You’ve Got Cancer!

Ladies, Don’t Be Fooled By Those Fear-Mongering E-mails

Admit it. You’re deep into the mid-afternoon lull when you hear that carol of "You’ve got mail!" You swoop down upon your E-mail box like a political fundraiser on a $10,000 soft money donation. It doesn’t matter who sent the E-mail or what it’s about; you just want something to read. Quality is not an issue.

Considering the quality of some E-mails out there, it’s a good thing you’re so easily pleased. Foundationless E-mail circulates around the Internet all the time. Some forwarded messages are harmless and entertaining. Some are neither. Recently people have been passing along E-mails designed to frighten women into believing that an act of personal hygiene can kill or injure them. Take the E-mail entitled "Breast Cancer and Antiperspirant" that warns that Procter & Gamble’s Secret is doing more to your body than preserving discretion.

This E-mail informs you that antiperspirants cause breast cancer by plugging up the pores underneath the arms to prevent sweating. Because no sweat can exude from the underarm pores, the toxins cannot escape from the body. Instead, they build up in the lymph nodes. This, the E-mail confidently and earnestly assures, is why so much cancer occurs in the area of the breast near the armpit: It’s the antiperspirant locking in the toxins.

After reading this E-mail, you could fly into a panic and run to the bathroom to wash underneath your arms. Or you could quickly access the urban legend sites you have bookmarked just for this purpose and compose a carefully documented refutation to pass on to the sender. After all, the sender won’t believe you if you say the breast cancer E-mail is not true, without providing any documentation. She went to school with you. Your shortcomings in the intelligence sector are all too evident. She really believes that the story is true and that she’s helping save your life.

Unfortunately, she’s not the only person who believes this E-mail. Many others do as well, and IQ has nothing to do with it. Lawyers, bankers, teachers (and in one horrifying story told to me by an acquaintance who is a gynecologist!) asseverate that antiperspirants give you breast cancer. They’re wrong.

Let’s state it up front. Antiperspirants do not cause breast cancer. The sweat glands underneath your arms do not purge toxins. The active ingredient in many antiperspirants, Aluminum Zuconium Tetrachlorohydrex GLY, doesn’t harm the body’s cells. The E-mail is a lie that terrorizes women into believing that an act of personal hygiene can kill them.

It’s not the first E-mail that has done that. Before the antiperspirant missive, the legendary "asbestos in tampons" E-mail warned that the material was seeded in tampons to increase menstrual flow and thus the need for tampons. It may seem like an obvious fiction, which in fact it is, but many women have believed it to be true. After all, their best friends sent them the warning and they wouldn’t send on something that they thought was a lie.

After the asbestos/tampon scare came the dioxin-in-the-tampons fright. The dioxin E-mail claimed that tampons made by major corporations go through a bleaching process and thus contain dioxin, which will cause a host of ills, including cancer, hormone disruption, and birth defects. This is yet another example of the blurring of fact and fiction. The bleaching processes used by tampon makers in the US produce next to no dioxin as a byproduct. Even still, almost everything contains some level of dioxin, as the combustion of many substances produces dioxin. For example, according to an independent analysis, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream with its "dioxin free" packaging has a higher level of dioxin (.76 parts per trillion,) than does the raw material of most tampons measured in an FDA study, (.1-1 parts per trillion), but you don’t see anyone laying off the "World’s Best Vanilla."

Nor should the dioxin levels compel you to stop eating the ice cream or using tampons. No one has proven that exposure to low levels of dioxin has human health effects, and studies have shown that even at exposure to high levels of dioxin the only human health effect is chloroacne, a temporary skin disorder. The FDA considers the risk posed by the dioxin found in tampons to be negligible.

Unfortunately, some people fan the flames of these rumors, apparently because they make a profit off the fear and distress of the gullible. Purveyors of deodorant crystals have flogged the antiperspirant cancer link on their websites. Makers of "all-natural" tampons have pushed the dioxin rumor on theirs, even though tests have revealed that their "all-natural" tampons have just as much dioxin, and sometimes more, than the larger commercial brands. These companies aren’t espousing choice. They’re preying on the idea that women are stupid, so stupid that they’ll believe everything that comes across their computer screens.

But women aren’t stupid, and it’s up to women to prove that these exploitative individuals wrong. Don’t let false rumors designed to create fear and used to increase profit fool you. Do your own research. If an E-mail sounds alarmist or slightly odd, check out one of the many urban legend sites on the Internet. Run a search on the topic and read the opinions of a variety of sources. If you think an E-mail is false, let the sender and everyone else to whom the E-mail was sent, know why you think it’s false and don’t forward the false E-mail on to anyone else. Find out what the actual risk factors for diseases are. If you wish to reduce your risk for contracting a particular disease or condition, follow proscribed, science-based medical advice. When it comes to your health and your children’s health, don’t automatically believe everything that comes through your E-mail box, even if a good friend sends it to you.

Jennifer Zambone ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at CEI.