Emailed Health Warnings: Hoax or Fact?
Is that email message alerting you to a new health hazard bogus or valid?
By Kathleen Doheny
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."
1. Lead in Lipstick Causes Cancer?
The email warns readers that one brand -- Red Earth -- recently lowered its price from $67 to $9.90 because "it contained lead. Lead is a chemical that causes cancer," the email says, going on to list seven other brands of lipstick alleged to contain enough lead to be harmful.
The truth? The claim is false. While lead exposure can be dangerous, it's not been linked to cancer. And lead levels in lipsticks are low and not regarded as dangerous by the FDA, which regulates cosmetics, says Rich Buhler, who checked out the lipstick claim for his Internet hoax web site, Truth Or Fiction. His verdict on the lipstick claim: baseless.
2. The Supplement Cold fX "Feeds" Women's Hormonal Cancers?
Soon after this over-the-counter cold and flu remedy hit the U.S. market from Canada in late 2006, the emails began, warning that it could feed hormonal cancers in women.
False, says Barbara Mikkelson, who with her husband David operates the web site Snopes, dedicated to unraveling hoaxes, rumors, and urban legends. She checked in with a variety of sources, including the Canadian manufacturer, who actually had found in a preliminary study that the active ingredient may have anticancer properties.
3. Bananas From Costa Rica Make You Sick?
This email, first circulated in 2001, claims Costa Rican bananas were linked to cases of necrotizing fasciitis -- better known as the life-threatening "flesh-eating bacteria" disease.
The CDC web site has a page called "Health Related Hoaxes and Rumors" where it posts information for the public. After an investigation on the banana rumor, the CDC labeled the emailed warning false, noting that the bacteria that cause the disease often live in the human body and the typical transmission route is person to person. The bacteria can't survive long on a banana surface, the experts point out.
4. Identify Stroke by a Simple Test?
The email says even nonmedical people can figure out if a person is having a stroke (and needs immediate care) with a simple test: Ask the person to smile, raise his or her arms and keep them up, and repeat a simple sentence.
This information is true, according to Buhler. He tracked down a study presented at the American Stroke Association meeting in 2003. Researchers found that the test, used for years by medical personnel, was also successfully performed by bystanders. They could detect weakness in the face or limbs and slurred speech -- all signs that immediate help is needed.
5. Tampons Contain Asbestos?
This email warning first surfaced in the late '90s, but like other health warnings may resurface. The alert alleged that tampons are contaminated by asbestos and dioxin during their manufacture and that rayon fibers in them cause toxic shock syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening disease caused by a bacterial toxin. The asbestos was added, so the story goes, by manufacturers because it promotes excessive bleeding and would be good for business.