Friday, October 17, 2003

Girls and booze

A report by Datamonitor suggests British women are the biggest drinkers in Europe. According to a report on This is London, 'Those aged 18 to 24 are knocking back 357 pints of alcohol a year - equivalent to more than five bottles of wine a week. They get through more than three times as much as their Italian counterparts, who drink 104 pints a year, or one glass a day.'

OK - does this mean the alcoholic equivalent of 357 pints of wine per year, or is this simply the volume drunk? British women tend to drink a lot more lager and alcopops than their continental counterparts, suggesting that the gap in terms of alcohol might be a lot smaller. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell from this report.

A glass of their own, This is London, 17 October 2003

Getting our teeth into the fluoridation debate

This is an old article but a good summary of the issues in the current debate about a new law allowing health authorities to force water companies to fluoridate water. I grew up in Birmingham which has had fluoridated water since 1964 with no apparent harmful affects. There seems to be good evidence for a positive impact on tooth decay from fluoridation but the research is less than perfect. However, the reaction against fluoridation is certainly driven by an excessive fear of side effects.

Telegraph | Connected | Fluoride, fluoride everywhere...

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Gates and GM

The Gates Foundation is to put $10million into researching nutritional fortification using both conventional and GM techniques. Of course, this has immediatly met with condemnation by anti-GM groups. But what have they got to lose? Surely if conventional techniques can solve these problems and improve diets in the developing world, then great. If GM technology can do the task more effectively, then surely it is better to know that?

Unless, of course, you are not interested in the welfare of other people but only in promoting your anti-technology prejudices...

Guardian Unlimited | The Guardian | $25m Gates gift to GM project under fire

Are government health campaigns pointless?

The UK government has spent £9.6billion on anti-obesity campaigning since 1997, yet rates of obesity continue to rise. Stephen Pollard argues that it is a waste of money and that the only thing that will make people lose weight is personal determination.

How to lose billions of pounds: tell fatties to eat less

A jarring panic

Do baby food containers cause cancer?

'Cancer fears over baby food jars', reported BBC News on 15 October 2003. It follows a warning from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that traces of a carcinogenic substance, semicarbazide, had been found in glass jars with metal lids. The EFSA said that parents need not stop feeding children food bought in these kinds of containers, but hoped that manufacturers might reconsider their use. However, the UK's Food Standards Agency says '...parents may understandably be concerned by the continuing uncertainty, which may lead some parents to choose alternative food for their babies.' The FSA goes to offer advice on how to prepare baby food from scratch.

The EFSA initially reported on the presence of semicarbazide back in July 2003. At that time, they stated that there was very little hard information about semicarbazide, other than that it appeared to produce cancer in female rats (but not male rats). Where specific doses are mentioned, adverse effects in rats were found at concentrations 1000 times or more above those found in baby food. Hence, the EFSA could quite reasonably say that, 'There is no risk of immediate illness to adults, children or infants from consumption of foods containing semicarbazide.'

What is worse is that the EFSA report goes on to point out potential problems if jarred foods were rejected: 'There is a possibility that the foods which would be chosen instead might be either not nutritionally equivalent to the foods used before or not suitable for the feeding of infants.' The EFSA has therefore been careful to say that parents should continue to use these foods. However, how are parents supposed to react if the EFSA also thinks the problem is serious enough to ask manufacturers to reconsider how they make these products?

The UK Food Standards Agency advice seems to make things worse. Now it suggests parents should make their own baby food. However, in doing so they will immediately walk into a minefield of preparation rules. Simply producing small quantities of adult food is not good enough, apparently. Previously-warmed food must not be reheated once prepared, but must be allowed to cool. Excess salt and sugar, eggs, wheat-based foods, nuts, seeds, honey, fish, shellfish and citrus fruits should all be avoided, especially in the first six months. No wonder parents love those little jars.

Thus the EFSA fall into a familiar trap. First, a possible risk is identified, which at worst is very small. Then, a precautionary response is initiated, which is made public. The result is a reaction which is worse than the potential risk first mentioned. Surely it would be better for these experts to proceed in private until they have established whether there is a significant risk or not rather than have this incontinent production of 'preliminary advice' in the interests of openness?

