Category Archives: Things That Are Not Awesome

Radiating stupidity

I find myself whipped into a skeptical frenzy after the live Skeptics with a K podcast recording (which was awesome – and as a side note: go here and buy tickets for QED) and hence, bloggage…

This feels like a somewhat lazy post, considering that its subject is yet another Natural News article. But the misconceptions contained within it are worryingly common, and it is something of a pet subject of mine, so here goes.

The article is “An apple a day keeps cell phone and other radiation at bay”.

Which, for obvious reasons, immediately gets my bullshit-detecting antennae dancing, but lets give it the benefit of the doubt.

“We are constantly exposed to radiation from cell phones, computer screens, power lines, airline travel, and microwaves.”

Yep, and televisions, light bulbs, halogen heaters… oh yeah, and quite a bit from the fricking sun… what’s your point, Natural News? We’re then told that radiation can remain in your body for a long time (which really depends on what sort of radiation you’re talking about: I don’t think that you can stand in front of a red lightbulb absorbing its radiation and then hope to glow red yourself…) and that even radiation just passing through you causes “free radical damage”. The trouble here is that the author is a little confused about what kind of radiation they’re talking about.

Toxic doses like that of radiation therapy for cancer or of exposure from a bomb or power plant can cause severe burns or even death.

Oh dear. I hear this kind of thing a lot. The radiation in bombs or power plants is ionising radiation and consists either of particles such as alpha particles or very high energy electromagnetic waves like gamma rays. It is produced from the nuclear fission of large, radioactive elements like uranium. Ionising radiation can be very dangerous, and if you were contaminated with radioactive material it could certainly remain in your body for a long time.

The radiation mentioned earlier in the passage is electromagnetic radiation on the lower end of the energy spectrum. They are not ionising, they are not discrete particles (I’m not getting into quantum physics right now, thankyouverymuch) that can contaminate you, and there’s no real evidence for them having any kind of adverse effect on health.

The article then mentions some common foods which can apparently “cleanse” you of radiation, including apples, sunflower seeds, buckwheat and seaweed.

Apples and sunflower seeds contain pectin which binds and removes radioactive residues from the body.

Now this is a specific statement, and one which I can easily investigate via PubMed. Somewhat surprisingly, it seems like there is some evidence for the use of apple pectin as an absorbent of radioactive material, for example, this paper from the Swiss Medical Weekly. Click on that link and you’ll see that this story now takes a sad turn when we discover that it is being used to reduce the “load” of radioactive caesium in children from the Chernobyl region. The body can cope with some radiation (depending on the type of radiation and the size of the person, amongst other things) but when the load exceeds  a certain amount, physiological damage is highly likely. The study found that giving the children apple pectin reduced their load of caesium even when they were eating radiologically clean food – so the implication is it can remove radioactive caesium from the body.

I’d like to take a moment to consider the fact that there are children living with substantial radioactive contamination (from a terrible, horrible accident caused not by the inherent evils of nuclear power but by human negligence – but I’m not going to get into that right now) and people like the authors of Natural News think our exposure to cellphones is somehow comparable… isn’t that insulting?

I think so, and that’s why I’m not going to discuss the other points made in the article. Especially because one of them is a recipe for “radiation cleansing soup” made with seaweed…

Salty goodness? Part II

While researching my earlier post about halotherapy I was reminded of a trend that started a few years back for lamps made out of large chunks of salt crystal. They are certainly very pretty, but according to the sales pitch they are more than just decorative; they’re good for your health, too. So do they actually do anything?

The first result of a Google search “how do salt lamps work” throws up this website.

A page entitled “The Science of Salt Lamps” certainly sounds promising. Let’s take a closer look.

“Science offers a solid basis for the unanimous claims by lamp owners around the world about the positive effects which salt lamps and salt crystal bring to us through soothing light and color, the cleansing effect it provides for indoor air, and with powerful negative ions which have certainly been studied enough to be known as beneficial, in a myriad of ways.”

Oh dear. The mention of “powerful negative ions” in the first paragraph is not a good sign. More on that later.

“Genuine Himalayan crystal salt is the most beneficial, most potent salt available on this planet. It was formed over 250 million years ago,”

So?

