Email Health Scares

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Urban legends circulate through email and create panic.

WebMD Feature

The Internet has made it simple for women to spread health information with a click of the mouse. Some of these health claims gain steam as women discuss the alleged dangers of everyday products. For instance, the following two health rumors have been circulating the Web recently: Antiperspirants cause breast cancer, and tampons contain asbestos and dioxins. But are these claims real -- or just a hoax?

Can Antiperspirants Cause Breast Cancer?

The antiperspirant rumor on the Internet claims the following:

  1. Antiperspirants prevent a person from sweating. Since perspiring enables the body to purge toxins from the armpits, the lack of sweating causes the body to deposit toxins in the lymph nodes in these areas.
  2. Men are less likely to develop breast cancer because most of the antiperspirant products they use become caught in their underarm hair and are not directly applied to the skin.
  3. Shaving nicks, which allow toxins to enter the body, further increase the risk of developing breast cancer.

"Just because someone makes a statement on the Internet doesn't make it true," says Lisa Bailey, M.D., a cancer surgeon and past president of the American Cancer Society (ACS), California Division. "There haven't been any studies to verify these claims about antiperspirants, which are tested by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and have not been found to contain any chemicals that cause DNA damage leading to cancer." Although lymph nodes do clear some toxins from the body, toxins are not released through sweating, according to the ACS. Most cancer-causing substances are released through the kidneys and liver.

The ACS says that men are about 100 times less likely to contract breast cancer because they have about 100 times less breast tissue. Metabolic and genetic conditions may increase the risk, but not the use of antiperspirants.

As for the razor nicks rumor, "[Nicks] may increase the risk of a skin infection, but not cancer," Bailey notes. "There is no evidence that the chemicals in antiperspirants are absorbed through the skin and that these chemicals can cause cancer."

Tampons: The Asbestos/Dioxin Scare

The Internet tampon rumor claims the following:

  1. Tampons contain asbestos that make you bleed more.
  2. Carcinogenic dioxins and rayon used to enhance absorbency can cause Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS).

The FDA has reported that there is no evidence of asbestos in any U.S. brand of tampon. In addition, rayon raw material derived from wood pulp and used in tampons is no longer bleached with chlorine, which can produce dioxins. Despite the new processes, however, the FDA says there may still be trace amounts of dioxins present due to environmental sources -- but only in levels at or below the detectable limit have been found, posing no risk.

Philip Tierno Jr., M.D., Director of Clinical Microbiology and Diagnostic Immunology at the New York University Medical Center, concurs with the FDA that tampon manufacturers are not adding asbestos to their products.

On the other hand, he says that even though there are only traces of dioxin in tampons, women tend to use tampons regularly, and therefore, over the long term, exposure is cumulative. "No level is safe. While it's true there are dioxins in the environment, they have a worse effect when they contact mucous surfaces like the vagina," he says. Finally, the FDA says that tampons made with rayon do not appear to lead to a higher risk of TSS than cotton ones of similar absorbency. However, Tierno says that TSS has been associated with tampons that use synthetic materials such as rayon, but that cotton does not amplify the toxins.

"Common sense should prevail when you read these emails," he says. "Petition manufacturers for information to ease your mind."

Do Your Own Research

According to Hadley Dynak, manager of the Women's Health Resource Center at the University of California at San Francisco, "Information on the Web is not a substitute for a health care professional, but should be used as an educational tool." She suggests you ask yourself the following questions to evaluate the credibility of information found on the Internet:

  • What is the purpose of the information -- to teach, to provide news, to advertise?
  • How accurate is the information: Is it an original source? Has it been referenced to other sources or peer reviewed? How has it been substantiated?
  • What are the credentials of the author?
  • How does the information affect you personally?

Julie Armin, Spokesperson for the ACS, San Francisco Bay Area Chapter, recommends that you confirm questionable information by consulting your health care provider and referring to Web sites sponsored by professional health organizations, such as the ACS or reputable medical institutions. "Beware of claims that appear to be a magic bullet or cure," she adds.

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