The Pick

The obsessive pursuit of health and happiness. Health and happiness are … held out as a promotional package to which all good citizens are expected to aspire, but the paradox is that it can lead to an addictive disorder that acts like a distorting mirror, affecting every aspect of our lives. BMJ.

Gay men are 'rebelling against health warnings'. Government campaigns to encourage safe sex among gay men are fuelling risky practices instead, according to new research…Dr Michele Crossley, a psychologist at the University of Manchester, who wrote the report, said: "The constant churning out of more and more messages promoting safe sex is making the problem worse by bringing out the rebellious streak in people." Times.
[see also The side effects of health warnings.]

Cell Phone Studies See No Link to Brain Cancer. Two of the most rigorous studies yet completed on the relationship between cellular phones and brain tumors have found that cell-phone users are no more likely than anyone else to develop benign tumors or malignant brain cancers. One study, supported by the National Cancer Institute, was released last night, weeks ahead of its scheduled publication in The New England Journal of Medicine, to match a similar study, which was paid for by the cell-phone industry and the federal government, that is being published today in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
New York Times.

The public wants it both ways, to our cost. The public is in a state of confusion concerning how best to protect its interests. People resent being told what to do by the state or by anyone in authority, but they often listen to campaigning groups…we expect to live in a risk-free environment and we are more risk averse than ever…we need to find a way to persuade people that life simply can't be risk free. Progress and change inevitably involve risk. – Bridget M Ogilvie. Extract from the Dainton Lecture at the British Library, given by the chair of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science. Independent.

'Tis the season to be wary, tra-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la. Grandparents are highly inflammable and should be sprayed on arrival with some fireproofing agent. Independent.

Organic food for thought. Growing organic food benefits the environment - but not if it has to travel thousands of miles, warns Sarah Sexton. Health Matters.

Mad about Sheep. As the panic over BSE builds in Europe, you might be surprised to know that we still don't know for sure where the disease came from. New Scientist.

Threat that never was. A laboratory study which suggested that GM crops harmed butterflies provoked protests across Europe. Now environmentalists are having to backtrack. Times.

Another czar will do a fat lot of good. The Fat Czar is to lead improvements in Scotland's diet … I find it particularly odd that a party which at least had its origins in socialism should latch on to the title of czar with such zeal. The comrades dispatched their last czar with such enthusiasm because they felt he was something of a bossy boots, a tyrant, no less, who believed in eating peasants for breakfast. Yet New Labour feels czars are the answer to sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll, and now fat … With a Fat Czar on one side caning your fingers every time you reach for a peanut and the Stasi knocking on the door to get you jogging round the block, won't we end up taking the easy way out: death by chocolate? Glasgow Herald.

Scares & Miracles

British soldiers may brave the thunder of battle but they need protection from the noise of their own brass bands, health officials have warned. The Ministry of Defense said on Thursday an army safety audit had found that the musical assault on soldiers' eardrums from military bands violated "Noise at Work Regulations". Reuters.

Watching sport 'bad for your health'. Most Dutch people have unhappy memories of the England – Holland match in the 1996 European Championships – but they are the lucky ones. Researchers have found that the number of fatal heart attacks and strokes suffered by Dutchmen on the day of England's 4-1 win in Euro 96 was significantly higher than normal. They believe the reason could be the increased stress associated with watching a big sporting event. BMJ, BBC, Independent.

Is the PS2 a Defense Risk? According to one report on, the PlayStation2 shortage may be exacerbated by the exportation of hundreds of the units to Iraq. According to the report, several PS2 units can be bundled together to create a primitive super computer…Some fear that Iraq will attempt to create an unmanned, remotely controlled flying vehicle capable of delivering chemical weapons. Daily Radar.

Seventies Christmas songs can give you Glam Rock Shoulder. Doctors around the country have diagnosed a new complaint called Glam Rock Shoulder which affects Christmas party ravers. It hits people who punch the air soccer-style as they leap around the dance floor to classic seasonal songs such as Merry Christmas Everybody, I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day and Hi Ho Silver Lining. Ananova.

Coffee 'increases miscarriage risk'. Drinking more than four cups of coffee a day during early pregnancy risks miscarriage, warn researchers. They say the chances of having a miscarriage double. BBC.