“This crystal salt is completely pristine and natural,”

Apart from being dug up, cut to shape and wired up into a lamp, that is.

“We are not referring to simple rock salt or table salt; simply because rock salt assumes a crystalline form doesn’t mean that it is of the superior quality that we have been talking about here. Elements within rock salt are not integral to the salt’s crystal grid, but instead cling to the outer surfaces and crevices of the crystalline matrix.”

As far as I can tell, the author here is trying to say that there are impurities in ordinary rock salt, whereas Himalayan salt is pure. My major problem with this is that the pictures surrounding the article are all of coloured salt crystals. The colour in crystals like these is caused by trace amounts of impurities. Pure sodium chloride is colourless!

“There is no type of salt in this world that can compare to Himalayan salt crystal,”

This is such a common misunderstanding, but no matter where it’s found, sodium chloride, is always just sodium chloride (give or take those trace impurities I just mentioned).  Now she moves on to why sea salt isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“By evaporating sea water, salt is harvested and normally sent to a processing plant. This process reaps natural minerals from the salt and structurally ruins it.”

I agree that processing will remove “natural minerals” – those are the impurities that we don’t want in the final food-grade sodium chloride. But this process won’t change its structure. Crystalline structures are by definition robust, and really only break down under massive heat or pressure; or some pretty serious grinding.

“Salt lamps work wonderfully, owning is believing.”

Wait, is that an anecdote I see there?

“During a one-year period between scheduled testing, a genetic, chronic, and de-generative lung disorder completely stabilized and reversed course by improving the medical test results which confirm it. This disorder doesn’t reverse, even stabilization is a long-reaching goal. Over that year, this person was exposed to Himalayan salt crystal all day and during sleep; began a morning routine of taking a shot of sole (“so-lay”); bathing daily with our Himalayan crystal salt; using edible pink Himlayan (sic) crystal salt on food. The doctor is a board-certified pulmonary/critical care specialist here in Charlotte, NC – and now also owns a salt lamp.”

A few questions: where’s the citation? What disease was it? What tests were used? What the frilly heck is “a shot of sole”? Who was the doctor? Oh and, WHERE’S THE CITATION?

“We are quite convinced…”

I’m not.

“OK, but how do salt lamps improve air and well-being you ask?”

Yes, yes I do.

“Yet, despite many claims, there is no repeatable, verifiable scientific data available for peer review, on the true “ionizing capacity”; or efficacy; or impact on the human mental/bio-physical condition.”

Right then. That’s pretty much the end of the story as far as I’m concerned. When even the source of the woo tells you there’s no evidence, that’s a pretty good sign that there’s no evidence. But the article continues…

“Himalayan salt crystal is, by it’s (sic) very nature, hygroscopic. By removing moisture from indoor air, things such as bacteria, virii, fungi, mold spores, and respiratory allergens and asthma triggers cannot remain airborne; they fall to the floor by gravity and die… especially in an environment with higher levels of negative ions.”

A hygroscopic material is one which has a tendency to absorb water. Sodium chloride is moderately hygroscopic, but I don’t understand the assertion that bacteria, fungi and other allergens require moisture to stay in the air. And we’re back on the subject of negative ions.

“As it happens, evaporation of water releases negative ions.

But you just said the crystal absorbs water! And in any case, if negative ions were released by evaporation, positive ions would come along for the ride. The ‘ionic bond’ between Na+ (positive ion) and Cl- (negative ion) is very strong and wouldn’t let them get pulled apart like that.

“Be careful not to misinterpret this based on lack of evidence. There is a mountain of circumstantial evidence, testimonials, and peripheral, corroborating science data.”

Anecdotes and testimonials are not evidence, no way, no how.

“ We care little for what lab instruments might indicate or measure…”

Good to know. Why are you writing about the Science of Salt Lamps, then?

