The 5 Most Ridiculously Over-Hyped Health Scares of All Time
Fear is our national pastime. As a society, we have a long history of getting whipped into a collective frenzy over threats to our health or children that are nearly (or completely) non-existent. No danger is too small or remote to be exaggerated and screamed from the headlines.
Three Mile Island
On March 28, 1979, what should have been a minor plumbing problem somehow escalated into a reactor fuel meltdown at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Station in Pennsylvania. Within five days, the Governor had ordered the evacuation of all children and pregnant women (fuck you, dad!) within a five-mile radius of the area. Since that time, the name Three Mile Island has been synonymous with nuclear disaster. Hooters even named one of their hottest (and most delicious) wing sauces after it!
But unlike other nuclear disasters, Chernobyl for example, which caused at least 4,000 eventual deaths, Three Mile Island was responsible for a whopping zero fatalities. In fact, there weren't even any injuries. Later tests revealed that the level of radiation people were exposed to in the five-mile radius was equivalent to the amount of radiation a person is exposed to while flying on a commercial airliner. In other words, the danger was nil.
So why all the ruckus? Much like that restraining order Catherine Zeta-Jones slapped us with a few years back, we blame Michael Douglas for this.
Just 12 days prior to the incident at TMI, The China Syndrome premiered. In the film, Michael Douglas plays a television news reporter who surreptitiously films a nuclear power plant crew as a near meltdown is taking place. As luck would have it, the events depicted in the movie almost perfectly mirrored what occurred at TMI. With the movie stirring public debate about the safety of nuclear power, there was no way the incident at TMI occurring just days later would do anything less than scare the ever-loving shit out of people. And that's exactly what it did.
"Hi, I'm a giant asshole."
In 1979, Three Mile Island killed fewer people than ...
Robot attacks. Ford factory worker Robert Williams was killed when a robot hit him in the head, thus outranking Three Mile Island's death toll, 1-0.
Artificial Sweeteners, Circa the '60s
In the 1960s, cyclamates (salts of cyclamic acid) were the artificial sweetener of choice for health conscious consumers everywhere. Although initially only intended for use by the obese and diabetics, they quickly gained popularity among those who wanted to eat like the obese without becoming diabetics.
This all changed in 1969 when FDA scientist, Dr. Jacqueline Verrett, went on the NBC Nightly News to tell the world that baby chick embryos injected with cyclamates suffered from severe birth defects. And she had pictures of the deformed birds to back her claim up! When it comes to putting an entire nation off of non-caloric sweets, few things are as effective a picture of a grotesquely malformed bird. Here's one we made ...
... maybe that's a bad example, because that was kind of awesome. But you get the idea.
At any rate, there's a reason the FDA likes its scientists to run the results of their wacky lab experiments past their peers before they take to national television to share them with the world. In this case, Dr. Verrett's peers were quick to point out that, while the results of her experiment were troubling, most humans didn't get their artificial sweeteners by way of in-the-womb injections and therefore may not be affected in the same way.
But when tests performed a few days later showed that cyclamates caused bladder cancer in 8 out of 240 rats when consumed in an also-real-world-applicable dosage equaling 350 cans of diet soda per day, the deal was sealed. Cyclamates were banned in America.
In the years since the ban, tests on cyclamates have continued but none of them have been able to duplicate the results of the 1969 tests. The World Health Organization along with several other research groups has gone so far as to publicly declare that the evidence shows no link between cyclamates and cancer. Nevertheless, subsequent appeals of the initial cyclamate ban have all been rejected and cyclamates are still unavailable in the United States.
But don't lose too much sleep over it, our team of scientists have conducted some studies of their own and 4 out of 5 of them agree, even if cyclamates were available, most of us would still be lard asses anyway.
In 1969, Cyclamates killed fewer people than ...
... were killed by Moose attacks.
The Cranberry Scare of 1959
When it comes to breaking bad news to people, timing is everything. For instance, if at all possible, you'd prefer that your girlfriend not tell you she's leaving while she's banging your best friend. In a similar vein, it may have not been the best timing ever when on November 9, 1959, just 15 days before Thanksgiving, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Arthur Fleming announced that a shipment of cranberries from Oregon was found to be contaminated with aminotriazole, a weed killer that had been shown to cause thyroid cancer in rats.
As if making the announcement just weeks ahead of the one day of the year when some people do actually eat cranberries wasn't bad enough, Fleming leaned a little too heavily on the "Holy shit we're all going to die!" technique when it came to getting information to the public. Even though tests of cranberries from several other states showed no signs of contamination, when asked how a housewife could be sure the berries she buys are safe, Fleming replied "To be on the safe side, she doesn't buy. Also, he might as well have gone on to say, 'If you've eaten any cranberries in the last 24 hours, make your peace with the Lord.'