Just for starters, eat more avocado to protect your liver from disease. Avocados contain potent chemicals that may prevent liver damage and could be developed into new drugs, scientists said yesterday. Japanese researchers made the discovery after feeding 22 different fruits to rats that had liver damage caused by a powerful toxin, to see if the fruits could provide protection. Independent.

Ferret owners fight NYC ban. Shelton Crute, a 22-year-old student who recently adopted two ferrets, Isabella and Coyote, said the animals sit on her lap and shoulders. "Coyote and Isabella are not a threat to public health," Crute said. "They are my family." New Jersey Online.

 UK doctors warned about bad handwriting. The General Medical Council (GMC) is warning doctors that bad handwriting and failure to help members of the public in an emergency are no longer acceptable. Although illegible handwriting within the profession is legendary, the latest edition of the GMC's Good Medical Practice booklet, which lays down the standards expected of doctors, says records must be "clear, accurate, legible and contemporaneous." Reuters.

No sex thanks, we're British. Complacency over safe sex is being blamed for a dramatic rise in cases of sexually transmitted diseases. BBC.

Smokers' cancer risk 'cut by coffee'. Drinking coffee may be able to cut a smoker's chances of developing bladder cancer, according to research. It has been long known that smokers are at risk of developing bladder cancer, and prior to the Spanish study, coffee was also thought to increase the risk slightly. BBC.


Fickle precaution. A commentary in The Lancet on the possible risks of mobile phones makes interesting reading given the Government's decision to issue health warnings on the use of such phones. "No evidence of risk doesn't mean phones are safe" seems to be the generally accepted wisdom in the light of the recent BSE problems. The Lancet, however, steps aside briefly from the issue of the risks themselves to consider what seems to us to be the more important issue here – the things which actually influence people's behaviour. The author of the comment piece, Philip Denby, notes: "public perception of safety will be heavily influenced by the perceived level of benefit from the activity in question. This level is clearly high in the case of mobile telephones and in many other domains where individuals exercise freedom of choice." More.

Let them eat cake! Yet another study has now added weight (no pun intended) to SIRC's warnings on the dangers of restricting children's access to 'unhealthy' foods. According to a Reuters report on a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, restricting the diets of young girls has, yet again, been shown to increase their consumption of 'forbidden' foods while also increasing their sense of guilt and shame about eating such foods – a classic recipe for the development of eating disorders. Full story.

Parkinstein Food? A study published in Nature Neuroscience and reported in some British newspapers has caused the organic food movement some considerable distress. We well remember that when Arpad Pusztai announced the results of his flawed and non-peer reviewed study on the effects of genetically modified potatoes on rats, there was an immediate media frenzy of sensational scare-mongering about so-called Frankenstein foods, led in great part by the champions of 'natural' agricultural methods. Now, however, research reported in a highly prestigious scientific journal suggests that a pesticide recommended by the Soil Association for use on organic crops may have the potential to cause Parkinson's disease.

For many people this must come as a great surprise. Pesticides on organic food? Surely that cannot be right. The fact that organic foods are routinely sprayed with highly toxic, but still 'natural', chemicals is something which the green-leaning middle classes in Britain seem to have overlooked. Full story.

Translating the language of risk Perhaps one positive outcome of the most recent BSE 'crisis' is the sign of increasing awareness of the difference between scare stories and accurate information. There has been, understandably, anger at the failure of bureaucrats to communicate what scientists were saying about the risks posed by BSE in cattle. There have also been a lot of 'told you so's from the right-on, but largely unelected and unaccountable, champions of the 'consumer' and food correctness. But now there is also greater recognition that yes, the world can be a risky place, but we must make the best of it and get on with our lives. Full story.

The lesson of BSE "BSE has caused a harrowing fatal disease for humans. As we sign this Report the number of people dead and thought to be dying stands at over 80, most of them young. They and their families have suffered terribly. Families all over the UK have been left wondering whether the same fate awaits them." So begins the 16 volume report by Lord Phillips on the handling of the BSE / vCJD issue – the 'crisis' which has led to deep suspicions about the food we eat and to a loss of faith in the scientists and government officials who are responsible for advising us about health risks. Full story.