Emailed Health Warnings: Hoax or Fact? (cont.)

According to the FDA, the warnings are not supported by scientific evidence. Tampon use and toxic shock syndrome are linked, but experts do not know the exact connection.

6. Microwaving Foods in Plastic Containers or Wrap Is Harmful?

If you microwave food in plastic containers or plastic wrap, chemicals will leach out and exposure can cause cancer and reproductive problems, so the email warning goes.

Microwave-safe containers and plastics are generally safe. The FDA regulates plastic containers and other materials that come into contact with food, testing the migration of chemicals from the products. The level of migration has to be found to be within a margin of safety before a container or wrap is approved for microwave use. "In general, scientific reviews have shown no health effects from low levels of personal exposure, such as microwave containers," says James Kapin, a chemical safety consultant in San Diego and past chairman of the American Chemical Society's division of chemical safety. However, one chemical sometimes found in microwave-approved containers -- Bisphenol A, or BPA -- is currently under scrutiny by an independent panel of scientists convened by the National Institutes of Health. The scientists are focusing on whether exposure to BPA, commonly found in plastic water bottles and baby bottles, raises risks of reproductive or development problems.

Why Do We Fall for These?

It's easy to be sucked in by messages alerting us to health dangers. "These are 'wow' stories," says Buhler, " ... as in 'Wow, did you hear about Britney Spears?' or 'Wow you should have seen the accident I saw on the freeway.'"

And they sound legitimate, often claiming to come from a reputable hospital, physician, or health organization -- even though the sources named often turn out to be fictitious.

Today's climate is often one of anxiety when it comes to our health, furthering the belief that the health warning could be true, even if it sounds unlikely. "Whoever thought you could get sick and die from eating spinach?" Mikkelson asks.

Why Do We Forward the Emails?

After reading the fearful news, there's often a knee-jerk reaction to share it, says Pauline Wallin, PhD, a clinical psychologist and life coach in Camp Hill, Pa. An emailed health alert may come with a "hook," she says. "It often includes a personal story about someone. It arouses our emotions -- outrage, greed, or fear."

So when the message then begs the recipient to "share this with everyone you know," it's human nature to do so, she says. "When you are emotionally aroused, you are more vulnerable to do what an authority tells you to do," she says. Taking action may be a way to help quell your anxiety.

Forwarding the news might boost a sender's sense of importance among friends. "Some people like to be the town crier, the first one to tell their friends something they might not have heard," Buhler says. "Others send them for sincere reason of concern."

How to Spot the Next One -- Maybe

How to avoid getting fooled next time? There's no foolproof method, but experts have some suggestions on how to spot the hoaxes.

"If the email is the only place you are seeing it [information about the hazard], there is a reason," says Jeff Stier, spokesman for the American Council on Science and Health, in New York. If you don't see or hear the same information on the nightly news, a mainstream newspaper, or a credible web site, be suspicious, he says.

Also, if the alert bases the warning only on a "friend-of-a-friend" story, it's suspect because it lacks firsthand information, says Buhler.

Check the sources before you forward anything. If it's a little unclear where the warning comes from, that's another bad sign. "The first thing you look for is who is making the claim," says Marc Siegel, MD, a New York physician and author of False Alarm: The Truth about the Epidemic of Fear. Find out the credential of the person or organization alerting you to the danger.

Some emailed health alerts smack of "insider information," Buhler says, and that's another reason to be suspicious. The message may even say that "establishment media" or "the experts" don't want you to know this.

While some health alerts begin as intentional hoaxes, Buhler says others may start out as true and get changed along the way due to misunderstandings.

Tracking the origin of a hoax is difficult, even for experts, says Mikkelson. "It's very rare you can get back to the beginning of one," she says.

But after numerous phone calls and Internet searches, Mikkelson and others who specialize in investigating health alerts can usually figure out if one's true or false, although some health warnings remain in "disputed" status -- at least temporarily.

Once a health alert has circulated enough on the Internet, chances are good it can be checked out at sites such as Truth or Fiction, Snopes, or the page maintained by the CDC.

Published March 16, 2006.

SOURCES: Brooke Trivas, architect, Boston. Barbara Mikkelson, Snopes web site. Pauline Wallin, PhD, clinical psychologist; life coach; instructor of a class in Internet skills for mental health professionals, Camp Hill, Pa. Jeff Stier, spokesman, American Council on Science and Health, New York, N.Y. Rich Buhler, Truth or Fiction web site. Marc Siegel, MD, internist; associate professor, New York University School of Medicine; author, False Alarm: The Truth about the Epidemic of Fear (2005. CDC web site. FDA web site. American Heart Association. Michael Bernstein, spokesman, American Cancer Society. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences press office. Stephen Barrett, MD, retired psychiatrist; operator, Quack Watch web site, Allentown, Pa.

Reviewed on March 16, 2007

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Last Editorial Review: 3/26/2007