Health: Neurotic? Ha! Your problems have only just begun
Jeremy Laurance is a writer on health issues. He is former health editor of The Independent and the i and has covered the specialism for more than 20 years. He thinks the harm medicine does is under-appreciated, the harm it prevents over-rated, and that cycling works better than most drugs. He was named Specialist Journalist of the Year in the 2011 British Press Awards.
Thursday 23 September 1999
First up was ESBO, a nasty acronym leaking into baby food. Scientists from the Ministry of Agriculture found half of 137 samples of baby food contained levels of a sealant called Epoxidised Soya Bean Oil high enough to raise concern that greedy babies who ate only the most contaminated brands might be doing themselves damage. We can never eliminate risks, only exchange them. The oil stops bacteria getting in to contaminate the food - and now the jars are contaminated with the oil instead.
Next, we had fears over pesticides on lettuce. On this occasion, the independent scientists signed up by the Ministry of Agriculture were at pains to be reassuring. Only 1.3 per cent of samples showed excess levels of pesticides, they said, and even these were orders of magnitude below the danger level at which brains start to shrivel. Did we believe them? Did we heck. Why turn up a chance to put the boot into the farmers when they are down and take a swipe at their partners in crime, the supermarkets, if we can?
I suggest we may be the victims of an altogether more sinister conspiracy. Of all the arguments about diet, the one area where there is a consensus is on fruit and veg - we should eat more. It is the best defence against the vicissitudes of modern life which manifest themselves, sooner or later, as cancer and heart disease. Now, we are told, along with our daily apple or pear we may be swallowing half the output of Porton Down. So we stick to chips and die from heart disease.
Then we had dioxin in fish fingers. Figures buried in a Ministry of Agriculture report unearthed by Environmental Data Services, the pollution information agency, suggested that anyone eating more than one a week may breach the World Health Organisation safe limit for ingestion of the toxin. Has anyone done the risk benefit calculation, I wonder? Oily fish is known to protect against heart attacks, which claim 150,000 lives a year. Cutting them out is like removing a flak jacket in a war zone because of the risk of dying from the heat.
Lastly, vaccines. It's clever, this one. The public don't like them, worrying about the impact on children's immune systems. So what does any half canny Government do? Easy - create a shortage. The British Medical Association helpfully stamped its foot last week and called the shortage "scandalous." This triggered a stampede to get protection, with university students besieging surgeries for meningitis C before the start of Fresher week.
Ingenious, no? Vaccination becomes a must-have membership badge, essential protection against dread diseases dreamed up by pesticide-fuelled scientists in baby food factories. Now, that's what I call a conspiracy.
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