the more things stay the same, the more i want them to change


I am a germaphobe - just ask my husband! The media's over-attentiveness to disease and virus outbreaks has just made it worse (ie: swine flu, avian flu, MRSA, ebola, the Hanta virus, flesh-eating bacteria). So have signs in the bathrooms of restaurants and medical buildings - you've noticed that places like this have signs telling you how to wash your hands, yes?

I really started paying attention to those signs when I was working in a daycare and there was a sign right at eye level over the sink showing the correct way to wash your hands, provided by the county health department. It includes using a paper towel to turn off the tap, something I now do religiously. In fact, my need to be sanitary and my urge to conserve frequently have a battle in my head when I'm washing up: is cleanliness worth wasting water and paper towels? I say yes. But... do I leave the tap running in order to grab a paper towel and dry my hands before turning off the water? Or do I grab a paper towel to turn off the tap right away, throw away the towel, and then grab another one to actually dry my hands? Which resource is more precious, water or trees? What's more expensive, an extra 30 seconds of water usage or 1 paper towel? Welcome to the wacky world of mysie's brain everybody!!!

So now I've pointed out that I'm a germaphobe and I hate to be wasteful, let's throw in the fact that I want to have a baby. A healthy baby. A baby without disease, autism, or my knocked knees. Have you heard that there is mercury in childhood vaccinations, and there is a very vocal group convinced this is the main cause of autism? Merde.

March 2008: Federal Officials Say Vaccines Worsened Condition That Led to Autism Spectrum Disorder in Georgia Girl

February 2009: Vaccine Court: No Merit to Claims That Thimerosal in Vaccines Contributed to Autism

Today the Seattle ran an article about environmental factors in autism: Autism: It's the environment, not just doctors diagnosing more disease

Looking for more information, I found an article about autism rates now that mercury has been removed from (most) vaccines: Autism Cases Still Going Up As Vaccine Mercury Removed

This statement in the PI had me particularly worried: "Household products such as antibacterial soaps also could have ingredients that harm the brain by changing immune systems..." So I tried to do a search on that, and didn't come up with much. However, when you type in "antibacterial soap" into Google, before you can type "change immune system", you are presented with Google's favorite searches for that first phrase. A scary-sounding option comes up: "antibacterial soaps unnecessary risks no benefits".

Apparently, there are a growing number of people that believe that not only are antibacterial soaps no more effective than regular soaps, but that they are also harmful. Including the Centers For Disease Control (CDC): Antibacterial Household Products: Cause for Concern.

So what now?! How on earth is a die-hard germaphobe and baby mama wannabe supposed to live without antibacterial soap??? Somewhere (sorry, lost the link) I read that alcohol-based antibacterial formulas are not a problem, but whether or not that's true seems to be swept under the rug by the public's growing concern over the entire antibacterial products market. Then there is the sinister plan of Tuft University researcher Stuart Levy, as posited by's Junk Science columnist Steven Milloy:

"no mention was made of Levy’s affiliation (vice-chairman, chief scientific officer and co-founder) with Paratek Pharmaceuticals.... Paratek is well positioned to develop [antibacterial] products to serve this non-hospital consumer product market."

Can you hear me rolling my eyes? I am no fan of media sensationalization every time a new health study is published. Nor do I think it's particularly helpful to get all of your health news information from green/organic/eco-friendly groups - they are awesome at pointing out things that you should further study on your own, but too often come up with their own conclusions without any scientific process or study. But calling Stuart Levy's research (backed by the CDC) junk science is just crossing the line. I disagree with his assessment that the new study lets antibacterials off the hook, but I understand how easy it is to interpret the study to mean that.

It happens all the time - media tries to come up with interesting headlines and soundbites, which require summarizing massive amounts of data into a short, easy-to-understand format for their audience. This is how you get competing headlines when it comes to studies: "Alcohol is bad!" vs. "Red wine is good for your heart" vs. "Wine makes no difference to your health".

Then there is the tendency to translate statistics to support your own conclusion. If a study reveals a statistic... oh, let's say "40% of autistic kids have higher-than-average mercury levels in their blood", then it is correct to say "The majority of children with autism do not have high levels of mercury in their blood. But is that a responsible thing to say when you're a public figure with a large audience? What about the results that showed "75% of non-autistic children have less than 2% of the mercury content found in autistic children." Put those facts together, and you've got this: Mercury doesn't necessarily cause autism, but there is evidence that it plays some role."

Yes, I made up all the statements in that last paragraph, but misinterpretations of statistics happen all the time! The media and the average lay-person have such small attention spans that they demand an obvious statement to sum up research, rather than digging for the complexities of the truth to be found in most studies.

And speaking of irresponsible, here's a great (re: terrible) example: "Antibacterial Soaps: Unnecessary Risks, No Benefits" posted at Remember that google search I mentioned? Well, this article is the #1 item returned by google in that search. On the surface, this is a very eye-opening, well-written, and easy-to-read article. But did you actually read what she was not saying?

"Many experts believe that," "shown resistance to S. aureous", "nearly 80 percent of all liquid soaps", "antibacterial agents promote strains of bacteria", and "If that’s not enough, the bacteria-killing chemicals go down the drain and into our waterways, harming wildlife and potentially ending up back in our bodies where they can present health risks."

Can you guess what she's leaving out? Hint: Check out the statements on page 2 that are much better.

"According to the Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association", "In one study", and "A 2007 study detected".

Congratulations Sarah Krupp, you've just discovered the concept of citing your sources! What would be even better would be actual links to or publication information for her source materials. Still, she got better. I'll try to keep in mind that she wrote this piece for a non-scientific website where anyone can say anything.

But: her article is the #1 source on the internet when looking for the risks of antibacterial soaps. I have no idea how many searches a day google handles, or how many searches of that particular phrase, but there it is at the top - proving its popularity with readers (Google's search results are ranked by how often each link from a search is chosen by the searcher - ha, there's my Quasi-Citation!) But my point is, when your audience is this large, it's time that responsibility and journalistic integrity play an important role in the wording of your article. The average reader is just too eager to read a group of claims in one article and decide that the entire article is fact.

So, in my OPINION:

1. statistics rarely show definite conclusions
2. statistics are very easy to interpret incorrrectly
3. purposely interpreting statistics incorrectly to disseminate to an audience is morally reprehensible
4. it is morally imperative that a journalist, even a web journalist, only state facts that can be cited
5. when most people read something well-written with a lot of reasonably stated ideas presented as facts, they too easily trust that these facts are mounting evidence, and thus everything stated must be correct
6. it's YOUR responsibility to research claims that affect your life
7. I have to start eliminating anti-bacterials from my life - and the germaphobe inside of me is terrified. I'm totally screwed.

Isn't science fun?!


MaggieBrown said...

I just found this video on You Tube that really shows how germs and viruses spread. It is so cool. It's meant for kids but I even learned a lot!


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