIDS?' I said, 'Do you know what you're doing to me? I'm the one who told you the government lied about AIDS, and now you're using this against me!' Sometimes the government lies, but sometimes it tells the truth."