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.
MYTH: 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.
But what those who panicked failed to realize is that sick cells tend to accumulate toxic metals because they are unable to eliminate them. Despite numerous investigations, there is no scientifically reliable evidence that aluminum is the cause, rather than the result, of a diseased brain.
MYTH: Costa Rican bananas carry flesh-eating bacteria. Whenever a frightening, mysterious illness gains widespread attention, myths tend to abound as to its source. Hence the myth that touching the skin of bananas grown in Costa Rica can expose a person to the bacteria that cause necrotizing fasciitis, a potentially deadly disease caused by bacteria that attack the flesh in science-fiction fashion. Necrotizing fasciitis is caused by various bacteria, including Group A streptococcus that is found on people's skin and in their throats. It is transmitted through saliva or mucus or through sores on the skin to another person with broken skin. The bacteria cannot infect intact skin. Nor are they carried on bananas.
MYTH: Aspartame causes . . . you-name-it. According to the Mayo Clinic, one woman is the source of the belief that the artificial sweetener aspartame causes everything from obesity to manic depression to multiple sclerosis. The woman maintains that the Food and Drug Administration, in cahoots with commercial interests, has suppressed evidence of aspartame's risks and that all the studies indicating its safety are tainted because they have been financed by the company that produces it. One study published in 1997 linked aspartame to a rise in brain tumors. But the increase in these tumors, which began in the 1970s, predates the introduction of aspartame into the food supply. There are many factors that might account for the rise in brain tumors, but none, including the use of cellular phones, has been established with any degree of scientific certainty. When aspartame was first introduced, there was a suspected link to seizures and depression that also has not been substantiated by further research. And the claimed link to multiple sclerosis has been disputed by the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. In an indirect way, however, aspartame and every other sugar substitute might be partly to blame for the rise in obesity. While the sweeteners themselves contribute few or no calories to the diet, they do help to perpetuate the desire for very sweet foods. Since 1975, the per capita consumption of sugar and other caloric sweeteners has sharply increased--by more than 28 pounds a year. That certainly is no help to America's expanding waistline. There are any number of other urban health tales now circulating on the internet that have been refuted by reliable sources with no ax to grind, including the government agency most directly concerned with the public's health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among the prevailing myths are that kidneys and other organs are being stolen from live victims without their knowledge (the National Kidney Foundation says no way!) and that a deadly spider dubbed Arachnius gluteus lives under the seats of public toilets awaiting a sumptuous derrière to bite. A report attributing the deaths of three women to such a bite was supposedly published in The Journal of the United Medical Association. However, as noted by the Mayo newsletter, there is no such spider and there is no such journal. The moral of this story is don't be so quick to believe everything you read on the net or hear on a broadcast. Check the source and evidence before you panic.
Copyright c (2000) by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by Permission.