Public Health

The Top 5 Bogus Public Health Scares

How activist misinformation wastes time, money, and harms Americans



Health activists, nutrition nannies, medical paternalists, and just plain old quacks regularly conjure up a variety of menaces that are supposedly damaging the health of Americans. Their scares ranging from the decades-long campaign against fluoridation to worries that saccharin causes cancer to the ongoing hysteria over biotech crops to fears of lead in lipstick. The campaigners' usual "solution" is to demand that regulators ban the offending substance or practice. Here are five especially egregious examples.

5. Americans should consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day, in order to reduce everybody's risk of heart disease, strokes, and high blood pressure. 

You hear this one all the time. The American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day. A June 2013 report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest asserted that "Immediately reducing average sodium consumption levels to between 2,200 mg to 1,500 mg per day would save about 700,000 to 1.2 million lives over 10 years." These nutrition nannies have been urging the U.S. government to lower the upper limit of daily recommended sodium intake to just two-thirds of a teaspoon of salt.

A May 2013 study by the Institute of Medicine calls those recommendations into question. Contrary to years of anti-salt dogma, consuming less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day may actually harm people suffering from congestive heart failure. There was also "no evidence for benefit and some evidence suggesting risk of adverse health outcomes" if the person with a low-salt diet has diabetes, chronic kidney disease, or pre-existing cardiovascular disease. "The evidence on health outcomes," the report concluded, "is not consistent with efforts that encourage lowering of dietary sodium in the general population to 1,500 milligrams per day."


4. Vaccines cause autism. 

In 1998 the British researcher Andrew Wakefield claimed in The Lancet that he had identified an association between vaccination against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and the onset of autism. Thus was launched one of the more destructive health scares of recent years, in which tens of thousands of frightened parents refused to have their children vaccinated. Anti-vaccine cheerleaders such as the actress Jenny McCarthy fanned those fears.

Years of research and numerous studies have thoroughly debunked this scare. For example, the Institute of Medicine issued a 2011 report, "Adverse Effects of Vaccines," that found no association between MMR vaccination and autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees that "there is no relationship between vaccines containing thimerosal and autism rates in children." The Lancet finally retracted the infamous Wakefield study in 2010. Also in 2010, Britain's General Medical Council banned Wakefield from the practice of medicine after concluding that his paper had been not just inaccurate but dishonest.


3. Cell phone use causes cancer. 

The fear here is that radio frequency waves emitted by cellular phones are associated with higher risk of various brain cancers. One anecdotal report even suggested that women who secreted their cell phones in their bras were more likely to get breast cancer.

It is true that in 2011 the hyper-precautionary International Agency for Research on Cancer classified cell phones as a "possible carcinogen." But as a somewhat snarky response in the Journal of Carcinogenesis pointed out, the agency classifies coffee and pickles as possible carcinogens, too. Meanwhile, the National Cancer Institute flatly states that "to date there is no evidence from studies of cells, animals, or humans that radiofrequency energy can cause cancer." A 2012 comprehensive review of studies in the journal Bioelctromagnetics found "no statistically significant increase in risk for adult brain or other head tumors from wireless phone use."


2. High fructose corn syrup is responsible for the obesity "epidemic." 

This particular scare was launched by a 2004 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which noted, "The increased use of HFCS in the United States mirrors the rapid increase in obesity." The authors pointed out that American consumption of HFCS had increased by more than 1,000 percent between 1970 and 1990, and they estimated that Americans consumed an average of 132 kilocalories of HFCS per day. Digesting fructose, they suggested, failed to send signals to brain to tell people to stop eating.

Since this scare was unleashed, a lot of research has investigated many different hypotheses about how HCFS might be worse for people than table sugar (sucrose). Most have turned up nothing significant.

A 2012 review article in the journal Advances in Nutrition summarized this research: "a broad scientific consensus has emerged that there are no metabolic or endocrine response differences between HFCS and sucrose related to obesity or any other adverse health outcome. This equivalence is not surprising given that both of these sugars contain approximately equal amounts of fructose and glucose, contain the same number of calories, possess the same level of sweetness, and are absorbed identically through the gastrointestinal tract." Another 2012 review article, in the Journal of Obesity, concluded, "In the past decade, a number of research trials have demonstrated no short-term differences between HFCS and sucrose in any metabolic parameter or health related effect measured in human beings including blood glucose, insulin, leptin, ghrelin and appetite."

So if HFCS is not to blame for the fattening up of Americans, what is? How about pigging out? The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in 1970 Americans consumed an average of 2,169 calories per day. In 2010, the figure was about 2,614. Sweeteners such as sugar and HFCS provided only 42 of this 445-calorie increase.