Cancer fears over baby food jars, BBC News, 15 October 2003

Update on semicarbazide in glass jars, UK Food Standards Agency, 15 October 2003

The Barefoot Doctor gets a kicking

An online chat with the Observer's new age medic turned into a stream of abuse against the utter nonsense that he talks. To quote...

Do you really believe everything you recommend or do you think "lumme, I've no idea, you're probably dead meat" and then recommend a good rubdown with a spiritual pebble or something because that's what you DO.

To the best of my recollection, you have said in various columns that massaging your kidneys with your fists 44 times a day can help relieve: baldness, bad breath, bad dreams, indigestion, migraine, and many other contitions beside. I was just wondering what therapy you would recommend for someone who has problems with their kidneys?

Or the simple, but direct: whats wrong with shoes?

The Barefoot Doctor, live online

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Weight-loss merges with psychosocial therapy

People on diets may lose weight. But, there is a tendency to put most of that weight back on again. So, this briefing suggests that regular contact with a diet advice provider facilitates maintaining weight-loss. In other words, we're practically into an outlook which sees fat people as permanently in recovery from their addiction - and places more power in the hands of the therapist.

ASO Briefings

Negative reactions to obesity

Not only does being fat get you a negative image. Being seen with a fat person can drag you down to. Researchers at the University of Liverpool showed a picture of a man to 144 female students. To half the students, he was pictured next to a slim woman, to the other half he was pictured with a fatter woman. When asked to describe the man, those who viewed him with the fat woman tended to use more negative terms.

None of which is terribly surprising. If society puts a premium on slimness, then someone who chooses to be with a person who is not slim must have something wrong with them. While I don't generally subscribe to the outlook I'm-not-fat-it's-society's-prejudice-that's-the-problem, if you spend your life feeling worthless, surely this will have some negative health impact in and of itself - never mind any theories about being fat clogging your arteries etc. News - Latest News - Obesity Projects Negative Reactions – Even If You’re Thin

GM: the depressing news continues

The chances of GM being grown in the UK continues to decline with a study that concludes that GM pollen can be carried for miles by bees. Of course, this all assumes that GM is a 'contamination' rather than simply another variety of the same plant. Once GM is viewed in this light, with strict rules on what can and cannot be declared 'GM free', there is little chance of economic production of GM varieties taking place.

Britain will accept GM in due course, years down the line, when it becomes blindingly obvious that it is grown and eaten successfully everywhere outside Europe.

Guardian Unlimited | The Guardian | Scientists uncover risks in GM oil seed rape

Talking rubbish

A bill to force councils to recycle 30 percent of household waste has cleared its final hurdle in the UK parliament.

In future, at least two types of waste must be collected from homes for recycling. However, what is the purpose of this recycling? It is not to claim back scarce resources, since more than 55 percent of household waste is garden and kitchen waste, good for compost but not a lot else, and paper, which is produced on such a large scale now that it is basically an agricultural product. It is not more economic - it is almost certainly cheaper to bury and burn waste than to try to recycle it. It may not even reduce pollution overall, given that the new regime will demand more diesel-burning trucks on the road, more often, to collect all the separated waste.

No, this is about imposing a new kind of morality, one which sees humans as essentially wasteful and wants to remind us of that fact every time we dispose of rubbish. And our penance for such sinful behaviour will be to wade through our trash on a daily basis. The new law also provides a degraded sense of common purpose, all doing our little bit for the environment. What a waste.

Recycling package set to become law, Scotsman, 14 October 2003

Recycling religion, Spiked, 16 January 2003

The sheer pointlessness of official product warnings...

The BBC reports that EU officials are asking baby food manufacturers to reconsider their packaging because they have found traces of a chemical which is weakly associated with cancer in animals.

The officials stress there is no risk. They are almost certainly right. So, why raise the alarm? It can only create uncertainty and anxiety, the alternative forms of packaging probably an equally small risk of cancer, and the whole thing will cause considerable expense.