“In fresh country air we find up to 4000 negative ions per cubic centimeter – the size of a sugar cube. “

4000 may sound a lot. However, according to the Ideal Gas Law, one mole of a gas at room temperature and atmospheric pressure occupies a volume of 24 liters (24,000 cubic centimetres). One mole is equal to 6 x 1023 molecules. So 1/24000 of 6 x 1023 is 2.5 x 1019 or twenty five million million million. Of which 4000 are apparently negative ions (to really ram the point home, this means that in one cubic centimetre of “fresh country air”, 1 in 16 thousand million million molecules is a ‘negative ion’). Hmm.

“The most common myth about salt lamps is that these lamps emit or generate negative ions. This is not true.”

Wait, isn’t this exactly what you just said?

“There isn’t enough heat or light energy to eject negative ions from the salt crystal.”

True.

“This doesn’t mean that indoor air doesn’t experience increased levels of negative ions around a salt lamp, only that these ions do not originate from the salt.”

Right. So where do they come from, then? The author directs the reader to a “more in-depth” explanation at this point, however it just says a lot of the same stuff about salt being hygroscopic and causing allergens to plummet out of the air by reducing humidity. And then there’s a mention of a weak “ionic field” but I don’t rightly know what they mean by that. It’s generally highly unusual to get a large amount of either positive or negative ions in one place without something to counteract the charge. Things like to be neutral.

“The various colors of the lamp can have positive effects. The therapeutic wavelengths of the colors of these crystals are visible to our eyes and affect reorganization of the epidermal skin tissue (especially in the orange range). These are also used in allopathic medicine for treating skin cancer.”

Oh man, this is like pseudoscience bingo. Now we have “allopathic” to add to the collection. Did someone call “HOUSE!”?

I assume the reference to treating skin cancer is talking about photodynamic therapy, a treatment involving the use of drugs that are activated by light. Not really the same thing at all, by the way.

“As many of us sit in front of televisions or computer monitors, we are bombarded with “electronic smog”, an electro-magnetic frequency of around 100 to 160 Hz. (Hertz). Our brainwaves, however, vibrate at around 8 Hz.; a rate which is equal to the Schuhmann Resonance Frequency. In other words, while watching TV or working at a computer, our bodies are exposed to the vibration of frequencies 20 times faster than our brainwaves. The results are nervousness, insomnia, and lack of concentration. A salt lamp will counter the smog.”

Oh wow, now we’re on to electro-smog. Electromagnetic radiation covers a theoretically infinite range of frequencies including radio waves (at about 10000 Hz), visible light (at 400 – 800 Terahertz) and X-rays (about a million Terahertz). Frequencies in the range of 0 – 300 Hz are called “extremely low frequency” or ELF radiation. There is no good evidence for these having any adverse effects on human health. I’m fairly sure that there is no one universal measurable frequency of human ‘brainwaves’ but even if there was,  I can’t see how a television with a refresh rate of about 100Hz would have any real effect on the brain. And as for how a salt lamp would help, the answer is… it wouldn’t. It can’t. After all, it’s a lamp. If you think about it, it’s just another one of those nasty machines contributing to electro-smog…

Salty goodness? Part I

The other day my mother handed me a magazine that she had picked up in the local hospital waiting room. It was called “Wellbeing” and one of the cover stories was “Therapy: Ayurvedic balance in a modern world”. I think this gives you a pretty good idea of the general tone of this publication…

I tend to avoid the patently ridiculous when searching for post ideas; these things are much more ably eviscerated by other, wittier bloggers. I look for things that look like they might have a hint of truth to them, like Epsom Salt. And so to the subject of this post: Halotherapy.

Halotherapy is the rather grandiose name given to treating a patient with salt – the “salt cave” therapy. In Russia there is a widely accepted folk remedy called “speleotherapy” – the treatment of a variety of conditions by placing the patient in a subterranean environment (i.e. in a cave). Halotherapy is the above ground alternative: a room is specially prepared to have a very salty atmosphere, and people go there to relax and inhale the salt. The article in Wellbeing Magazine pointed me to www.saltcave.co.uk, so I thought I would check it out.

I navigated to the “Results” page, and found many links to research papers that “prove” the efficacy of halotherapy.

“Excellent!” I thought. There might be something in this, after all.
There are three papers that are accessible in full-text form directly from the website, so I started with those.

