Flaky diagnostic tool fans toxin scare fire
Hard on the heels of the Bent Spoon awarded to the Poisoning Paradise ‘documentary’, the NZ Herald has produced an appalling piece on alleged pesticide poisoning of people and wildlife in Auckland (27 September).
According to the report, Waiheke Island environmental group Ocean Aware claimed samples from marine birds, oysters and dog vomit, taken from Waiheke and Rangitoto Islands, tested positive for brodifacoum and 1080.
The samples were tested by EAV machine, though nothing in the article explained what this means. EAV stands for ‘Electroacupuncture according to Voll’ – in the 1950s Reinhold Voll combined acupuncture theory with galvanic skin differentials to produce a machine which, when homeopathic solutions were introduced into the circuit, could be used to ‘diagnose’ all manner of toxin-related ailments (see NZ Skeptic 56). Needless to say the machine has no scientific basis.
A woman who became mildly ill after eating local snapper also tested positive for brodifacoum, said Ocean Aware’s Sarah Silverstar. Brodifacoum poisoning, however, causes internal bleeding, which the woman was not reported to suffer from, and does not otherwise generate feelings of illness. This is what makes it such an effective rat poison.
The electroacupuncture testing was done after the Department of Conservation dropped 147 tonnes of brodifacoum bait on Rangitoto and Motutapu Islands in August. Soon after, several marine animals were found dead on Auckland’s North Shore, and dogs which had walked on the beaches became ill or died. At least some of these cases were later linked to tetrodotoxin, a bacterial toxin found in several marine organisms, most famously the Japanese fugu puffer fish.
DoC, in alliance with Auckland Regional Public Health, MAF Biosecurity, Auckland Regional Council and North Shore and Auckland City Councils, says independent scientists have carried out extensive testings and determined none of the deaths were caused by brodifacoum. DoC spokeswoman Nicola Vallance said the department offered to have independent scientists test Silverstar’s samples, but she declined.
Dioxin risk over-rated
At least Bob Brockie brought some sense to the fraught subject of environmental toxins with his Dominion Post column (6 July) on the dioxin scare in New Plymouth.
Residents there were up in arms when it was discovered soils in a local park had minute traces of dioxin. But as Bob Brockie pointed out, dioxin at far higher levels than found in Taranaki generates no symptoms other than a form of acne. When Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko had his soup laced with dioxin he was badly scarred, but today his face has largely healed and he appears in good health. Following the Seveso chemical factory explosion in 1976 residents were found to have up to 10,000 times the typical human tissue concentration. Fifteen years of testing revealed no excess cancer, stillbirths or genetic disorders – just the temporary acne.
Sadly, says Brockie, this is an argument that science and objectivity can never win. “The testimony of one or two residents carries more weight in New Plymouth than truckloads of refuting world statistics.”
Conspiracy? What conspiracy?
The Sunday Star Times (20 September) had a good piece on Matthew Dentith’s study of conspiracy theories at Auckland University. Why, asked reporter Mark Broatch, do otherwise ruthlessly rational people reject out of hand most conspiracies, yet give time and angst to ideas others find quite wacky?
Matthew Dentith says the problem is two-fold. Schools don’t teach critical thinking skills that might help us unravel our confusion, and we humans are exceptional at compartmentalising our beliefs. “It’s really easy to be absolutely staunch in, say, your adherence to evolutionary theory by natural selection. But when it comes to medical quackery…”
Look for more on this subject from Matthew Dentith in an upcoming issue of NZ Skeptic.
Placebo prescriptions widespread
Three out of four New Zealand doctors have prescribed placebo medications to patients, according to medical researcher Shaun Holt, who says the practice could cost the taxpayer several million dollars (Dominion Post 4 July).
Seventy-two percent of the 157 doctors surveyed admitted giving placebos, including vitamins, herbal supplements, salt water injections and sugar pills.
“But what surprised us was the most commonly prescribed placebos were antibiotics, which is obviously a concern because of the rise of antibiotic resistance and potential side-effects for patients,” Dr Holt said.
Patients’ unjustified demands for medication was cited as the most common reason for prescribing placebos (34 percent), followed by non-specific complaints (25 percent), and exhausting other treatment options (24 percent).
Dr Holt said he believed placebos were ethical as long as the doctor considered them to be in the best interests of the patient. “The placebo effect is quite powerful,” he said.
Rather than prescribing medications which were ineffective for the condition treated – such as antibiotics for viral infections – he said “there could be an argument for bringing back sugar pills, which are safer, just as effective and certainly cheaper.”
Pharmac medical director Peter Moodie said data showed doctors were prescribing antibiotics responsibly. He agreed it was not acceptable to waste money prescribing medicines with no effect.
Alternative therapies ‘too good to be true’
The Sunday News (20 September) has come up with a surprisingly sceptical article about alternative health treatments. Belief, says Barbara Docherty, a registered nurse and clinical lecturer at the Auckland University School of Nursing, is becoming a most important factor in a world where ‘alternative health’ has become a major growth industry.
After noting the most popular alternative therapies include naturopathy, chiropractic, homeopathy herbal remedies and acupuncture, she asks if this is the stuff of quacks and witch doctors.
Despite a wealth of available information, there is little or no strong scientific evidence and very little regulation about who and what is safe. Herbal and natural medicines, although widely used, are not subject to the same scrutiny as prescription or over-the-counter medications.
Skeptics might question the value of her advice to check out practitioners’ qualifications carefully – an ineffective treatment is ineffective no matter who is administering it – but not her final comment: “…bear in mind that anything that sounds too good to be true probably is.”
Ghost hunters hit the capital
Those who were at the conference this year will already know about James Gilberd and his Paranormal Occurrences team. They got a write-up in the Capital Times recently (26 August – 1 September). Reporter Dawn Tratt joined them for a ghost hunt at the Museum of Wellington City and Sea.
Claiming to be sceptical, though carrying baggage from a Pentecostal upbringing, Tratt’s scariest moment came when her colleague mistook one of the investigators, sitting on the floor, for a ghost.
It was only after she left that things supposedly got really spooky. One of the team says she saw the spirit of a Maori man.
I felt like he was upset with James. He kept trying to tell me something but I couldn’t pick up what it was.
It may, just possibly, be significant that the museum ran paranormal tours during one of the winter public programmes three years ago, and marketing manager Angela Varelas says they are looking to bring them back early next year.
As for James Gilberd, he brings a distinctly sceptical approach to his ghost-hunting, treating it as a form of performance art. In his day job he runs a photographic gallery, Photospace, and his conference presentation was mainly about the technical glitches that cameras, and particular digital cameras, can have that lead people to think they’ve photographed a ghost. Something else to look out for in an upcoming NZ Skeptic.