REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

Alternative to Health

A lot of "alternative medicine" articles have been flying around the media lately. Thankfully, many of these have been on the scientific side and have been warning against using unproven and potentially dangerous "dietary supplements" (the term used to get around FDA regulations).

One such supplement, chaparral, has previously been linked to causing liver damage (see "REALLity Check," Vol. 3, #2) and the FDA warned some two years ago against taking it. Apparently, this hasn’t stopped some believers in alternative medicine, many of whom have little use for anything the FDA recommends. A May 13 Reuters story notes that chaparral has been linked to at least 18 cases of liver damage, including 13 cases of liver poisoning, four of which developed into cirrhosis of the liver, and two of which required life-saving liver transplants. Chaparral is supposed to treat cancer, liver ailments (rather ironic), skin disorders, and other problems; of course, none of this has been proven, while its potential to cause liver damage has. Indeed, one of the main active ingredients of chaparral, nordihydroguaiaretic acid, has been used as a food preservative until 1968, when the FDA removed it from the "generally recognized as safe" list after animal toxicity testing.

Similarly, Reuters reported earlier (April 11) that researchers noted that Ginkgo bilboa extract, a common "alternative" medicine herbal extract, apparently caused bleeding within the eye in at least one patient. The doctors wrote to the New England Journal of Medicine about such a case, and also noted that there were previous incidents of Ginkgo bilboa-induced bleeding reported in 1987 and 1996. The main problem seems to be that it contains a potent anticlotting agent which can encourage bleeding, especially when combined with other blood thinners like aspirin (as the man in this case was doing). Of course, being a virtually unregulated "supplement," that warning doesn’t appear (the closest it gets is that it is generally marketed as being good for circulation).

And in an April 10 report, CNN reported that the National Institute on Aging (a division of the National Institutes of Health) warned consumers about taking hormones that claim to slow the aging process. Such hormones, like melatonin and DHEA, make great promises but none have actually been shown to prevent aging. Indeed, they note that DHEA may cause liver damage in high doses and may also be linked to an increased risk for breast and prostate cancers.

The FDA noted that too many people mistakenly believe that if a product says it is "natural," that means it is safe. I think this is one of the ploys that manufacturers of such "supplements" count on to boost sales. Too bad they seem to be more intent on counting their money rather than protecting their customers.

Alternative 2

And in an unrelated story, UPI reported that mainstream cancer researchers are not exactly thrilled about the large number of "alternative" cancer treatments (4/14).

During the annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research, scientists said that they cannot simply embrace "alternatives" that claim they are "safe gifts from Mother Nature." Donald Coffey, the president-elect, emphasized the need for double-blind trials to prove the effectiveness of any cancer treatment. "It’s called research, not just search. We need to learn, but we can’t do it if it is too hocus-pocus," he said.

I think that more doctors and scientists need to speak up like this. People need to know that doctors don’t think this nonsense works.

Alternative 3

The main less-than-skeptical article on alternative medicine that I saw this month was in U.S. News & World Report (there was apparently one on some alternative medicine guru in Time, but I missed reading it). Actually, it wasn’t too terrible, but it sure could have used a good dose of the information I just relayed above.

This article on "Nature’s remedies" (5/19) mostly discussed the way herbal "supplements" are labeled. It discusses the way such products got exempted from stricter FDA regulations because they knew they couldn’t live up to the same standards as real medicine (okay, that’s not what it says, but that’s what they should have said). This is why we see "supplements" in the stores with vague statements about what they are supposed to be able to do. Of course, if some of these products were put to the same tests required of real drugs, perhaps some of the dangerous side effects I discussed above would have been discovered (not to mention whether or not the herbs can actually do what they claim to do). Unfortunately, the manufacturers apparently aren’t interested in that type of research.

Amalgamated Nonsense

Again in the realm of alternative medicine, Dateline NBC (5/13) did a story that is essentially a corrective to a story done by 60 Minutes back in December 1990. In that story, 60 Minutes cited supposed cases in which people with multiple sclerosis and other diseases reported having been cured after their dental amalgam had been removed; they suggested that the mercury in the fillings could be poisoning the public. That report went a long way towards scaring people -- some of whom went to get all of their silver fillings pulled! Unfortunately, the one missing element was scientific evidence for the claims.