1. Exposure to trace amounts of synthetic chemicals is a major cause of cancer. 

Rachel Carson's passionate 1962 book Silent Spring warned that we "are living in a sea of carcinogens." More recently, a 2010 report issued by the President's Cancer Panel declared, "The true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated."

But is that so? As the American Cancer Society's Cancer Facts & Figures 2013 notes, "Exposure to carcinogenic agents in occupational, community, and other settings is thought to account for a relatively small percentage of cancer deaths—about 4% from occupational exposures and 2% from environmental pollutants (man-made and naturally occurring)." The same group rejected the President's Cancer Panel's conclusion as well, arguing that it "does not represent scientific consensus."

In fact, at the same time human ingenuity has been generating all these useful synthetic compounds, both cancer incidence and death rates have been falling. While Cancer remains the second leading cause of death in the United States, a 2013 report by the National Cancer Institute confirms that overall cancer death rates continue to decline, and that over the past decade the incidence of cancer continues to fall for men and holds steady for women.

Once a bogus health alarm has been launched, more careful researchers must waste years and tens of millions of dollars battling the misinformation. In the meantime, worried Americans actually harm their health by refusing to get their kids vaccinated, or squander their money on such items as "chemical-free" products. Scaremongering, unfortunately, can be both lucrative and a source of gratifying media attention, so it's not likely to go away anytime soon. 

NEXT: Silent Circle Second Encrypted E-Mail Service to Shut Down in Last Day

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  1. Reason still shilling for Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Pollution and Big Telecom. At least they got the part right about not worrying about too much salt.

    1. “At least they got the part right about not worrying about too much salt.”

      Hey! You think our payoffs didn’t work?
      /s/ Big Salt

      1. When it rains, it pours ……………….. ……………. ………………… …………………….. ……………………….. ……………………………

    2. “At least they got the part right about not worrying about too much salt.”

      Not according to the link provided. I quote:

      “evidence supports a positive relationship between higher levels of sodium intake and risk of heart disease, which is consistent with previous research based on sodium’s effects on blood pressure”

      Too much salt remains a public health issue. And there is nothing in the paper to suggest that those with diabetes etc shouldn’t make efforts to reduce salt intake from the average 3,400 mg daily levels. I wonder if the rest of his bogus health scares are as dubious.

      By the way, what would be the top 5 non-bogus health scares? Not including excessive salt intake.

      1. The only thing dubious is your comprehension ability. The article was talking about the specific assertion that everyone should reduce their sodium intake to 1500mg per day. There are no legitimate studies showing any benefit for reducing intake to that level from the currently recomended daily intake. Yes EXCESSIVELY HIGH sodium intake is harmful, just like anything else in ridiculously excessive amounts. But that isn’t what that scare was about.

        1. I gathered that the average daily intake, 3,400 mg of salt, was excessive. The amount that these diabetes patients should take may well be more than 1,500, I’m in no position to judge. All we have is one press release, and that’s not enough to go by. That’s not how science works.

          How is concern about excessive salt intake a bogus scare? Use your superior comprehension abilities and enlighten us all.

  2. I nominate “terrorism” as the number 1 bogus public health scare:
    “This is Your Brain on Terrorism”…..terrorism/

  3. Live long enough and you will get cancer.

    When everyone is living to be 80 or 90 one would expect cancer rates to be high.

    1. That’s a great point. That’s also why Alzheimer’s is one of the fastest growing diseases out there….who are you? why are you writing to me?

    2. …except cancer rates (overall) have leveled off in North America.

      1. So we should be wondering why they are so low.

        1. We need to subsidize cancer!

      2. They’ve leveled off because life expectancy has leveled off. My grandparents all passed away in their mid 80’s, and that’s about where most of us can expect to pass on. People aren’t going to start routinely living to be 120.

  4. Not really sure how you could write this article without once mentioning illegal drugs

    1. Because drugs are bad, m’kay? Don’t do drugs.

    2. Actually, legally prescribed drugs are more scarey for me. According to this article, there are almost 50 million children on anti-asthma drugs, 24 million on ADHD drugs, and 10 million on anti-depressants. Some 7% of children are on two or more different drugs.

      Is this a bogus health scare or not? I’m not clear.…..75588.html

  5. That low doses of radiation are harmful.

  6. I’m not so sure about the salt thing,…..ssociation disagrees with the IOM report. Theres also the fact that salt affects more things than just blood pressure. Of course it is a vital nutrient so people getting to low amounts would suffer just like deficiency from any vitamin or mineral but I think between 1500-2300 still seems optimal for good health, maybe closer to 1500.