The first was entitled “Inhalation of hypertonic saline aerosol enhances mucociliary clearance in asthmatic and healthy subjects”.
Yeah. My first reaction was “Huh?” too. But let’s plunge in. Hypertonic saline is just a concentrated salt (sodium chloride) solution, and mucociliary clearance can be thought of as the way the airways keep themselves clear. It’s a natural defence mechanism of the lungs. In this study a mixed group of healthy and asthmatic subjects were given one of three interventions in random order over a sequence of visits. The three interventions were i) inhalation of nebulized hypertonic saline, ii) inhalation of nebulized regular saline and iii) no inhalation. So here’s the first important point. The patients were treated with a concentrated salt solution nebulized (mechanically turned into a fine mist) and inhaled directly from the nebulizer. This is quite obviously not equivalent to sitting in a salty room!
In relation to that, the author’s estimate that only around 41% of the nebulized solution is inhaled, and of that only 15-35% will deposit in the lungs. So overall if, say, 100 molecules are in the solution, a maximum of 14 will end up in the lungs where they could potentially have an effect!
The response of the subjects was measured by getting them to inhale a radioaerosol (an aerosol containing radioactive particles) and subsequent imaging with a gamma camera (a camera sensitive to gamma radiation, analogous to an X-ray machine). The premise was this: the faster the mucociliary clearance, the faster the removal of the radioisotope from the lungs.
I know, I know. Bear with me. The study found that the hypertonic saline increased the mucociliary clearance in all patients. They conclude that the salt had a real, physiological effect that may have practical implications e.g. “as a response to a need to clear unwanted inhaled particles”.
So do we have a positive result for halotherapy? No. We have a positive result for inhaling a concentrated salt solution from a nebulizer.

On to paper two. The title is “Hypersaline nasal irrigation in children with symptomatic seasonal allergic rhinitis: A randomized study”.
Translation: putting concentrated salt solution up children’s noses to treat hayfever. Ouch. My father assures me that his grandmother used to use this kind of thing for blocked noses and such, but still. Ouch.
There’s really no need for me to go into this study. Shoving salty water up your nose is absolutely definitely not the same thing as sitting in a salty room.

Paper three is “A Controlled Trial of Long-Term Inhaled Hypertonic Saline in Patients with Cystic Fibrosis”. This was a long-term (48 weeks) study of the response of a group of 164 patients to twice-daily inhalation of either hypertonic (treatment) or regular (control) saline solution. The results were very positive, with the treatment group showing improved lung function and less frequent ‘exacerbations’ (worsening of the patient’s condition requiring antibiotic treatment, for example). But that’s still irrelevant. This study again used nebulizers to administer the salt solution!

So, to summarise: three papers and zero evidence for the efficacy of halotherapy as offered by http://www.saltcave.com. Hmm.

The majority of the other links are to Pubmed and abstract-only access to the articles. It doesn’t matter anyway, as they are all in Russian, which I cannot read.

I did find a Cochrane review on the use of halotherapy for the treatment of asthma, and the result was inconclusive. The review was hindered by the fact that only two of the studies initially included were of “reasonable methodological quality”.
Isn’t it funny how the positive literature all comes out of the country that supports this treatment as a folk remedy…

But all is not lost, there is one English-language paper written by the Russian authors, and it’s handily reprinted in a summarised form on the website itself. The Pubmed entry is here.

This study took 124 patients with a variety of pulmonary conditions such as asthma and chronic bronchitis, treated them in a salt room for a non-specified amount of time, and assessed their condition after treatment. To quote the study:
“The pts’ condition was assessed by daily medical supervision, with functional and laboratory tests made before and after Salt Therapy, as well as every 7th day during the treatments”
They don’t say what kind of tests, but the next paragraph talks about the discharge of sputum and ‘auscultation’ (listening to the chest with a stethoscope), so that seems fair enough, though hardly exhaustive. At the end of the course, evidently the patients were given a questionnaire, because the study says:
“By the end of the course of Salt Therapy all the pts felt better they slept well, had no fatigue or weakness, and their nervous system stabilized.”
Sorry, their nervous system stabilized? Pardon me? Anyway. We’re then told that the number of asthma attacks decreased significantly (81% to 52%, whatever that means) and the result is highly significant, p < 0.001. To that p value, I again say hmm. Imagine my eyebrow raised, if you will.

