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Debunking health myths

From The Mayo Clinic Health Oasis

  • Antiperspirant causes breast cancer
  • Deadly spiders under toilet seats
  • Aspartame causes MS, lupus and tumors
  • Judgment day

In February 2000 the agency responsible for monitoring disease outbreaks in the United States took the extraordinary step of issuing a news release about the supposed spread of "flesh-eating" bacteria that began:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ... states that the current e-mail rumor circulating about Costa Rican bananas causing the disease "necrotizing fasciitis" is false. We have not heard any reports of cases of necrotizing fasiitis associated with bananas. There is no evidence that necrotizing fasciitis is transmitted by food.

Another health myth debunked. The bacteria that cause necrotizing fasciitis, group A streptococcus (GAS), cannot survive for long on the surface of a banana. Certainly not long enough to make the trip from Costa Rica to the United States, then from the grocery store to your home.

GAS is most commonly passed from an infected person through contact with saliva, mucus or sores on the skin to another person with a break in the skin. The bacteria don't invade intact skin. GAS can be dangerous, but there's no threat from bananas — imported or domestic.

Other recent health-related legends spread via e-mail, the Internet, tabloids and word-of-mouth, include dire warnings about antiperspirants, artificial sweeteners and public bathrooms.

Lynne T. Shuster, M.D., a specialist in internal medicine at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., says when it comes to medical myths, the problem lies less with people who tell the tale than with those who pass it along.

"As soon as one recipient takes a story seriously and feels duty-bound to pass it on, it takes on a life of its own, thanks to the instant and far-reaching communication capabilities of e-mail," Dr. Shuster says. "Then, because you typically get e-mail from well-intentioned friends, bogus reports take on the veneer of gospel."

Here's a look at some other recent medical myths floating around in cyberspace and the truth about them.

Antiperspirant causes breast cancer

A widely circulated e-mail message claims antiperspirants are a leading cause of breast cancer. It gives the false explanation that antiperspirants block your sweat glands and keep your body from purging toxins. Unpurged, the toxins were described as getting dumped into your lymph nodes and building until they cause cell mutation and cancer.

Wrong. Your antiperspirant will not give you breast cancer. Period.

Here's the American Cancer Society's take: Although lymph nodes clear some toxins from the body, you don't sweat them out. Most cancer-causing toxins are processed through your kidneys and liver, not through your sweat glands or lymph nodes.

The cancer society's statement says that there have been many thorough studies published in respected medical journals that have identified breast cancer risk factors. None suggests that antiperspirants are among the known risk factors for breast cancer.

Deadly spiders under toilet seats

This rumor started with reports of the deaths of three women in Chicago who died of mysterious symptoms. All three had frequented the same restaurant within days of their deaths, and all had used the toilets there. It was discovered that the deadly South American spider, Arachnius gluteus, lived under the seats. The article was published in the Journal of the United Medical Association (JUMA).

Pure hooey. First of all, there's no such spider. And there's no such medical journal. It didn't happen. Plain and simple. Feel free to use public toilets, although covering them with those tissues isn't a bad idea, just from a sanitation standpoint.

Aspartame causes MS, lupus and tumors

It's next to impossible to trace the source of most medical myths, but a woman who believes that the artificial sweetener aspartame causes everything from obesity to manic depression to multiple sclerosis is behind this medical myth. This woman believes that all the research showing that aspartame is harmless is tainted because it's funded by the company that makes aspartame. Even worse, she says, there's a conspiracy by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and others to keep this information from the public.

Obviously, if you believe the FDA is corrupt, it's hard to disprove her claims. But the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Mayo Clinic, among others, have rebutted her arguments.

It is true that a 1997 study linked aspartame with an increase in brain tumors. But Mayo Clinic doctors believe that the study points to the need for more research and doesn't prove aspartame causes brain tumors or is responsible for the increase in tumors. The incidence of brain tumors has been on the rise since the 1970s, before the sweetener was approved. This rise in brain tumors may be due to better detection of tumors because of improved technology.

One caution: People with the genetic disease phenylketonuria (PKU) and those with allergies to the ingredients in aspartame should avoid it.

Judgment day

There are a number of other medical legends circulating on the Internet, including the likelihood of getting stuck by HIV-infected needles in public places, the use of asbestos in tampons and the stealing of kidneys and other organs from live victims. All have been refuted by reliable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Kidney Foundation.

There are enough dangers in everyday life without our inventing them. So the next time someone forwards you an e-mail that warns of some awful health hazard, fear not. Check it out. One good way is to go to the Web site, which presents the myths and a variety of reports from reliable sources, such as the CDC, that refute them.

"But even before you check the information out, the wording of the message should give you some clues," says Dr. Shuster. "There's usually a slightly hysterical tone, warnings of dire consequences and pleas to pass the information on to everyone you know as quickly as you can."

Don't pass it on. Check it out, then rest easy. Let your common sense be your guide.