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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Health Scares on the Internet

Air Date: Week of

Deirdre Kennedy reports from San Francisco on the growing number of bogus health scares circulating in cyberspace. The messages prey on people's often legitimate fears of environmental toxins. Hoaxes you're likely to receive in an e-mail include warnings about Costa Rican bananas that carry flesh-eating bacteria or for women tampons made with asbestos.


CURWOOD: Go onto the Internet and you can find advice on just about anything. Health and medicine are some of the most popular topics. It's easy to see why. Internet info feels private, exhaustive, and instant, but it's not always accurate. Telling the world-class experts from the quacks can be a real challenge. It's especially tricky when trusted friends forward e-mails with dire health warnings. Your natural response is to believe them, but that could be a mistake. From San Francisco, reporter Deirdre Kennedy tells us why.

KENNEDY: Anyone with e-mail has probably received a number of warnings like the one about public telephones having poison on the keypads, or that HIV-infected needles are being embedded in subway seats. Messages warn of carcinogens in hair shampoo, and pet-killing spot removers. One message that's been making the rounds for more than a year now claims that tampons contain asbestos, to make women bleed more so they'll buy more tampons.

(Ambient office sounds)

KENNEDY: The e-mail has been circulating like wildfire through women's groups. Even among skeptical professionals here at the Womanhood.com offices in New York City. Editors Denise Dove and Akkida Mcdowell say they've received the e-mail more than once.

DOVE: I recently received it from my mother, and she sent it to several people before it reached me. And I sent it to a few women that I work with.

MCDOWELL: It looks credible. It has a lot of -- I didn't think at first it had any sort of sources but it does. There's a listing that was a quote from someone that worked at Ms. Magazine that's in there. There's a study that some PhD professor did at the University of Colorado.

KENNEDY: References to real or imaginary authorities are a common element in Internet hoaxes, says About.com's Urban Legend columnist David Emory. Emory says another reason that such scares often seem plausible is because they prey on consumers' legitimate concerns.

EMORY: The way this rumor began, it was about dioxin in tampons. And arguably, there was at one time enough residual dioxin in tampons from the bleaching process that it might pose a health hazard. That's controversial. It remains controversial, because scientists disagree on it. But someone took that valid warning that people were sending around, and added to it the wholly bogus information that tampons contain asbestos.

KENNEDY: While the e-mail hasn't exactly caused a nationwide slump in tampon sales, it has prompted enough worried phone calls from consumers that both Procter & Gamble and the Food and Drug Administration have issued statements assuring the public that asbestos has never been used in tampons. The scare that has sparked epic alarm is the so-called flesh-eating banana warning. The e-mail says that bananas from Costa Rica carry necrotizing fasciitis on their skins, a real disease which can cause rapid gangrene and even death. Worst of all, the message urges people who think they may have the disease to burn the healthy flesh around the infection to prevent it from spreading. Cynthia Adams, a mother of three who lives in Atlanta, says she unwittingly spread the hoax after she got the e-mail from a friend and sent it on to 38 of her closest friends and family members.

ADAMS: Within a month, I was receiving 500 phone calls daily. And then they started expanding outside of the country, especially Canada, U.K., Germany. I particularly have received a lot of e-mails from people from Costa Rica that really are blasting me.

KENNEDY: Adams has been trying to counteract the hoax by contacting the major banana importers, the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation, all of whom have issued statements assuring the public that flesh-eating bacteria cannot be transported on bananas. Even so, Adams says, the e-mail has still done its damage.

ADAMS: There were new mothers that had children for the first time that absolutely fell for the e-mail, and would contact me and ask me about the burning procedure. And said that their baby had diaper rash, but they were thinking that perhaps it is this flesh-eating disease at this point.

KENNEDY: Urban Legend debunker David Emory says it's brand new users that tend to be victimized by such hoaxes. And he says even for people who look to the Internet as an alternative source of information outside of the corporate-controlled media, it's important to remember that anyone with a modem can put information up on the Web -- whether for good or nefarious motives.

EMORY: There are reliable places, for example, where you can find health information. But it's still a free-for-all at the same time. And people can share information cheaply and quickly that could be very important. And as you say, it could be subversive information. It could be information that maybe authorities and big companies don't want you to have. Unfortunately, it's simply not trustworthy.

KENNEDY: One way to avoid being duped by the Internet scare, says Emory: Beware of forwarded e-mails with emphatic language, exclamation marks, and upper-case letters, particularly ones that say this is not a hoax. And he says don't pass it along to others.

EMORY: We must take personal responsibility for this stuff, because there's really no other way to protect ourselves or our loved ones who we may send false information to if we're not careful.

KENNEDY: Annoying as they may be, Internet hoaxes do appear to have one positive side effect. They do draw attention to health issues they refer to, and they also encourage consumers to pay closer attention to what's inside the products they use in their everyday lives. For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy in San Francisco.

CURWOOD: Coming up: A trip up the Amazon River in search of the pink dolphins. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.



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