Greatest Health Panics of All Time

By Amber Pariona on April 25 2017 in Society

Mexican Catholics pray at a Cathedral during the swine flu scare, which reached all corners of the globe.
Mexican Catholics pray at a Cathedral during the swine flu scare, which reached all corners of the globe.

Throughout history, humans have faced a number of health scares surrounding pharmaceutical products and consumer goods. In recent years, information surrounding health scares has spread more quickly thanks to modern forms of communication. This article takes a look at some of the worst health scares that humans have ever faced.

7. Nitrites And Cancer

In 1970, researchers discovered a link between nitrosamines and cancer. After consuming nitrate-rich processed meats, the human body converts the nitrates into nitrosamines. This research sparked a hotly contested debate between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the meat industry of the US concerning the use of nitrates in food. The FDA eventually approved nitrates and the health scare was largely forgotten for around 4 decades.

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization officially classified processed meat as a carcinogen. Researchers conducted a massive review of previous studies and found that daily consumption of 50 grams of processed meat (such as sausage, bacon, and hot dogs) increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

6. Cancer-causing Shampoo

Sodium lauryl sulfate, a foaming agent used in shampoo and other personal care products, was the topic of much debate in the 1990’s. Consumer warnings were published online claiming that sodium lauryl sulfate causes cancer. This information prompted a health scare surrounding shampoo and consumers began searching for alternative ingredients.

As it turned out, sodium lauryl sulfate is not considered a carcinogen, but rather an irritant. It can be used in shampoo because the chemical is only in contact with skin for a short time and is diluted with water. It has been found non-carcinogenic by 3 organizations: the National Toxicology Program, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

5. Dangers Of Power Lines

In 1979, the American Journal of Epidemiology published a study about the possible connection between developing leukemia and living close to power lines. In this study, the researchers examined children living in homes close to electric lines and found that they were at a greater risk of developing cancer. It was suggested that this occurs because power lines constantly produce electric and magnetic fields, also known as radiation.

This finding of course resulted in a widespread public health scare about the safety of power lines. Dr. John W. Farley responded to the scare with an article entitled, “Power Lines and Cancer: Nothing to Fear.” This article points out the fact that after the 1979 study, several other research papers were published with inconsistent results, meaning that leukemia and other cancers were not always found in children living near power lines. The National Cancer Institute has published a similar claim, although further clarifies that a link has been identified between children with cancer and homes with very high magnetic field levels.

4. Swine Flu Pandemic

In June of 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the H1N1 influenza virus, also known as the swine flu, a pandemic. This H1N1 viral strain was similar to that which caused the 1918 flu pandemic, although it was a new version. The swine flu resulted from a combination of bird, human, swine, and Eurasian pig influenza viruses.

In addition to the WHO health warning, the media contributed to the growing global panic surrounding this virus by constantly reporting on it and identifying it as a serious threat. In the United States, former Vice President Joe Biden even held a public press conference to warn people against gathering in small spaces and to avoid airplane travel as these two activities were shown to be factors in the spread of the virus.

Several healthcare facilities, including the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, reported working at capacity as a result of the pandemic. Across the world, approximately 18,500 individuals died as a result of the swine flue. This statistic is certainly a tragedy, however, it comes nowhere near the number of deaths caused by the ordinary influenza virus strain on a yearly basis.

3. Aspartame Controversy

Aspartame, an artificial sweetener, has been criticized since 1974, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved it for use as a food additive. It was also the focal point of a health scare in the late 1990’s. This scare seems to have begun with an email chain that claimed a connection between consuming aspartame and developing multiple sclerosis, blindness, headaches, and lupus (among other chronic diseases). The email suggested a conspiracy theory between the FDA and aspartame producers

In response to public outcry, several studies have since been conducted to examine any potential links between aspartame and health conditions or diseases. The only connection found between aspartame and health concerns has been with phenylketonuria, a metabolic condition. In fact, the FDA has suggested that aspartame is perhaps the most widely studied food additive ever approved for human consumption. Despite being disproven, distrust of aspartame as a food additive continues to thrive throughout the world.

2. MMR Vaccine Controversy

Andrew Wakefield, former gastroenterologist and medical researcher, published a research paper in 1998 that accused the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine of causing colitis and autism. In 2004, the journal retracted part of the study and an independent investigation uncovered Wakefield’s multiple conflicts of interest. In 2010, the article was completely withdrawn after the General Medical Council charged Wakefield with serious professional misconduct, taking away his medical license.

The results of this publication have caused one of the worst health scares ever. Despite the medical opinion that the benefits of the MMR vaccine largely outweigh the risks, many parents have opted out of this vaccine for their children. After publication, vaccine compliance in the United Kingdom dropped from 92% to 84%. In 2008, measles was declared endemic in the UK, for the first time in 14 years. Measles and mumps outbreaks have occurred throughout the UK, the US, Canada, and other European countries. Several health officials have cited the Wakefield publication as responsible for a number of children’s preventable deaths.

1. Cell Phones And Cancer

Similar to the health scare of power lines and cancer, cell phones have also been accused of potentially causing cancer in users. This link has been suggested because cell phones emit non-ionizing radiation in the form of radio waves. The International Agency for Research on Cancer conducted studies that found a potential link between cell phone use and glioma and acoustic neuroma. Because of these findings, cell phones have now been identified as group 2B carcinogens, meaning that they potentially cause cancer.

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