WARNING!!! Health Warnings May be Hazardous to Your Health!!!
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
Will the people sounding dramatic warnings about the latest risk-du-jour ever realize that in some cases the fear they cause may well do more harm than whatever it is they’re trying to protect us from? Real harm, from the dangerous choices we sometimes make when we’re afraid. Real harm, in the way our fears sometimes drive government to spend time and money protecting us more from the things we’re afraid of than from what actually threatens us the most. But most of all, real harm from the stress we experience when we are afraid. Alarmism from a long list of advocacy groups have indeed made this an excessively worried world.
The current example is the alarm raised by The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics about the presence in a popular baby shampoo of a chemical linked to cancer. OMG!!!!!!! CANCER!!!! AAAIIIGHH! Never mind that the level of the chemical, a preservative, is so low that the risk is tiny, if indeed there is any risk at all. That qualification is nowhere to be found in the group’s frighteningly titled report “Baby’s Tub is Still Toxic”; “Quaternium-15 releases formaldehyde into cosmetics products. Formaldehyde is classified as a known human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The National Cancer Institute, the World Health Organization and the National Toxicology Program have all identified a possible link between formaldehyde exposure and leukemia.” The group tells us nothing about what dose is associated with what level of risk (the risk from infinitesimally small doses like this is usually infinitesimal or non-existent). They don’t explain what period of exposure is associated with the risk (it usually takes repeated exposures to a carcinogen over time, not just once or a few times, to raise the risk). They tell us the National Cancer Institute links formaldehyde with leukemia, but not that the NCI website on formaldehyde also says; “In 1987, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen under conditions of unusually high or prolonged exposure.” That hardly describes washing your baby’s hair a couple times a week. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which operates in the name of public health, doesn’t tell us a lot of what we need to know so we can make informed judgments about our health.
But of course sounding the alarm, and helping inform people so they really understand the risk, are two different things. Warnings that include caveats don’t scare people as much, don’t generate as much dramatic news coverage (“Group Says Carcinogens Exist in Popular Baby Shampoo”, “Popular baby shampoo still contains carcinogens”, “Are baby shampoos poisoning infants”?)and don’t create the same pressures on government and companies, the way a more dramatic warning like “TOXIC TUB!!!!!” does. So in the name of protecting the public, many advocacy groups go over the top with their alarms…leave out information that might help us put the risk in perspective…and make us more afraid than the evidence warrants. Which is bad for our health.
I found out about this shampoo issue when a Facebook friend of my wife posted her fears; “Been sick to my stomach about this all day. We've been bathing Sylvia in a carcinogen for the past 14 months. F%$* you, (shampoo company).” Note the ‘SICK to my stomach” part. That’s not just a figure of speech. Stress – the biological name for worry – is bad for us in all sorts of ways. Chronic stress that lasts more than a couple weeks;
- Raises our blood pressure and contributes to cardiovascular disease.
- Depresses our immune system and raises the frequency and severity of infectious disease. There is even strong evidence suggesting that stress impairs our ability to defend ourselves against or recover from cancer. (Here’s what the National Cancer Institute says about that.) That’s right. Excessive worry about carcinogens that aren’t very likely to cause cancer may contribute to more cancer cases, and deaths, than the carcinogen itself! (Please take note of this, any advocacy group that over alarms about a possible carcinogen. YOU may be the greater risk!)
- Impairs memory, growth, fertility.
- Exacerbates digestive system disorders like ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome.
- Increases the likelihood of clinical depression and Type 2 diabetes.
(For much richer and more entertaining detail on the health effects of stress, read Robert Sapolsky’s classic “Why Zebra’s don’t Get Ulcers”. You’ll laugh, and learn.)
Frightened, worried, scared, concerned. Whatever word you want to use, biologically it equates to stress. Which we could live with if it were just this one case. But of course what The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has done is just one tiny example of a pervasive trend in our modern worried world. Add this frightening alert to so many dramatized warnings about carcinogens, and to the hundreds of “Be Afraid. Be VERY Afraid!” alerts about chemicals, and the endless excessive alerts about any kind of radiation, and about genetically modified food, and on and on. And those are just the environmental bogeymen. Throw in excessive alarms about child abduction, and terrorism, and vaccines, all magnified in the 24/7 “He Who Screams Loudest Wins” new media age, and you have the insidious gnawing constant undercurrent of stress captured wonderfully by Aaron Wildavsky when he said “How extraordinary! The richest, longest lived, best protected, most resourceful civilization, with the highest degree of insight into its own technology, is on its way to becoming the most frightened.”
Watchdogs are necessary. Alerts are good. And many of the risks we are alerted to are real, or at least the evidence is strong enough that they might be real and we should take note. But over-the-top alarmism to advance an agenda that dramatizes the peril at the expense of a fair assessment of the actual danger is dangerous all by itself. So for all those dedicated and passionate people genuinely interested in helping keep us safe, here’s a warning to put on the wall in your office.
WARNING! THE WAY YOU WARN PEOPLE
ABOUT POSSIBLE THREATS TO THEIR HEALTH,
POSES A REAL THREAT TO THEIR HEALTH.
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