    1. My only problem with salt is that it makes me thirsty. I find sea salt less, erm, “salty” if that’s at all possible in terms of thirst.

      1. Since mined salt was originaly sea salt your idea that Sea salt is less “salty” is baseless. I had this argument with a friend who tried to say the sea salt was healthier than other salts. False salt no matter where it comes from is made of the same chemicals, otherwise it’s not salt anymore.

        1. Makes sense because when I read the ingredients – they’re the same.

          So not surprised. I was suspicious.

          1. Has anyone noticed the marketing of salt? I ate “Pink Himalayan salt” chips the other day.

            1. The other thing is the use of nationalities to salt. E.G. “Greek sea salt.”

              My knowledge of salt is scant but, as Ron succinctly explains, isn’t salt, just salt?

            2. I have some of that lol, mostly it is pretty, I’m curious what chemical gives it that color and if it is dangerous.

              1. The salt turns pink when you put a cell phone up to it. It’s from teh cancer.

        2. yep, I use sea salt because I prefer to get my iodine in a measured amount once a day, although I guess I could just use kosher, probably cheaper. Eh not as good for status though so it’s probably a wash.

          1. I use sea salt in my cooking because I like the flavor. Kind of like the difference between Tabasco and Texas Pete. Not a big deal, but worth getting what you like.

        3. Since I only buy plain old ordinary NaCl, I do not know if “sea salt” is truly salt from the ocean or not.

          I don’t think consuming bromine salts or the other salts in seawater would be particularly healthy.

          1. Sea salt refers to salt deposits left behind by ancient seas. Sea salt can literally come from underneath the middle of Detroit.

            1. I am unaware of the precise provenance of “sea salt” vs common table salt sold in most stores.

              I presumed that the distinction was that while the ‘common salt’ was NaCl – to whatever degree of purity is required – ‘sea salt’ meant salt that preserved the ratio of natural salts found in seawater.

              If I am incorrect in this presumption, mea culpa.

        4. No. Salt is not just salt. There are many salts besides NaCl. Refined table salt is almost pure NaCl. Sea salt has more other salts besides just NaCl, so it can taste different and can be subjectively “less salty” depending on the source and method of production. More exotic unrefined salts, such as Dead Sea salt actually contain more other salts than NaCl.
          Since sea salt is still mostly NaCl, the health effects are pretty much the same. But it is not true that it is identical to normal table salt.

        5. Don’t they add “salts” and other compounds besides NaCl to some salt products to do things like alter its flavor or prevent it from clumping in humidity? I can see how that can make it taste more salty or dehydrate you more quickly.

          1. Modern common table salt adds an anti-caking agent. They didn’t used to though. I still remember when everyone used to add uncooked rice to salt shakers which worked as a sort of natural dessicant.

            They also add iodine to help prevent brain damage and goiters that result from thyroid conditions caused by iodine defficiency.

            Most other salts are just salt in it’s raw state, whatever that happens to be for whatever the source of the salt is.

  7. How about the Oldies but Goodies: Alar on apples, Love Canal (not one person living there ever got a disease from the dumped chemicals), radon in basements, and Genetically Modified Foods (shamelessly portrayed as Frankenfoods)?

    1. Cranberries!!

    2. Alar

      The old Alar scare was a lulu. It wasn’t even Alar they got the up-tick on, it was a waste product.

    3. I think that the radon thing is legit to some extent (though people definitely worry too much about it). I could be wrong, but I think that there are higher rates of lung cancer in areas with lots of uranium in the bedrock which are not explained by other factors.

      1. IIRC, the radon panic was mostly based on a study of uranium miners. Not only were they breathing levels of radon far higher than found in most homes, I don’t believe the study controlled for the fact that many of them were heavy smokers, either. So even if the concern wasn’t totally bogus, it was certainly radically oversold.

        This is the pattern with many of these health scares: a genuine threat to a small subset of the population is treated as if it were a mortal threat to everyone. Sure, some people can benefit from a low-sodium diet, but most people would see little or no benefit from radically lowering their sodium intake. Pushing low-sodium for everyone is a little like banning all dairy products because some people are lactose-intolerant.

  8. No comments on Big Food and HFCS? Even if there aren’t any adverse health effects from HFCS, it’s still an inferior sweetener with an inferior taste. And while I’m conscious of the possible placebo effect, a 12oz Mexican coke (made with cane sugar)tastes great AND makes me feel full – almost bloated – whereas U.S. coke tastes like crap and a 20oz has no filling effect. HFCS is the result of Govt and Big Food collusion – not the free market.

