Posts Tagged ‘Health Canada’

Radiation From Japan Reaches Canada. RUN! PANIC! AAAAAH!

March 22, 2011 2 comments

File:Radiation symbol alternate.svgOne day, I think I’m going to open up a news website or newspaper and there is going to be a front page headline that reads “LOOK OUT BEHIND YOU!”.

This is getting ridiculous.

New outlets, including CBC, ran an article today and yesterday about increasing radiation levels detected in Canada and in Iceland. The cause of this radiation is attributed to the crisis with the nuclear power plant in Japan. So just how big of an increase in radiation was there in British Columbia?

Gary Holub says increased radiation levels were expected, and are less than the increase in radiation levels Canadians would see naturally when it rains.

Holub stressed that the increase poses no health risk to Canadians.

Seriously? Less of an increase than when it rains? Yet the CBC chose to run a headline which said: “Increased Radiation Detected by B.C. Monitors“.

Scientific American reported what the U.S. Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency had to say about the increase in radiation.

They said the radiation amounted to one-millionth of the dose rate that a person normally receives from natural sources such as rocks, bricks and the sun.

This increased level of radiation is not even newsworthy, let alone worthy of a scaaaaaaaary headline. Everyone on this side of the pacific ocean has nothing to worry about.

Actually, unless you are one of the heroic Japanese workers trying to restore power to the nuclear plant, you have very little to worry about.

Does nobody remember that there were victims of an earthquake AND tsunami in Japan recently? Are we only paying attention to the nuclear plant now because news outlets love the fear generated by the word “radiation”?

Donations to the Japanese relief effort can be made through The Canadian Red Cross

Other places to make donations can be found here.

Enough Griping. Time For Some Active Skepticism

January 12, 2011 Leave a comment

I started this blog to talk about poor science reporting and try to put some good information out there. Usually though, it comes off as complaining.

This has been true a number of cases, and recently because of the Wi-Fi scares going on in Canada.

There have been a number of stories, mainly on the CBC, about parents from 2 communities in Canada who do no want Wi-Fi installed in their children’s schools for fear of adverse health effects.

It is quite clear from a large body of scientific evidence that Wi-Fi is completely safe, and these fears are unwarranted. However, the fears are given credence because of a few crackpot “scientists” and poor media coverage.

It isn’t much, but I wrote an email to the CBC asking them to provide more accurate information in their reporting. Here is the email in its entirety:

I am writing in regards to the CBC’s recent reports regarding Wi-Fi technology in schools.

In recent months, there have been several news items written on the CBC news site regarding the health effects of wireless internet technology. These have mainly consisted of stories from Ontario and Alberta in which a group of parents has approached its local school board and requested that Wi-Fi not be installed in their children’s schools.

While I agree that it is important to report on these issues, I strongly disagree with the lack of background information and tone of the articles themselves. They give the average reader very little sense of the current body of scientific evidence, which overwhelmingly indicates that wireless technology is safe for both adults and children.

The articles fail to show this large disconnect between the mainstream scientific community and the views of a very a small fringe group. Blanket statements such as “Health Canada and the World Health Organization have said Wi-Fi is not dangerous” are simply not adequate to provide readers with an accurate picture. This is of concern to me since it may cause undo panic to parents across the country that are only looking out for the well-being of their children, and may be frightened by the poor representation of the scientific consensus in these articles.

Microwave radiation, at the powers and frequencies used by wireless systems has been thoroughly researched and the evidence is clear that it is quite safe. I respectfully ask that in future news items you provide more information on the research done on Wi-Fi which shows it is safe in order to put the minds of parents at ease.

I decided to write directly to the CBC because I generally respect its reporting and it is my primary source for news. However this issue has troubled me as I’m sure it has troubled many other readers.

Thank you.

Will I get a response? Probably not. Will it make a difference. Ha, probably not. But it is DOING something rather than just complaining, so maybe the skeptic gods (?) will smile down on me and make a difference.


“Natural” Does Not Mean “Better”

November 18, 2010 10 comments

At least, not always.

But that’s what purveyors of Natural Health Products (NHPs) say. Synthetic is bad. Natural is good.

Unfortunately, things are not that simple. Some things that occur naturally on Earth are very good for you. But some of them are very bad.

Some things that are synthetic are very good for you. But some of them are very bad.

And some things, natural and synthetic, do nothing at all.

Along with the Green revolution came the Natural Health revolution. We’ve begun to hear more and more about how many chemicals permeate through our food chain, how many pills we take and how many food additives we eat.

As a corollary, we have begun to see Natural Health and Food stores cropping up on street corners. Supermarkets have "all organic" sections. Pharmacies have a whole aisle dedicated to herbal supplements.

Whole Foods Market in Redwood, California. Via Wikipedia

Companies respond to customer demand. Customers have begun demanding natural and "organic" foods. So companies have committed resources acknowledging this demand.

But are these products as good as the companies say? Do the hippies down at the natural food store know, without a doubt, that taking certain supplements will boost your immune system, or help prevent cancer, or increase your energy level? Or are they simply reading the label and regurgitating it to their customers?

It is a question that has gotten some international attention recently. Most notably perhaps, is the company POM Wonderful, which has

…been banned from endorsing any product without competent and reliable scientific information to back up the claim. [The Globe and Mail]

POM Wonderful has shown up in the news a couple of times this year. In March, POM was one of 17 companies given a warning letter from the Food and Drug Administration for making misleading statements about their POM Juice and POMx pills.

