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A Morbid Fear of Illness Makes America Trash Good Food and Common Sense

<i> Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is executive director of the American Council on Science and Health, a nonprofit consumer education organization based in New York. </i>

What this country needs right now is a national psychiatrist to determine why Americans are discarding wholesome food in a mindless effort to reduce the risk of cancer. It’s a good bet that the professional 50-state diagnosis would be acute nosophobia.

Nosophobia is defined as a morbid dread of illness. It is a form of psychosis that is extremely hazardous to both physical and mental health; its effects on our nation’s children are particularly insidious.

The most recent and to date most virulent episode of national nosophobia was triggered by the release last month of a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which opined that trace levels of agricultural chemicals cause cancer in kids. The sole basis for this phenomenal and frightening charge was the assumption that huge levels of chemical pesticides that cause cancer in mice must also be carcinogens in humans, even at the barely measurable levels which might be found in produce.

The report had the ideal volatile mix for drawing public attention. Food is a highly emotional topic, and rumors about food safety have always spread rapidly and irrationally.

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When you add in our universal concern about the safety of children, you have an instant winner for a media blitz. “60 Minutes” gave us a member of Congress who linked consumption of fruits and vegetables with the tragic appearance of children in a cancer ward. Phil Donahue gave us Meryl Streep with suggestions on how to use vinegar or detergent to get the carcinogens out.

By mid-March, one could almost palpate the national nosophobia, perhaps best illustrated by the wire service report of a New York mother who, hearing on the news one morning last week that apples cause cancer, called the state police to intercept her child’s school bus to remove the allegedly offensive fruit from the lunch box. Even President Bush proclaimed that he drinks carrot juice because carrots aren’t sprayed with that nasty stuff.

What have we got here? We have a national tragedy of spectacular proportions, one that is ultimately a real threat to the health of Americans, particularly children. While there has never been a single case of ill health, in children or adults, related to the regulated use of approved pesticides in the United States (and no toxicologist worth his sodium chloride thinks that a mouse is a little man) there are some real health hazards directly attributable to the national nosophobia about apples and other produce.

Item: I was approached last week by a 10-year-old who asked me if she would develop cancer from all that apple juice she drank as a baby from a bottle. “When will I get the cancer?” she asked anxiously.

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Item: My daughter stood by as her school discarded hundreds of pieces of apple pie because they “caused cancer.”

What are we doing to our children? What are they to think when we ban or discard food that, for all their lives, was described to them as wholesome, safe and health-promoting?

Item: Last weekend a neighbor of mine told me of her sheer hysteria about cancer-causing apples. She was throwing out sauce, juice, the works, because no risk was acceptable for her child (this “no acceptable risk” is the centerpiece of the Meryl Streep campaign, Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits). The next morning I saw this same woman riding with her infant on the back of her bike on a sandy road--with no helmet on the baby.

Toxic terrorism, of the ilk of the Natural Resources Defense Council report, causes nosophobia. Nosophobia causes unnecessary anxiety and blurred vision, which negates our ability and our children’s ability to distinguish between real and hypothetical risks. And that puts the public health of this nation in serious jeopardy.


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