Really Scary
stories Or not?

By Megan Flaherty
Illustration by Malcolm Garris/PhotoDisc
April 12, 1999

A sun-worshipper broiling to death in a tanning booth and a fast-food customer biting into fried rat instead of fried chicken are some of the better-known urban legends. These legends—popular narratives spread as truth via word of mouth and e-mail—are often outrageous and unbelievable.

However, sometimes the tales are more plausible, and people believe every word. In these cases, such stories can frighten and even hurt people, especially if the stories relate to health, experts say. For example, a fictitious e-mail widely circulated last year linking aspartame to multiple sclerosis, lupus, and several other diseases alarmed many consumers, particularly patients with diabetes. And ongoing stories about kidney harvesting have led to mistrust of the medical community and a possible decline in organ donors, experts say.

Facts versus fears

"Health scare" campaigns are nothing new, said Jeff Stier, associate director for the American Council on Science and Health in New York, which has chronicled such scares in a report, Facts Versus Fears: A Review of the Greatest Unfounded Health Scares of Recent Times. In some cases, scientific studies are misinterpreted or distorted and lead to periods of health hysteria. However, some of the most recent health scare campaigns—like the aspartame rumor—have been full-fledged "health hoaxes" since they have no scientific basis, Stier said.

The aspartame e-mail appears credible, and it cites sources like the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation and the World Environmental Conference. The mysterious author, "Nancy Markle," uses medical jargon and quotes a physician. She claims aspartame is "especially deadly" for diabetics.

The author’s real name was not Nancy Markle, said Iain Murray, senior analyst for the Statistical Assessment Services in Washington, D.C. The real author was tracked down because she posted a very similar item in 1995 with her real name attached. "She’s an anti-aspartame activist who is repeating the allegations on the Internet regularly," Murray said.

Of course, the average person who receives the message doesn’t know where it originated, Stier said. "People absolutely believe it," he said. The message may come with a personal note at the top saying something like: "This came from a friend of mine who is a nurse. Be careful. She must know what she’s talking about."

A few weeks ago, the phones were busy at the American Council on Science and Health with callers wanting to know whether the aspartame rumor was true, Stier said. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) published a statement February calling aspartame an acceptable, Food and Drug Administration-approved sugar substitute and a safe part of a diabetic meal plan. "The FDA gives an acceptable daily intake limit for aspartame and other non-nutritive sweeteners. You’d have to drink eight or 10 cases of diet soda a day to meet that," said Linda Haas, RN, a certified diabetes educator for the Puget Sound VA Health Care System and president of healthcare education for the ADA. Aspartame is only dangerous in rare cases of patients who have phenylketonuria, she said.

Hold on to your kidneys

A health-related legend that has been around for years in one form or another relates to kidney harvesting. According to Kevin Sparkman, community relations manager for the Delaware Valley Transplant Program in Philadelphia, an e-mail circulated in the last three years tells of a man on a business trip who is invited by a woman to a party. The man wakes up the next day in a bathtub full of ice. His kidneys have been removed for sale on the black market.

This story has badly damaged the public’s perception of organ donation and the medical community, Sparkman said. When Sparkman’s organization conducted focus groups related to organ donation last year, a number of participants brought up such stories without any prompting. "It takes a lot to convince some people there is no black market for kidneys," he said. "They think if they have an accident and have agreed to be an organ donor, that a doctor’s priority is going to be to get their organs and not save their lives." According to a statement from the National Kidney Foundation in December, there is no evidence that such activity has ever occurred in the United States.

The foundation says it is "concerned that the unfortunate rumors will affect the public’s willingness to become organ donors." Currently, more than 50,000 Americans are awaiting life-saving organ transplants and nine or 10 people on the waiting list die each day, according to the foundation.

Maureen Schlereth, RN, a kidney foundation volunteer and an area director for the Huntington Artificial Kidney Center who supervises four dialysis clinics on Long Island, N.Y., said patients always ask the nurses if it’s true that some people buy kidneys. "We always tell them it’s not," Schlereth said.

Finding the truth

"It only takes five minutes to go to an urban legends Web site to verify that an urban legend isn’t true," Murray said. Or you can call the National Kidney Foundation, the American Diabetes Foundation, or the American Council on Science and Health.

Use common sense when faced with what may be a health scare or health hoax, Stier said. When people start thinking Sweet ’n Low is just as dangerous as cigarettes because both items have warning labels, they have lost perspective, Stier said. "People worry too much about hypothetical, remote risks and not enough about real, actual risks," he said.

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