    1. Yeah, the reason HFCS sucks is because we’re all being forced to pay for it’s inclusion is absolutely fucking everything.

    2. My mother-in-law (who believes every study saying anything with flavor is bad for you) and I argued about this. In an experiment, I gave up HFCS for a couple months by switching brands (not changing my diet any other way). All I know is I didn’t lose any weight, but I lost inches around the middle. No, I have no idea why that would happen and I don’t really care to research it, but there you have it. Food for thought.

      1. Oh, and when I went back to my old brands, the inches came back.

      2. Liver weight. Fructose (whether from HFCS or table sugar) is a hepatic poison and must be processed through the liver. This deposits fat in the liver and contributes to insulin resistance.

        By reducing your fructose intake, you shrank your liver’s fat deposits.

  9. I would have thought that rBGH would have made the top 5, personally.

  10. Mono Sodium Glutamate!11one1eleventyone1!

    1. Even an old bleached out flavorless turd tastes mighty fine with a little MSG on it. Mmm.

      1. I’ll settle with taking your word on that.

      2. nah, you need some Texas Pete as well.

  11. What about the Princeton HFCS study?…../91/22K07/

    The only ones I ever saw criticize it were the HFCS industry, but I may have missed some. It seemed pretty damning on the face of it.

    1. I don’t buy that HFCS is significantly worse than sucrose. The bond that makes them different is broken in the gut in a split second.

      Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that HFCS is better than they say, it’s that sucrose is worse than they say.

      I also get suspicious when a psychologist is in charge of a weight gain study.

      1. It is funny how people who are all bent out of shape about HFCS seem to think that sucrose (or even things like Agave nectar which have even more fructose than HFCS) is some kind of great natural food that is good for you.
        As I understand it, HFCS is usually 60/40 fructose/glucose and sucrose is 50/50. So maybe HFCS is a little worse for you because of the liver thing. But it’s not as if sucrose is good for you.

        1. yea I’ve been seeing tons of agave nectar products recently, ironically it has waay more fructose than hfcs, I like this article on the jack norris site.…..lth-fraud/

        2. So, Sucrose is 10% better on grounds of taste.

        3. As I understand it, HFCS is usually 60/40 fructose/glucose and sucrose is 50/50. So maybe HFCS is a little worse for you because of the liver thing. But it’s not as if sucrose is good for you.

          My understanding is it’s typically 55f/45g, but that it’s customized in a lot of products.

          My big take on all this is that increased obesity is a proximate event, so you look for a proximate cause. Refined sugar (unbound by fiber) in large quantities is a recent thing. Refined white flour (for anyone but the rich) is a recent thing. Seed oil (extracted with yummy hexane!) is a very recent thing. Lowering your fat/cholesterol intake is an extremely recent thing.

  12. It is true that in 2011 the hyper-precautionary International Agency for Research on Cancer classified cell phones as a “possible carcinogen.” But as a somewhat snarky response in the Journal of Carcinogenesis pointed out, the agency classifies coffee and pickles as possible carcinogens, too

    It really depends where that pickle has been…

    1. Where exactly DO you keep your pickles, hmmmm?

      1. Let’s just say I wouldn’t eat any pickle that Warty offered…

        1. Everyone’s frightened of a warty pickle.

    2. yeah I used to hear shit like that too. I think according to the anti smoker crusaders methodology for second hand smoke, you can rate sweet potatoes as being MORE carcinogenic

  13. It’s come to the point that as soon as I read the words “Center for Science in the Public Interest” I just quit reading.

    The Center for Pseudoscience and Nonsense in the Interest of Manipulation of the Public would be a far more honest and accurate name. But, of course, honesty and accuracy are of no more interest to the CSPI than is science.

    1. Damn, I used to have a list of all the things CSPI has wanted to ban since 1973. It’s a hell of a list.

      1. Wouldn’t it be easier to simply list the things that CSPI has not wanted to ban?

        1. Heh! Seems like!

      2. There has to be some way to juggle the acronym CSPI into Chicken Little on PCP.

        It would be very interesting to know who funds the organization. Their website claims: “CSPI is primarily funded by the 900,000 subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter and individual donors.”

        I suspect the “individual donors,” conveniently clumped together with the subscribers, account for the vast majority of the funding.

        1. It would be very interesting to know who funds the organization.

          It’s easier than that. CSPI Executive Director/Founder Michael Jacobson is a radical vegetarian/animal rights activist, and that informs everything he does.

  14. It’s always nice to read articles like these. It puts me at great ease until I hear someone crowing about CHEMICALS!.

