SIRC Media Watch Archive
The Pick – October 2001

Ghost Buster. Finally, after 30 years of public phobias, America has anthrax--something worth being afraid of. Alas, what's also spreading fast is the sense that the government isn't doing a very good job of handling it. But how would they know? This country's presumably serious people have spent so many years building towering infernos of hysteria, panic, litigation and political demagogy out of this or that presumed threat to public health that it's little wonder the system barely knows how to deal with something real. Wall Street Journal.

FoE's 'chemicals' postcard campaign is criticised. An MEP has criticised a Friends of the Earth campaign which involved sending thousands of postcards with the warning "Danger? – this sample may contain risky chemicals". Ananova.

Dear Weekend. What an excellent piece of balanced investigative journalism Toxic Shock (October 20) wasn't. Guilt by association, accusations without evidence and selective reporting; it was all there. True, organophosphates were originally developed as nerve gases by the Nazis, but that's like saying that table salt may be dangerous because it is made from a highly flammable metal and a first world war toxic gas. Yet in all this, Joanna Blythman forgot to mention that she is a patron of the Soil Association – "the home of organic food". In the interests of balance, therefore, I look forward to a riposte from the British Crop Protection Council.
Dr Peter Lapinskas – letter in the Guardian.

Everything gives you cancer. If even broccoli and strawberries have been linked to the dreaded disease, what hope do we have, asks Tim Dowling…My first mistake came shortly after waking up. Toothpaste, I have discovered, has several compounds (fluoride among them) that are at least suspected carcinogens, as do soap and shampoo. Breakfast, the most important meal of the day, is also a cocktail of cancer-causing substances. Heterocyclic amines – possibly carcinogenic – are created by cooking or burning foods, and are commonly found in coffee and toast. Sydney Morning Herald.

Drug Hoarding and 'Prisoner's Dilemma' – Understanding the Rash Urge to Stockpile Antibiotics. Dilemmas often arise when people feel vulnerable. A case in point is the situation regarding the drug Ciprofloxacin, which some are stockpiling more to combat anxiety than to ward off anthrax. ABC News.

Panic attack. Widespread fear of anthrax could be even more disruptive than a few acts of bioterrorism, says Elaine Showalter. That's why the media must wake up to its role in creating – or controlling – mass hysteria … Rumour-panics are more dangerous for high-risk groups – the frightened, the prejudiced, the vulnerable, the confused. And after the initial stages of exposure, rumours, if untreated, can mutate and escalate into more highly charged and lethal opportunistic stories, undermining public confidence in scientific and governmental authority, and creating the very circumstances of "paralysis" or "terror" or "psychosis" they deplore. That is why the mass media, and especially the newspapers, have a special responsibility and opportunity in times of crisis. Guardian.

Fear 'more dangerous than anthrax'. The fear of biological weapons such as anthrax may be more likely to create illness than the weapons themselves, say experts. Long-term social or psychological damage could be the result of panic caused by the news of anthrax attacks…Just after the beginning of the current anthrax scare a liquid, which turned out to be window cleaning fluid, was sprayed at a Maryland subway station. As many as 35 people reported nausea, headache and sore throat. BBC.

Anthraxiety. One thing that emerges from the numerous articles about anthrax that have appeared since the first case was confirmed in Florida a couple of weeks ago is that, though it is a nasty disease, it is difficult to disseminate the spores in a form suitable for biological warfare. The fact that it is rarely transmitted from one human being to another means that it has never assumed epidemic proportions in human society, though it may do so in cattle and other animals. As one microbiologist commented, 'why would anybody go to the trouble of trying to give their enemies anthrax? It would be much easier to shoot them' … The notion that society should be organised so that it is prepared for all forms of unthinkable calamities, unlike any previously experienced, draws out the absurdity of the precautionary approach to modern life. It amounts to a call to retreat to a bunker with full provisions, and gas masks, to await whatever grisly fate might befall us. Spiked!.

Consider the source: Don't take each dose of medical news seriously. Scarcely a day passes when we're not bombarded with media reports of medical studies - from the alleged effects of cell phones and apple-shaped bodies to shocking data about the possible dangers of vitamin C or still another worrisome report about hormone-replacement therapy. How can a person make sense of this media overload? Seattle Times.

Terror vision. The rise of anxiety – you can plot a graph to it. When researcher Glyn Lewis compared data from 1977 and 1985, he found that the number of people who said they suffered a range of anxiety symptoms such as panic attacks and phobias had risen from 22 per cent in 1977, to 31 per cent in 1985. In 1992, US researchers found that a remarkable three-quarters of people they spoke to had at least one serious symptom of anxiety, such as panic, unreasonable fears, nervousness and so on. Observer.

New variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease: the epidemic that never was. Without doubt, general anxiety about so dreadful a possibility as bovine spongiform encephalopathy causing a similar disease in humans resulted in many workers involved with bovine spongiform encephalopathy and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease having to reach precipitate conclusions in which public safety was rightly the prime consideration. I believe that the evidence now available casts serious doubts on the case for a causal link between bovine spongiform encephalopathy and "new" variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The medical profession should, at least, be publicly debating this as an issue. The purpose of this paper is to start that process. BMJ.

Americans turn to the Internet for vaccine. Panic-stricken Americans are buying dubious anthrax vaccines for up to $399 (£271) a time over the Internet. As fears heighten over a full-scale biological attack against the US, online prescription services that usually sell the impotence drug Viagra and other 'lifestyle medications' have turned their attention to anthrax. Times.

Don't panic: it's safer than you think. Civilisation is under threat, runs the mantra. The barbarians are not simply at the gate, but inside it, too – terrorists with bagfuls of nuclear material, or deadly toxins, just waiting to strike … The warnings have generated a sense of panic among the public. Shops run out of gas masks … In reality, however, bioweapons are difficult to produce, and their effects are not as devastating as many imagine … So why does the terrorist with a suitcase full of plague bugs or anthrax remain such a potent image? Partly because he speaks to so many of our contemporary anxieties, from the dangers of messing with nature to the sense of the fragility of western values. New Statesman.

High protein diet warning. High-protein diets may pose a risk to health, leading nutrition experts have said. The influential American Heart Association has issued a warning about the fashionable diets. It says that there is no evidence that they are effective – and they might actually do more harm than good. BBC.

Cancer bias puts breasts first. People suffering from a range of cancers are getting second-class treatment because the breast cancer lobby has swallowed up the vast majority of available expertise and funding. Cancer experts have warned that the breast cancer lobby is now so powerful it is distorting research spending, treatment and facilities at the expense of those suffering from other cancers. Lung cancer kills almost three times as many people each year as breast cancer, which also kills fewer people than colon cancer. However, there are more than 25 charities dedicated to breast cancer, compared with five for prostate, three for colon and just one for lung cancer. Observer.

High infection rate in organic chickens. Organic broiler chickens are three times as likely as conventionally-bred poultry to be contaminated with a bacterium that causes food-poisoning, say Danish vets. The team … found that all 22 organic broiler flocks they investigated were infected with Campylobacter – the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK … The UK Soil Association, which promotes organic farming, was unavailable for comment. New Scientist.

Cost more important than health in food buying. Price is far more important than quality or health for most people when shopping for groceries, according to a survey published today … Despite recent food health scares which were understood to have made people more concerned about quality, it seems that stores’ pricing policy is still the number one priority for shoppers … Although many supermarkets stock a range of organic fruit and vegetables, supposedly because of customer demand, the research found that only 10 per cent of shoppers were moved to make a purchase by the knowledge of the food production methods involved. Scotsman.