Myth-information lives

With help of Internet, some hoaxes become virtually unkillable

August 31, 2007|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,SUN REPORTER

Johns Hopkins Hospital warns that microwaving foods in plastic containers causes cancer. Wrong. The Mayo Clinic recommends a diet of eggs, meat and grapefruit to burn fat. Wrong. Harvard Medical School pays big bucks for certain delicate masculine body parts. Wrong, too.

These are all popular Internet hoaxes - and they make officials at some of the country's most prestigious medical institutions cringe.

Bogus warnings, freakish tales and other medical fictions - often citing reputable medical organizations - have infected cyberspace for years. Spreading like viruses through e-mail, blogs and Web sites of dubious credibility, they coat guile or just plain ignorance with a patina of authority to prey on the gullible.

Johns Hopkins, for its part, fights back by assigning public relations officers to the thankless task of myth-busting.

"With the proliferation of e-mail and the Internet, you can make up anything you want and forward it on," said Vanessa Wasta, a Hopkins spokeswoman. "What troubles us is that they are trying to legitimize this by saying it's from Johns Hopkins."

Some e-mails attributed to Hopkins warn the gullible that everyday items such as bras, deodorants and cell phones cause cancer. Wasta's personal online nemesis, however, is the plastic container myth.

"In a slow week, we get four or five e-mails or calls about it," she said. "Most people who come to us, looking to validate this, are skeptical of it. But there are people who by nature are pretty neurotic and actually believe it."

The myth emerged from the Internet ooze as an e-mail in the spring of 2004, warning that drinking water frozen in plastic bottles causes cancer. Subsequent e-mails expanded the cancer warning to food microwaved in plastic containers.

A version circulating earlier this month - "Cancer Update from Johns Hopkins" - claimed that freezing and heating plastic containers releases dioxins into water and food.

Dioxins are environmental pollutants linked to cancer, but they are absent in plastics, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Some compounds from plastics can leach into food through heating, but in tiny amounts the FDA deems harmless.

A new version of the fake Hopkins e-mails emerged this spring with even more dubious information about the causes and prevention of cancer. It ascribes cancer-causing properties to sugar, milk, coffee, tea, chocolate, distilled water and meat protein. It also branded anger, bitterness and a lack of forgiveness as carcinogens.

"We had a lull for a while," Wasta said of inquiries about the warnings, "but we've seen an increase recently with this new e-mail."

One woman called Wasta to ask whether she could get cancer drinking from a water bottle left in a hot car. "She said she's also afraid of the electromagnetic waves coming to her TV and shuts it off and unplugs it," Wasta said. "I had to tell her she was in more danger from getting in a car accident while drinking from the bottle."

These medical versions of urban legends aren't unique to Hopkins. One long-running hoax asserts that another famous research institution, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., advises eating grapefruit, along with generous amounts of eggs and meat, to lose weight.

Every year, Mayo is deluged by inquiries about the so-called Mayo Clinic Diet, a chimera that Mayo dieticians say has been around since the 1940s. None of the many versions of the diet is actually endorsed by the Mayo Clinic. Even some Web sites that acknowledge this fact still offer up odd meal plans under the Mayo name.

"The diet changed and changed over the years," said Katherine Zeratsky, a registered dietitian at Mayo. "It's always something a little wacky."

Another persistent legend holds that the Harvard Medical School will pay thousands of dollars for a man's testicle. Rumor has it that the donated organs will be put to good use for research or transplantation.

David Cameron, associate director for public affairs at Harvard, said the e-mail messages about testicles have been circulating for about a decade. "They'll say to a man's partner that he only needs one, and that we will pay you if you can get the other one," Cameron said.

Working against any get-rich-quick scheme, however, is the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984, which prohibits the sale of human organs. "I haven't heard of anyone showing up with a donation and requesting payment," Cameron said.

Harvard has so far chosen to ignore the rumor. "We could risk giving it too much attention," he said. "Most tend to be so absurd that they flame out on their own."

Hopkins officials have been more proactive, they said, because people are more likely to act on the myths about alleged carcinogens.

"This is a little bit more insidious than some other hoaxes," Wasta said, "because people are following unfounded advice about their health."

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