Pill panics and food fights
A round-up of scare stories that hit the headlines in March.
From the contraceptive Pill to kids’ eating habits, women and children were in the panicmongers’ firing line in March 2002.
It started (and ended) with THE PILL – subject of no fewer than three scare stories in March. ‘Is the Pill killing us?’ asked the UK Sun on 5 March, as lawyers acting for 123 women launched a case against manufacturers of ‘third-generation’ contraceptive Pills at the High Court in London. The case centred on the manufacturers’ failure to upfront the heightened risk of thrombosis (severe blood clots) from taking certain types of Pill, which can very rarely be fatal or cause ‘long-term injury’ (1). ‘The Pill is just given out willy-nilly’, said one of the women launching the case, ‘and we should know more about the risks’ (2).
On 23 March, headlines screamed ‘Pill increases breast cancer risk’, with researchers claiming that ‘oral contraceptives increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer’ (3). But behind the headlines, there didn’t seem to be much worth reporting. A BBC News article hedged its bets about whether there was anything to get scared about, claiming in its opening paragraphs that there is a ‘slightly increased risk’ of developing breast cancer if you take the Pill, which is ‘just a quarter’ higher than if you don’t take the Pill, and only ‘slightly higher’ than previous studies estimated (4).
On 26 March came the headline ‘Pill could boost cervical cancer risk’ – with reports claiming that ‘women who are positive for the sexually transmitted infection human papillomavirus (HPV) could be at up to three times greater risk of developing cancer if they have used the Pill for five years or longer’ (5). But some were keen to cut through the concern. Dr Anne Szarewski, a clinical consultant for Cancer Research, said, ‘This is a very interesting study, but they have not actually proved that the Pill causes cervical cancer’ (6) – while the Family Planning Association pointed out that ‘the overall likelihood of getting cervical cancer in the UK is low, whether you use the Pill for a long time or not’ (7).
There is evidence that women who take certain types of contraceptive Pill are at more risk of blood clots and breast cancer than women who don’t take the Pill – but the increased risk is tiny. Take the talked-up ‘blood clot link’ that hit the High Court in March. The risk of thrombosis in women who don’t take the Pill is considered to be five cases per 100,000 per year; in women who take second-generation Pills it is estimated to be 15 per 100,000 and in women who take third-generation Pills it is 25 per 100,000 (8).
But as the UK Department of Health said during an earlier Pill scare in the 1990s, ‘We are still talking about tiny risks – women should not think that this is any great risk’ (9). And the risk of thrombosis in pregnant women is thought to be more than double that of women who take the Pill, at about 60 per 100,000 (note to health experts – this is an observation, not an argument for warning women of the dangers of getting pregnant).
Most cases of thrombosis are not fatal. According to the World Health Organisation, the annual risk of death from blood clots among users of combined oral contraceptives is ‘about two deaths per million users at 20 to 24 years of age [and] two to five per million users at 30 to 34 years of age’ (10). And what role the Pill plays in these deaths, if any, remains unclear. Figures from the British Medical Association can help put the Pill risk in perspective: for an individual in the UK in any one year there is a 1 in 8000 risk of dying in a road accident, a 1 in 26,000 risk of dying in an accident in the home, a 1 in 100,000 risk of being murdered – and a risk of approximately 2 in a million of Pill users aged 20 to 34 dying from blood clots (11).
Pill panics have a far more adverse effect on women than Pills do. Previous panics have frightened women off the Pill unnecessarily, leading to increased numbers of unwanted pregnancies and abortions. In the first three months of 1996, following the Pill panic of October 1995, there were 6198 more abortions than in the previous three months, and the abortion rate continued to rise until 1998. Pill panicmongers should stop scaring women, and take a chill pill of their own.
After the scares about women’s contraception came the scares about their children’s eating habits – with March’s PESTICIDE PANIC TAKE 1. On 14 March, a newspaper headline said ‘Pesticide risk of “healthy” eating’, as environmental campaigners claimed that fruit, vegetables and other foods contain ‘high levels of toxic pesticide residues’ that ‘pose a threat to the young’ (12).