BBC NEWS | Health | Cancer fears over baby food jars

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

A shot in the dark

'We are overrun by gun crime, says chief constable.' So reported the Daily Telegraph on 10 October 2003, after a spate of gun killings hit the headlines in recent weeks. In 1981 there were just over 8000 crimes in which firearms were the principal weapons; by 2000/01, that had more than doubled to over 17,000. It is now feared that replica guns are being converted to be able to fire live ammunition. Operation Trident, a high-profile campaign against gun crime in black communities in London, has received glowing tributes from politicians like Diane Abbott, and home secretary David Blunkett has promised more action on gun crime in the next parliament.

Britain already has the toughest gun legislation in the world. Possession of many semi-automatic weapons was banned after the Hungerford massacre in 1987, and the ban was extended to handguns after the Dunblane school shootings in 1996. In January this year, Blunkett announced that illegal possession or use of a gun would carry a minimum five-year sentence.

Yet the murder rate involving guns is low in comparison to other countries. Gun-related homicide accounts for 0.12 deaths per 100,000 people a year in England and Wales. The rate of gun homicides is more than four times greater in Switzerland (where guns are much more widely available legally) and over 30 times higher in the USA. On the other hand, the overall homicide rate in Switzerland is lower than in England and Wales, suggesting that the availability of guns doesn’t necessarily increase murders, but does affect the method used.

In fact, only 0.4 per cent of recorded crimes in Britain are gun-related. Moreover, about 60 per cent of all gun crimes are committed using air weapons, which are currently legal for anyone over 17 years of age. The fact that a handful of murders over the course of a few weeks can become national news is indicative of the overall rarity of such crimes. Even the police think the threat has been exaggerated in recent weeks. Assistant commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, head of the specialist crime directorate at Scotland Yard, told the Guardian: 'I don't want to minimise the impact of gun crime, but the fear is disproportionate to the reality if you look at all the risk factors.' But then, since when did reality get in the way of a good panic?

Gun panic sets in... but is it justified?, Guardian, 11 October 2003

Some facts about guns, Gun Control Network

On This Day: 1987: Gunman kills 14 in Hungerford rampage, BBC News

Crimes recorded by the police in which firearms were reported to have been used, UK Office of National Statistics

Monday, October 13, 2003

GM crop trials should start over, says Meacher

One of the weedkillers used in the farm-scale trials, atrazine, is now no longer going to be available in the EU. Since the weedkiller has been used in one of the regimes under test, this suggests that the results may be invalid. But we can breathe easy. The trials were a waste of time from the start.

The trials don't give us any information on the safety of GM crops, or whether they are more efficient. The main purpose is to see what effect GM would have on the environment and wildlife. But the real purpose of the trials was to put off the ugly business of making a decision. As Tony Gilland notes as part of spiked's online debate about GM, 'Back in 1998, GMHT sugar beet, maize and some oil-seed rape crop varieties had already been assessed by the regulatory authorities, and were found to pose no risk to human health or the environment.'

Meanwhile, he notes, 'From 1998 onwards, endless panics about GM technology - from 'superbugs' to 'superweeds' and 'poisonous potatoes' - have been promoted, all of which play on contemporary prejudices about the frailty of nature and the destructive impact of man. Government, industry and all involved with the development of GM technology have failed at every step to counter such fears. We have heard little about the importance of human innovation, or of our longstanding ability to overcome problems when things don't go precisely to plan.'

In other words, there is little reason to believe that GM is a problem. Moreover, as we develop GM technology, we may come up against problems that we need to tackle. Experience suggests we can solve such problems. But the Precautionary Principle rejects innovation because we can't guarantee it will be safe. This is a pointless barrier to innovation.

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | 'Flawed GM tests must start over'

Therapy and risk

Frank Furedi's new book shows how therapy has become one of the defining ideas of our age. Firstly, there is the notion that we are permanently vulnerable. Secondly, that we need the intervention of outsiders in order to cope. What underpins both ideas is a very low estimation of our capacities as human beings.

Therapy runs hand-in-hand with risk. While a therapeutic culture seeks to emphasise emotion, the obsession with risk sees us as vulnerable more generally.

There's nothing wrong with people with genuine problems receiving therapy attempting to resolve those specific problems. Such therapy is targeted and time-limited. But the Therapy Culture is everywhere, assuming that we are all in permanent need of counselling etc. | Society | Extract from Therapy Culture, by Frank Furedi