5 Comments »Posted on Friday 3 July 2009 at 6:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Weekly Roundup

With all the World Conference of Science Journalists fun, there’s obviously been a lot of news this week that I’ve had to ignore. Rather than letting it slip away without comment, I thought I’d once again abuse the Weekly Roundup category for the next few days. A bit longer than my usual Roundup format today, because I’m basically cramming two blog posts in to one:

Electro-hypersensitivity: because when you make up a medical condition, it becomes real

Maybe it’s just because I own more electronic doo-dads than anyone really needs, but when ever I see people complaining that electricity/wifi makes them ill, I get annoyed. The Daily Mail published just such an account, from Sarah Dacre, who suffered from unexplained headaches and digestive problems for seven years.

Her medical problems increased over the years, and it wasn’t until 2006 when she was diagnosed with electro-hypersensitivity (EHS) by a “specialist [she] found on the internet” that she was able to over them. She moved to a country house in Kent, and was miraculously cured.

It’s a good thing that, unlike the rest of the country, Kent isn’t bathed in radio waves. And doesn’t have mobile phone masts. Or electricity. Hmm.

There is no scientific evidence to show the existence of EHS. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. A meta-analysis of studies looking at the phenomenon found that those who claimed to suffer from the condition could not tell if the electromagnetic field they were being subjected to was real or not. I don’t know what caused Sarah Dacre’s medical problems, but this ain’t it.

Vegetarianism as a way of avoiding cancer? I’d rather eat a burger

Vegetarians ‘avoid more cancers’ says the BBC headline. A study published in the British Journal of Cancer looked at cancer rates in over 60,000 Brits, and found that those who were strictly veggie or only ate fish were at a much reduced relative risk of developing cancer.

Ah, cancer and relative risk – we’ve been here before. I’m not going to do a full look at the stats, but let’s take bladder cancer as an example. The research showed that compared to meat eaters, vegetarians have a relative risk of 0.47 for developing bladder cancer. In other words, cutting out meat more than halves your chance of developing the disease.

Halves it from what though? As always, I refer you to the excellent Cancer Research UK for some numbers. For every 100,000 people in the UK, each year 16.9 will develop bladder cancer. That means roughly 10,000 people each year over the entire population. If we all stopped eating meat – and only if we all did – around 5,000 a year would avoid the disease.

Maybe I’m just too attached to eating meat, but changing the eating habits of an entire country in order to effect such a small change doesn’t really seem worth it. Though, us all cutting out meat would effect other cancer rates as well, so it’s not just 5,000 who are being spared. Should we change our diet of the back of this study then? Lead author Professor Tim Key doesn’t think so:

“At the moment these findings are not strong enough to ask for particularly large changes in the diets of people following an average balanced diet.”

Now, don’t make the mistake of thinking I just ignore all health advice. Some risk factors are worth changing your habits for. Every year, around 35,000 people die as a result of lung cancer. Almost 90% of these are a result of smoking. Saving 31,500 lives a year by banning smoking seems a pretty obvious thing to do.

Smoking is also the major preventable risk factor for bladder cancer, which leads to about 5,000 deaths a year. Yes, roughly half of these could potentially be avoided if we all went veggie, but eradicating smoking seems like a much more effective, less costly and less disruptive way to cut cancer rates.

To look at it another way, you don’t see anyone suggesting we ban cars, which would save around 3,000 lives a year. It’s a fair comparison I think, since given the choice between a life of salads and cars, or sausages and trains, I know which I’d go for!


  1. 5 Comments

  2. You are a buffoon Mr. Aron – opinions are like butt-holes, everyone has one. You know nothing about physiology, biology and are not qualified to be writing articles like this.

    OK, so all the electrosensitives in the world MUST be loonies? What are you basing this statement on?

    It is so easy to mock or ridicule.

    By Anonymous on Saturday 4 July, 2009 at 2:13 am

  3. I’m basing it on the meta-analysis linked above, and the fact that whilst electroreception is well documented in sharks and other animals, there is no biological mechanism that would allow the same sense in humans.

    It’s also easy to insult people anonymously. Perhaps give your name next time?

    By Jacob Aron on Saturday 4 July, 2009 at 10:31 am

  4. “It is so easy to mock or ridicule.” – it is when it comes to electrosensitivity, yes.

    I’ve got to say though, don’t dismiss vegetarianism just because the benefits are small when it comes to cancer prevention. There are lots of other reasons why its a good idea – not least that we wouldn’t have to worry about bird/swine/etc flu if we weren’t keeping huge quantities of animals in close proximity to each other and to people.

    By Neuroskeptic on Wednesday 8 July, 2009 at 1:15 pm

  5. Oh, I know that there are lots of decent arguments for vegetarianism, particularly the land needed to raise animals vs grow crops. None of them are strong enough to sway me, however.

    By Jacob Aron on Wednesday 8 July, 2009 at 2:04 pm

  6. Bah. Fair enough. Just so long as you know that you’ve sold your soul for a burger…:P

    By Neuroskeptic on Thursday 9 July, 2009 at 11:37 am

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.