In a matter of days, grocery stores across the country were pulling products containing cranberries from their shelves.
Better safe than sorry, right? Well, there was something Fleming failed to mention. For a human to match the cancer causing aminotriazole dosage fed to the lab rats, they would have to consume 15,000 pounds of berries. Daily. For years. As these photos of a plate of cranberry sauce before and after a recent Thanksgiving celebration show, Americans don't eat nearly that amount.
Officials familiar with these minor details grew increasingly wary of the damage that Fleming's comments may have on the cranberry industry and began to distance themselves from the scare. After Presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy both ate cranberries at a campaign stop in Wisconsin, the nation slowly came to their collective senses. By Thanksgiving, cranberries were back on grocery store shelves and back to being universally ignored on Thanksgiving dinner tables nationwide.
In 1959, cranberries killed fewer people than ...
... were killed flying in a plane with Buddy Holly.
Asbestos in New York City Public Schools
Few environmental hazards strike more fear in our terrified little hearts than asbestos. Tell someone they have asbestos in their house and you might as well tell them they have a chainsaw wielding serial killer in their house. Actually, given the exorbitant costs involved with removing asbestos from a house, most people would prefer the serial killer.
So when it was revealed in 1993 that an independent contractor hired by the New York City Board of Education to inspect schools for asbestos had failed to perform the inspections properly, nobody was surprised by Mayor David Dinkins decision to not allow kids to return to classes until proper inspections could be performed. Granted, the decision kept over one million kids out of school for two weeks, threw the plans of their working families into chaos, and panicked the shit out of countless parents who thought they had been sending their kids off to get cancer on a daily basis, but it had to be done to keep the kids safe, right?
So what's the problem? For starters, the type of asbestos that was typically found in schools, including those in New York City, was not the monster-under-the-bed type that tends to kill people. No, when you absolutely, positively must kill every motherfucker in the room, crocidolite or amosite is what you need. Chrysotile asbestos, the kind present in the NYC schools, on the other hand, is easily expelled from the lungs and therefore far less dangerous.
The risk of death was in the range of .009 deaths per million. And while you may say that any risk is too much, dammit, you should keep in mind that a child is a thousand times more likely to die playing high school football.
Also, in other schools, botched asbestos removal jobs had actually left the buildings with higher levels of asbestos in the air than if they'd done nothing. But why let that get in the way of a good panic?
In 1993, asbestos in New York schools killed Fewer People Than ...
... were killed in hot air balloon crashes.
If you're looking for another reason to hate that hippie friend of yours that won't shut up about the plight of every plant, animal and insect in danger of extinction, DDT is a good place to start.
Widely considered the first major victory of the environmentalist movement, DDT was banned from use in most applications thanks to a series of insanely half-assed scientific experiments and a book about birds. That book, Silent Spring, was released in 1962 and argued that DDT was not only a carcinogen, but also damaging to wildlife and, especially, certain birds. The public, upon hearing about the possibility of having to live in a world without peregrine falcons and ospreys, did what it does best in situations like this--they lost their shit without a second thought.
The single most important bird on the planet.
Soon, pesticides were the cause du jour for environmentalists and average folks that believe whatever the hell they read, and DDT was banned in 1972. The problem was, the science quoted in the book was all kinds of faulty. One scientific study that purported to show that DDT exposure led to a higher incidence of leukemia in mice was later proven to be more than a little tainted. Turns out, the mice in the experiment were fed moldy food that contained aflatoxin, a known carcinogen. When the test was repeated minus the rancid food, the test results were exactly the same, except without all of the leukemia and stuff.
As for the birds, Audubon Society studies showed that 26 different kinds of birds actually increased in population during DDT's heyday. In cases where bird populations did decline, it was revealed that in most cases the decline began either well before widespread use of DDT began or years after it was banned. Environmentalists dispute the findings, but on the other hand ... who gives a fuck about the damn birds? Especially considering ...
In 1972, DDT killed fewer people than ...
See, what many people don't know about DDT is that the person who discovered that it could be used as a pesticide actually won a Nobel Peace Prize. Why? Because it was kind of effective in fighting malaria. When spraying of DDT stopped in Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka), malaria cases rose from 17 in 1963 to 2.5 goddamn million in 1969, an increase of approximately a bajillion fofillion percent. And to this day, the mosquito remains the deadliest killer Mother Nature has to offer, with a confirmed 2 million kills per year.
But, hey at least there's a lot more ospreys around.
If you liked that, you'll probably enjoy Adam's look at The Awful Truth Behind 5 Items Probably On Your Grocery List. Or, if you like laughing at gullible people, perhaps you'll enjoy watching poronography on Cracked.com!