The study concludes with the report that many of the patients were able to lower the dose of their other medications and that the positive results observed in upwards of 85% of patients lasted up to 12 months after their first salt therapy. There are a lot of other numbers thrown in without proper discussion or explanation.
And it gets worse. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the control group. I’ll leave this one to the authors:
“The control group was represented by 15 pts (7 females and 8 males) aged from 18 to 56 years. Placebo course consisted only of 10 procedures of musical psychosuggestive program with slides demonstration in an ordinary room.”
So the control group is ten times smaller than the treatment group. Problem. There is no discussion of their clinical condition either before or after ‘treatment’. Problem. And the placebo to sitting in a salty room is apparently a psychosuggestive (!) slide show. Big problem.

Imagine both eyebrows raised and some head scratching going on over here.
If this study is representative of the countless Russian language papers on this subject, I can see why the authors of the Cochrane review had trouble finding work to include.

So to summarise:

  1. The three full papers linked from the webpage are legitimate studies and provide good evidence. Just not for halotherapy.
  2. The Cochrane review on the use of halotherapy for asthma was inconclusive, due to the lack of suitable trials to include.
  3. The study printed on the webpage makes few specific claims (the patients ‘felt better’) and proves nothing.
  4. Based on the above, my conclusion is that there is no evidence for the efficacy of halotherapy and salt rooms for the treatment of asthma and other respiratory conditions. If anyone can check out the Russian papers and tell me otherwise, I’ll be very happy to update this post.
  5. I found one paper discussing the use of salt therapy for the treatment of bacterial vaginosis and I can’t help but wonder, wouldn’t you have to sit awful funny to give the salty air the necessary, um, access?!

So the message is: don’t be fooled by a bunch of science-y words. In my opinion, legitimate treatments can be explained in layman’s terms. They don’t need to bamboozle you with science. But on the plus side (sarcasm warning), the first treatment is free. They are clear that you need multiple sessions (at a cost of £35 each) to see any benefit, but nevertheless, the first one is free.

Doctor! Get me some Epsom salts!

This post discusses an article published by Natural News on August 7th 2010 entitled “Discover the Many Uses of Epsom Salt”.

Epsom salt, or magnesium sulphate, is the latest “natural remedy” that the folks at Natural News tell me will treat just about anything. To quote their opening paragraph:

“Epsom salt is a pure mineral compound composed of magnesium and sulfate which has long been known as a natural remedy for many health conditions. Epsom salt can also relax the nervous system and soothe the body, mind, and soul.”

Usually, I ignore these sorts of articles, but this one caught my eye because I know that magnesium sulphate actually does have several medicinal uses. Maybe Natural News are on to something?

Let’s start with some of the claimed benefits of magnesium. These are many and varied, so it’s a good job there’s a fairly recent review article to help me out.

“Magnesium helps to regulate the activity of more than 325 enzymes…”

The review states that magnesium is a cofactor in hundreds of enzymatic processes. As far as I understand it, a cofactor is a species which must be bound to an enzyme in order for it to carry out its biological function. So if anything, this first claim is actually understating the importance of magnesium. Moving on.

“(Magnesium) …plays an important role in maintaining cardiovascular health by stabilizing heart rhythm, preventing abnormal blood clotting, and supporting normal blood pressure levels.”

Yes. Magnesium deficiency has been linked to heart disease, arrhythmia (wonky heart rhythms) and high blood pressure.

“Magnesium lowers the risk of heart attacks and strokes and helps in recovery from heart attacks and strokes”

According to the review article, there have been a few conflicting studies about the use of magnesium for treating heart attack patients. A similar picture is painted for cases of acute stroke, however in both cases there is definite potential for use.

So it would seem that Natural News have written a decent account of the therapeutic benefits of magnesium. Since similar accounts can be found via the NIH factsheet and even Wikipedia, you might well ask why I’m even commenting on this. Well, because from what I’ve seen it’s entirely out of character for Natural News!

