Feature Archive

Emailed Health Warnings: Hoax or Fact?

Is that email message alerting you to a new health hazard bogus or valid?

By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

A busy Boston architect, Brooke Trivas gets tons of emails. She usually responds to them quickly, replying or deleting as needed. But a recent email, sent by a friend, was so unnerving it required more attention.

Leading brands of lipstick contain lead, the message warned -- at levels high enough to cause cancer. The warning cited as its source a doctor from a hospital breast cancer unit in Toronto. The message included a plea to share the news, and Trivas did, forwarding the email to 10 friends, worried they had not yet heard about this bizarre health hazard.

Soon, she learned the truth: the email was a hoax.

Health hoaxes, of course, have been around since time immemorial, but thanks to the Internet, disseminating them has never been this quick or easy. In minutes, fearful recipients can forward the warning to their entire address books, sometimes spreading anxiety unnecessarily.

WebMD talked to experts, including those who investigate the health alerts, and asked for the lowdown on 6 popular health alerts. We also asked why it's so hard to ignore them, and got some tips on how to recognize the next hoax before you click "Forward."