The UK government’s Pesticide Residue Committee revealed that about 80 percent of fruit, 71 percent of cereal bars, 45 percent of crisps and 28 percent of breakfast cereals are ‘contaminated’ with pesticides. As for the World Health Organisation’s recommendation in late 2001 that children should eat five pieces of fruit a day, according to one report: ‘If children followed that advice they would be exposed to increasing levels of pesticides in the name of healthy eating.’ (13)
Parents can’t win – they’re damned if they feed their kids fatty foods like chips and chocolate (‘Child obesity on the rise’, warned one headline in March), and damned if they feed them fruit and veg. To add to the confusion, the day after parents were told of the hidden dangers in a piece of fruit the Department of Health (DoH) launched a pilot cartoon in 20 schools called Food Dudes – where ‘Popeye-style’ cartoon characters ‘encourage children to eat their greens’ (14).
Following a MORI poll which showed that ‘as many as 200,000 children in England and Wales had eaten either no fruit or no vegetables in the previous seven days’ (15), the DoH hoped that its ‘child-friendly’ cartoon would show kids that ‘it’s cool to eat green’ – just as ‘Popeye the sailor, who acquires super strength by eating spinach, had a huge impact on children’s eating habits after first appearing in an American cartoon strip in 1929’, one report explained (16). And if the cartoon propaganda fails, you can always coerce kids into eating healthily by ‘changing the culture within schools’ and institutionalising lunchtime ‘vegetable-tasting sessions’, as one food psychologist explained:
‘The intervention gets the children to repeatedly taste fruit and vegetables so they develop a liking for them. There’s evidence that if you taste something enough times, you learn to like the taste.’ (17)
So should parents feed their children fruit and veg or not? Is it okay for kids to eat crisps and chocolate? Should children snack on an apple or a Twix – or should they be allowed to snack at all? Perhaps a better question is: why are so many people, from government ministers to schoolteachers to food psychologists to environmental campaigners, poking their noses into children’s eating habits? If parents were left to decide their children’s diets without being bombarded by contradictory, overblown and sometimes unscientific advice, we could all chill out about the simple act of eating.
No such luck. No sooner had the first sets of schoolchildren watched the cartoon adventures of ‘food dudes’ Charlie (he likes carrots), Tom (tomatoes) and Rocco (broccoli) than we had March’s PESTICIDE PANIC TAKE 2. In direct contrast to the ‘pesticides on fruit make it dangerous’ story, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) said on 26 March that people no longer had to worry about washing or peeling fruit because pesticide traces on fruit ‘are so minute that they are highly unlikely to pose a risk to human health’ (18).
Some food experts and environmentalists weren’t happy, accusing the FSA of ‘pushing a dangerous line’. ‘We’re not convinced at all that this peeling advice should go’ (19), said Friends of the Earth, claiming that ‘unnatural pesticides used during the growing of fruit’ can leave a nasty and possibly dangerous residue. ‘Nobody knows what the long-term cumulative effects of low-level residues could be on human health’, claimed environmentalists (20) – while a food writer accused the FSA of ‘losing its mind’.
In fact, the FSA is right. According to the US National Research Centre, ‘there is no realistic threat to human health from the tiny traces of synthetic pesticides on our food’ (21). Sceptical experts point out that we are far more exposed to natural pesticides (which also pose no threat in small amounts) than to man-made, or carcinogenic, pesticides. ‘The amount of carcinogenic pesticides consumed in a day is one-twentieth of the amount of natural carcinogens in one cup of coffee’, says one scientist (22).
But the FSA – known for stirring up some food scares of its own in the past – seemed less concerned with challenging panics over pesticides, than with getting us all to eat more healthily. Its motivation for making the statement about not having to wash and peel fruit was ‘to encourage not deter people, especially children, from eating a healthy diet’ (23) – as if the reason we eat chips is because we can’t be bothered to peel an apple. As some commentators pointed out, the timing of the FSA statement also slotted in perfectly with the government’s new National School Fruit Scheme, where all children between the ages of four and six are given one piece of fruit a day. How convenient that teachers won’t have to wash and peel all that fruit.