“Sadly, most Americans are deficient in this important mineral. Therefore, it is no wonder that the incidence of serious diseases such as heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, arthritis, stress-related illnesses, and chronic fatigue are so prevalent.”

Boom. That’s more like it: a nicely vague statistic followed by an unsupported assumption of causation. And I’m not even mentioning the awful grammar.

After a quick tour of the medicinal benefits of sulphates (which I suspect is also reasonably accurate though it’s hard to be sure since it doesn’t specify which sulphates), the article moves on to the “beauty benefits” of Epsom salt.

The first two are innocuous enough: skin exfoliation and relaxation. Rubbing Epsom salt into your skin will definitely exfoliate it, but so will rubbing on any other vaguely rough material. And taking a bath must surely be relaxing with or without the added mineral. Although I suppose if you had a big bath and a lot of Epsom salt you might be able to increase the density of the bathwater enough to float on it, and that would be cool!

And then we come to the best bit. Apparently your skin can absorb the magnesium from your Epsom salt-y bath. I found some studies discussing the permeability of skin to magnesium which may go some way to verify this claim, but then we have this:

“Studies indicate that the magnesium absorbed during the bathing process may raise serotonin levels (the chemical in the brain that creates a feeling of wellbeing), and may also offset excess levels of adrenalin caused by everyday stress. Studies have also found that soaking in Epsom salt at least three times a week increases energy and stamina. Overall, it makes you feel better and even look better.”

The first direct mention of research in this article, and not only are the claims extraordinary but also without references. A quick Pubmed search reveals no likely candidates for these “studies”. And then I found something strange.

In an unpublished 2006 report, Dr Rosemary Waring from the University of Birmingham claims to have found evidence that bathing in an Epsom salt solution increases the amount of both magnesium and sulphates in the body.

In this study, 19 subjects took daily baths in Epsom salt solutions for a period of 7 days. The levels of magnesium and sulphates in their blood and urine were measured. In all cases the levels increased after bathing, although the variations from subject to subject were large. This suggests that the Epsom salt is being absorbed into the body from the bath.

In a final paragraph, it is mentioned that two volunteers wore patches of Epsom salt directly on their skin (sealed with a waterproof plaster). In both cases the blood and urine levels of magnesium and sulphate had again increased.

At no point does Dr Waring mention levels of serotonin or adrenalin. She also never discusses ‘energy’ or ‘stamina’. So this may not be the study referred to by Natural News. However, it does seem to be the only source of evidence about the absorption of Epsom salt from bathing.

So is it good evidence?

On the one hand, Dr Waring is a respected and prolific scientist, and the study design (save for the small sample size) seems reasonable. She makes no claims about any therapeutic benefits.

On the other hand, this is an unpublished, non-peer-reviewed report. Considering the potential impact of the work (given the apparent physiological importance of magnesium and sulphates, this is a pretty big deal), it is odd that it has never been published. Perhaps the results could not be replicated. Perhaps Dr Waring has different priorities. We simply can’t know.

And even if we can get magnesium sulphate into the body via bathing, it is highly unlikely that it would have the incredible, all-encompassing health benefits that are claimed by Natural News. It, and other similar articles advocating the use of Epsom salt in this way are highly misleading.

All in all, the evidence says… an Epsom salt bath probably won’t do you much more good than just a regular hot bath.

Warning: un-scientific speculation ahead!

What I find particularly odd, is that Dr Waring’s primary research has shown that children on the autistic spectrum are often extremely low in sulphates. Presumably the hint of a possible treatment is what led her to carry out the Epsom salt bath experiment. And now there are people out there touting Epsom salt baths as the cure-all for autism. Just one example is here: http://www.thepeacefamily.force9.co.uk/epsom.html. This is the danger of reports like this. They are misinterpreted and their conclusions exaggerated unreasonably. There is so much pseudoscience surrounding autism as it is, that I feel Dr Waring should make some effort to publish this work, or a contradiction of it, or simply a statement that there is (currently) no evidence for the use of Epsom salt baths in treating autism.

Finally, I am surprised, and pleased, that Natural News made no mention of autism in their article. It either demonstrates a rare moment of common sense, or a lack of Google skills. I have no comment on which is more likely…