Robert Bazell, a Dateline reporter, interviewed one of the main proponents of the mercury poisoning claims Dr. Hal Huggins, as well as numerous other dentists, and came firmly down on the side of science. Bazell asked Huggins, "Do you think people should have their mercury [amalgams] taken out as a preventative measure?" Huggins responded, "Only those people who are interested in their health." Bazell then related the story of Diane Bailey, who went to Huggins in 1991 for that "preventative measure." He removed nine fillings and four more treated teeth. She later went to a different dentist, Dr. Carol Brown, complaining that her bridges were breaking. Dr. Brown couldn’t find any bridges, though, only temporaries, and unwittingly sent her back to Huggins to "complete" what looked like unfinished treatment. Bailey ended up back in Brown’s office when Huggins refused to do anything further, and they all ended up in court when Bailey sued him for malpractice and won.

Bazell continued the interview with Huggins, asking if the mercury contained in amalgams could be responsible for almost any known disease. Huggins replied that if it had anything to do with the immune system, the answer was yes. Bazell said, "It turns out that many major health organizations have investigated this issue. While they continue to search for any evidence of a possible hazard, so far they have found none." He then cited a report from the U.S. Public Health Service (January 1993) which he said, "concluded that there are no data to compel a change in the current use of dental amalgam." So, he asked, "Have there been any studies of a population showing that people who have mercury in their mouths have more of any disease than people who don’t?" Huggins replied, "This is not a fair question because mercury does not create the same disease in each person." Bazell noted, "It’s a simple, scientific question, though." The best Huggins could do was say, "It’s a very clever question, too." When Bazell kept pushing for an answer, Huggins just said, "The proof is in the patient."

Bazell then went on to tell viewers that while Huggins "claims he cured people of a variety of ailments simply by removing their fillings," Huggins failed to supply any scientific evidence to support his claims, even when he was in front of a Colorado administrative law judge recommending that Huggins’ license to practice be revoked! (It was, indeed, revoked.)

The Dateline report ended by noting that the "ADA [American Dental Association] says it’s improper and unethical to recommend that patients have their fillings taken out solely for the purpose of removing toxic substances from the body." They added that if a dentist suggests this, the viewer should "hold on to your wallet and go to another dentist."

Further information on the Dateline NBC web site linked this type of dental quackery to "holistic dentistry," in which dentists may claim to adjust jaw joints, provide "nutrition counseling" and sell dietary supplements, use acupuncture, armoatherapy, homeopathy, iridology, etc. They note that all of these areas fall outside proper dentistry, so if a densist proposes to treat a medical, but non-dental, condition, you should "write him off." They continue, "If he proposes to do so with one of the unscientific methods mentioned above, leave the office at once and never return."

Dateline has always been one of the most skeptical and scientific of the TV newsmagazines, and it’s good to see that trend continuing, especially with such strong language against common "alternative" methods. (We usually don’t see any media outlets state outright that homeopathy and related "alternatives" are "unscientific.") This is the type of reporting that we need to encourage whenever we see it!

Facts Be Damned!

And on the flip side, we have Art Bell and the type of reporting that shouldn’t even exist. Richard Hoagland, a man who has gotten a reputation for being on the less-than-skeptical side of life, is at it again with Bell’s help. For those of you who don’t know him, he has claimed the "face on Mars" is a genuine alien artifact, as well as pyramids, cities, glass domes on the moon, and who knows what else he might see up there. He’s written at least one book on the subject, lectures, and stirs up those who believe that UFOs are alien spacecraft. Unfortunately, one thing he tends to miss are the facts.

This was brought into focus by his most recent attacks on NASA (he seems to think they are covering up all sorts of things), as reported by the AP in the State Journal-Register (5/17). This time, he’s focused on the Hale-Bopp comet.

Hoagland was interviewed by Art Bell on his syndicated radio show (some of you may remember Art Bell as being the one who first publicized the non-existent "object" following the comet -- the one that the Heaven’s Gate cult killed themselves to hop a ride on). There he claimed that NASA was somehow covering up by not using the Hubble Telescope to photograph the comet. Here’s where those pesky facts come in. You see, as quoted in a NASA letter sent to Art Bell, "Hubble has been used to observe Hale-Bopp a number of times since 1995, and the images have been widely available on the Internet, and have been in the news." AP notes that the two NASA Hale-Bopp computer sites had 4500 images in mid-April! While not all are from Hubble, that certainly sounds like a strange way to stage a cover-up! Not only that, but the chief Hubble scientist noted to Bell that most of the major discoveries about the comet were made with non-Hubble telescopes because Hubble’s spectrograph was not yet operational and because the angle of viewing put Hubble in danger of being blinded and ruined by the sun.

Hoagland would have none of that, though. Facts be damned, he said, "A simple set of superb, high-resolution Hale-Bopp images from Hubble ... would have been a profound legacy for 20th century science. Instead, we have excuses." Hello? Anybody home? Did he even bother to listen to what was said in the letters? Does he understand that there are already a large number of such images available? Apparently, the conspiracy angle is more interesting than the facts.

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