Mighty Cyberengines Spew Health Myths

Some people panic when a cybermyth about health appears on their computer screens

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When my sons were in the first grade, a rumor circulated through New York City elementary schools that cockroaches often contaminated canned tuna. Though the boys liked other fish, including sardines, they refused to eat canned tuna in any form and still avoid it more than 20 years later.

Like alligators living in the sewer, many urban myths assume a life of their own despite a total lack of supporting evidence. The alligator myth is more a source of amusement than a problem for anyone, since very few of us venture into sewers. But when myths involve health issues, they can result in needless anxiety, avoidance behavior, and inconvenience.

In years past, these unsubstantiated rumors about health hazards lurking in our midst spread relatively slowly from person to person by word of mouth, unless some radio or television program happened to give them national airing. Now there is a new rapid-fire means of transmitting misinformation nationwide, even worldwide, via e-mail and the internet. And since these communications appear in writing, rumors about health hazards floating around cyberspace seem to acquire an undeserved validity that makes them more likely to be believed than any oral warning.


Of course, not everyone is equally gullible. Still, some people react with fear, even panic, when a cybermyth about health appears on their computer screens. Several of these "urban health myths" are exposed for what little they are worth in the May issue of Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource, a newsletter published by the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. I have added one of my own, on aluminum, that predates cyberspace but refuses to die.


: Cooking in aluminum pots causes Alzheimer's disease. The sick brain cells of people with Alzheimer's disease have been found to contain high amounts of aluminum. This prompted people to point a guilty finger at aluminum pots and pans as a source of this element that they believe damages brain cells, resulting in senility. Countless people tossed out all their aluminum cookware, replacing it with stainless steel and enameled cast iron.

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Jane Brody
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