    1. One can not love self without loving chemicals.

  15. Not having cancer causes cancer.

    1. And having cancer causes cancer.

  16. LOL, the world is full of scientific illiterates.

    Perhaps we can call them… The Illiterati? It DOES have a nice ring to it…

  17. Is Joe Mercola really a quack (the very first link in the article)? He advocates essentially a paleo diet and HIIT for exercise.

  18. Most of the “scaremongering” comes from those addicted to money, power, and greed. Anyone who knows about “epigenetic research” should know that epigenetic studies clearly show that each individual is just that, “an individual” and not even an identical twin has the same genetic/epigenetic make-up. All of us will respond to the world around us, each in our own unique way. That means that we can throw all the “junk science” about cancer, and eating the wrong things, or not eating the right things, etc. out the window. Total human uniqueness cancels all of the “scaremongering”. Think about that for a while.

  19. Biotech crops are controlled through intellectual property/patent laws. So while they are in the most general, possibly reductionist statement possible, “not bad for you”, it does seem that they’re easily monopolized at the detriment of the small, local farmer and genuine food diversity. Who knows? Maybe I’m just a loon.

    1. You’re right, plus when we reduce plant diversity we open ourselves up to another Potato famine situation like Ireland experienced. Once a fungus or pest of some sort adjusts to like that one GMO species of corn we’re growing everywhere then the whole crop will get wiped out.

  20. The “industry” and “studies” can show that sucrose and HFCS are exactly as sweet as much as they want. And if you place a cup of Coke made with real sugar and Coke made with HFCS in front of any Coca-Cola afficianado, they can tell you which is which. Every time, without fail.

    Every time my family goes to Niagara Falls and walks across the bridge to Canada, we buy several extra inflated price because it’s a tourist trap bottles of soda. Because made with sucrose, the sodas taste better. We also buy some Canadian ice wine, but that’s another story.

  21. What Bailey doesn’t say is that Britain’s General Medical Council retracted their censure against Wakefield’s co-author, John Walker-Smith, one of the most respected gastroenterologists in the world. Wakefield moved to the USA and so doesn’t need his licence to practice in the UK. 2nd paragraph and…

    Sounds like Brian Deer is the UK’s Joe McGuiness.

    1. Brian Deer has a bright future ahead of himself doing the dirty PR work for pharmaceutical companies 🙂

  22. Ron Bailey, have you see this?…..esity-era/

  23. Is Reason purposely shilling for pharma or is the author really this clueless? The CDC has no proof that vaccines don’t cause autism, and they have no vaccine safety studies. The British Medical Council revoked Wakefield’s license after a journalist on pharma’s payroll wrote an article slandering him. That’s the same reason his study was pulled as well. Everyone that participated in the study even testified or wrote statements backing up Wakefield, but the BMC (being on the payroll of pharma) could have cared less. Read some of the research showing that the unvaccinated never have autism. It just seems the author repeated a few talking points without doing any research or checking the facts before writing this article.

  24. “Rachel Carson’s passionate 1962 book”? How about amending that charitable falsehood with a more accurate description of Carson and her infamous book? Fraudulent? Irresponsible?

    Referring to “Silent Spring” as “passionate”, given the death toll Carson’s responsible for, is like calling “Das Kapital” or “Mein Kampf” passionate. Yeah, technically correct but not bordering on an over-polite ignoring of history.

  25. And nothing about the greatest bogus public health scare of all, that saturated fat causes heart disease?

  26. Sex is very dangerous for health. Not only because of sexually-transmitted diseases, but also because it raises the heart rate.

    Therefore, I believe that Our Beloved Nanny State should protect public health my making sex illegal, with the possible exception of sexual acts practiced in presence of a qualified nurse with training and equipment to administer emergency treatment in case of need.

    In order to enforce this just and socially responsible ban, surveillance cameras should be placed in every room of every house, and also in every car.

    Castration seems an appropriate punishment for violators, but unfortunately offenders could still endanger their health by eating too much salt, or, God forbid, smoking. Therefore, I believe death penalty is more appropriate. Death prevents from endangering one’s own health, and therefore it should vigorously promoted by Our Beloved Nanny State.

  27. Finally a few of us are understanding the the article where it is trying to tell us that the to restrict our salt intake to 1500mg/day.We all know by now the excessive salt intake can lead to a lot of complications like hypertension,water retention and is harmful for the kidneys too.Whereas less intake has no side effects at why not stick to something which can help us live a better and healthy life.

  28. risk of adverse health outcomes” if the person with a low-salt

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