In the case of POM pomegranate juice, the agency said that the company’s Web site, which is listed on its bottles, carried misleading claims that the juice could prevent or cure diseases like hypertension, diabetes and cancer.Such claims are not allowed on food products and would require that the juice be treated, in regulatory terms, as a drug, according to the letter sent to the company. [The New York Times]

In September of 2010, the Federal Trade Commission released a statement concerning the advertisements of POM. David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection said

When a company touts scientific research in its advertising, the research must squarely support the claims made.  Contrary to POM Wonderful’s advertising, the available scientific information does not prove that POM Juice or POMx effectively treats or prevents these illnesses.

POM disputes the FTC’s claims, and has filed suit against them. This battle will go on for a while.

But this situation raises a big question: how are NHPs regulated? How are the health benefits they claim to provide substantiated? Let’s investigate…

Perhaps unsurprisingly, NHPs are not regulated in the same way as drugs. Up until the 1990’s, Canada did not have a non-drug supplement regulation framework in place. Products were either drugs or they were food products.

After several years in development, the Natural Health Product Regulations (NHPR) were put into effect on January 1, 2004. So what products fall under these regulations?

Products that fall within these Regulations include herbal remedies, homeopathic medicines, vitamins, minerals, traditional medicines, probiotics, amino acids and essential fatty acids. In addition, many everyday consumer products, such as certain toothpastes, antiperspirants, shampoos, facial products and mouthwashes are also classified as NHPs in Canada because of their medicinal ingredients and intended uses. [Health Canada Website] (emphasis mine)

I emphasize ‘homeopathic medicines’ because I am not a big fan of homeopathy and I am thoroughly disgusted that Canada allows such products to be sold.

So the NHPR does require that these products meet certain standards of safety and efficacy. Unfortunately, these standards are set extremely low.

In the case of homeopathic medicines, for example, Health Canada will accept references to the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia or Homeopathic Materia Medica. These documents are essentially a collection of anecdotal evidence, and have no scientific basis.

For other NHPs, Health Canada will accept "references to a traditional use". This means that if a product has been used for over 50 years to treat a certain ailment, it is deemed "effective" by Health Canada standards. No scientific evidence or medical studies are necessary in this case. If sufficient documentation is not available to prove that a product has been used for 50 years, the word of "three or more herbalists or aboriginal elders may serve as the source of information".

What pops into my mind in this case is bloodletting, which was used for well over 50 years and, by these standards, it would have sufficient evidence to prove its efficacy.

The topic of efficacy becomes the primary issue here. I would never take a prescription medication, or even an over-the-counter medication, without knowing that it has been sufficiently tested. Why then, do we take NHPs without demanding the same high standards of testing?

It seems as though we should. Looking at Health Canada’s Advisories, Warnings and Recalls for the Public – 2009, we see that more than half of the warnings were issued for NHPs.

Natural, it seems, does not mean better.

It is a very polarizing issue. A post written by Barry Green on Ottawa Skeptics a couple of years ago summarizes the position of the two sides extremely well.

When skeptics look at NHPs, they see a broad spectrum of products ranging from those proven effective under certain circumstances (vitamins) to those with possible pharmacological properties yet unproven (naturopathy) to those which are the very essence of quackery (homeopathy).  Skeptics see efficacy regulations as necessary to prevent wasting healthcare spending on nonsense and to protect the public from fraud and the dangerous distraction of ineffective treatments.

When CAM advocates look at NHPs, they see a rich pharmacopoeia of natural remedies whose curative powers, tapped through ancient wisdom, can be experienced firsthand without the need for scientific sanction, the dangers of "allopathic" medicine or the enrichment of "Big Pharma."  NHP supporters see efficacy regulations as unethical restriction and unnecessary expense.

My personal opinion is that NHPs should be required to undergo a higher standard of efficacy and safety testing. I don’t think all NHPs are bad. However I do feel that any product which is intended to alter the function of your body, even if the intent is to improve function, should be rigorously tested.

This will not go over well. It was announced recently in the European Union that all herbal supplements must be classified as either food or drugs by April 2011. This puts the supplements under the same guidelines of testing as pharmaceutical drugs. However, many NHP proponents see this as a big problem, since many small-time manufacturers of NHPs will not be able to afford to get the regulatory approval and be driven out of business.

This seems a bit hypocritical to me. If you are so concerned about the health of people, don’t you want to guarantee that what you are selling them is not only safe, but also that it truly is making them healthier?

Another big problem is that the current system of regulation makes it far too easy for peddlers of pseudoscience and quackery to make a profit off the general public, whose choices about products and treatments for maintaining a healthy lifestyle have gotten much more complicated in recent years. The recent acai berry scam comes to mind, not to mention the large number of sham diet drugs on the market today. All of these products were able to flourish because of the lack of strong regulation on NHPs.

So sometimes "natural" is better. Sometimes it’s not. But in order to be sure the products need to be tested. We can’t take tradition, word of mouth, or anecdotes as evidence anymore. We need something more concrete. Because after all, we are all trying to be healthy. So let’s do the legwork and find the best way to make that happen.