Much of what we fear is not scary at all

Originally posted at the Calgary Herald: Rob Breakenridge writes on the tendency of Canadians to believe in dangers that have been proven to be completely overblown.  We tend to ignore the experts unless they are peddling scary scenarios.

Judging by the news in recent weeks and months, it would appear as though we have no shortage of things to be fearful of.

Bisphenol-A (BPA), cellphones, Wi-Fi transmitters and water fluoridation are just some of the apparent imminent dangers.

How can Canadians ensure that the responses to these issues are based on conclusive scientific evidence, as opposed to the urgings of overzealous advocacy groups, or worse, the rantings of charlatans and conspiracy theorists?

Take, for example, Canada’s recent decision to add BPA to the list of toxic substances.

Recent assessments by both the European Food Safety Agency and equivalent agency for Australia and New Zealand reached the same conclusions: that the scientific evidence speaks to BPA’s safety.

Furthermore, an international panel of experts convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that the evidence for BPA’s alleged health risks is weak, and that it would be premature to ban BPA.

The panel reviewed the most current scientific literature, and found that “BPA is not accumulated in the body and is rapidly eliminated through urine.”

There is, at least in this case, some reasonable disagreement, and certainly a need for further research. But it would seem safe to conclude that Canadians have been exposed to far more negative stories about BPA than stories on its safety. And a corresponding course of action by policy-makers has resulted.

Is there a connection between alarmist media coverage and public perception? Undoubtedly.

The problem may lie with us. A recent study from the University of California at Santa Barbara found that the advice and opinions of scientific experts is often ignored or rejected. The experts who are more trusted tend to be those presenting scary scenarios.

Maybe the news media, then, is only giving us what we want. If the mainstream media isn’t going to frighten us, there’s no shortage of websites that will.

You don’t have to look far to find websites touting all sorts of horrible effects of water fluoridation. These conspiracy theories have been sufficiently main-streamed that anti-fluoridation forces have scored some victories, included a decision last week in Waterloo, Ont., to stop fluoridation.

The reality, though, is that the evidence overwhelmingly confirms fluoridation’s safety. According to Health Canada, “evidence from all currently available studies does not support a link between exposure to fluoride in drinking water and any adverse health effects.”

The Canadian Dental Association concurs: “Scientific studies have not found any credible link between water fluoridation and adverse health effects.”

In fairness, much of the coverage surrounding this issue seems cognizant of this.

Why, then, does another scientific consensus seem absent in the coverage of the alleged risks of cellphones and Wi-Fi?

The Ontario NDP is pushing for government-mandated labels for cellphones warning of an alleged cancer risk. One Ontario school has banned Wi-Fi, and other schools across the country are being pressured to do so, too. In Ottawa, a Commons committee has been investigating radio-frequency radiation and its possible health effects.

Again, though, the evidence here is quite overwhelming. For example, in the U.K., the Health Protection Agency recently concluded that a year’s worth of Wi-Fi exposure was equivalent to talking on a cellphone for 20 minutes.

More broadly speaking, the WHO says “no adverse health effects are expected from exposure” to wireless networks.

As for cellphones and cancer, the evidence is similarly one-sided.

As summarized by the WHO: “Recent epidemiological studies have found no convincing evidence of an increased cancer risk or any other disease with mobile phone use.”

Indeed. A recent 30-year epidemiological study found that cellphone use is not associated with increases in brain cancer. A 2008 metaanalysis found “no overall increased risk of brain tumours.”

And on it goes.

There are legitimate concerns to human health we need to focus on, and we need to rely on the scientific process and scientific evidence to guide us accordingly.

Yet, from the anti-vaccine movement to homeopaths and “alternative medicine,” we so often are confronted by those going against the preponderance of evidence.

Perhaps, then, it is fear-mongering and pseudoscience we need to be more concerned about.

 

 

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