Fruit is now talked up as the most correctly healthy thing you can eat – which is why it is given to children at school in preference to milk, which is definitely out as far as some health experts are concerned (just think back to the ‘Milk is bad for you’ protests at school gates across the UK organised by the cranky People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals last year). But such judgements on food are rarely based on fact, and much better reflect the latest health/political correctness. As the Social Issues Research Council said of the FSA statement, ‘This whole issue illustrates that the advice we are given about food does not always stem from real evidence but more from…expediency’ (24).
There was also a much-hyped NON-SCARE in March, again with women in the frame. Headlines at the end of March warned that ‘Modern mums suffer sleep deprivation’, after a ‘survey found that women are finding it extremely difficult to juggle the demands of motherhood and career’ (25). Indeed, the mothers-and-sleep panic seems to have become an annual institution – exactly a year ago, in March 2001, we were told that ‘Sleepless nights lay new mums low’ (26), and a year before that headlines claimed that ‘Sleepless mums are “like drink drivers”’, as lack of sleep allegedly makes them dopey (27).
But do we need a survey, complete with ‘shocking statistics’, to tell us that mothers sometimes miss a night’s sleep or sleep uneasily? Of course not. But that won’t stop the scaremongers – take a fact of life, turn it into a survey, add some stats, send out a press release, and hey presto….you have a modern panic.
Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.
Don’t Panic Button
January: Food, drink, drugs and holidays, by Brendan O’Neill
February: Sex, cars, crime and…vaccines, by Brendan O’Neill
(1) Drug firms face £10m claim over Pill, Guardian, 5 March 2002
(2) ‘Is the Pill killing us?’, Sun, 5 March 2002
(3) Pill increases breast cancer risk, BBC News, 23 March 2002
(4) Pill increases breast cancer risk, BBC News, 23 March 2002
(5) Pill ‘could boost cervical cancer risk’, BBC News, 26 March 2002
(6) Pill ‘could boost cervical cancer risk’, BBC News, 26 March 2002
(7) Pill ‘could boost cervical cancer risk’, BBC News, 26 March 2002
(8) See Advice on the Pill safety that led to the 1995 Pill scare is reversed, Maxine Lattimer, Pro-Choice Forum, 7 April 1999
(9) See Advice on the Pill safety that led to the 1995 Pill scare is reversed, Maxine Lattimer, Pro-Choice Forum, 7 April 1999
(10) The Pill: balancing the risks and benefits (.pdf), Department of Public Health and Policy, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, May 2000
(11) The Pill: balancing the risks and benefits (.pdf), Department of Public Health and Policy, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, May 2000
(12) ‘Pesticide risk of “healthy” eating’, UK Metro, 14 March 2002
(13) ‘Pesticide risk of “healthy” eating’, UK Metro, 14 March 2002
(14) Cartoon tempts children to eat healthily, BBC News, 15 March 2002
(15) Cartoon tempts children to eat healthily, BBC News, 15 March 2002
(16) Cartoon tempts children to eat healthily, BBC News, 15 March 2002
(17) Cartoon tempts children to eat healthily, BBC News, 15 March 2002
(18) Food advice move sparks row, BBC News, 26 March 2002
(19) Food advice move sparks row, BBC News, 26 March 2002
(20) Food advice move sparks row, BBC News, 26 March 2002
(21) See Unearthing the truth about organic food, by Alex Avery and Dennis Avery
(22) Making the world less safe: the unhealthy trend in health, safety and environmental regulation, Richard L Stroup, NCPA, April 1989
(23) Food advice move sparks row, BBC News, 26 March 2002
(24) The great unwashed, SIRC, 26 March 2002
(25) Modern mums suffer sleep deprivation, BBC News, 2 April 2002
(26) ‘Sleepless nights lay new mums low’, BBC News, 13 March 2001
(27) ‘Sleepless mum are “like drink drivers”’, BBC News, 13 December 2000
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