How many times have we all heard the phrase ‘I’m so hungry I could eat a horse’? Recently this light-hearted comment has turned into a reality, with traces of horsemeat actually being found in a variety of food products. Despite the endless supply of jokes appearing online concerning this, the media is taking a serious approach; but is the presence of horsemeat really as much of a health risk as they are suggesting?
Minced horsemeat is as harmless as minced beef; however concern has been raised over the fact that some of these horses may have been treated with phenylbutazone. This drug has been associated with the potentially fatal condition aplastic anaemia, a condition in which the basic structure of the bone marrow becomes abnormal leading to a decrease in red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Usually this anti-inflammatory drug is used on horses not intended for food production in order to relieve pain and reduce fevers; however last week it was reported that eight horses slaughtered for food in the UK had tested positive for this veterinary painkiller.
Dame Sally Davies, the UK’s chief medical officer, said this on the matter: “The trace levels detected are very unlikely to have harmed any human, child or foetus”, going on to say a person would have to eat more than 500 horsemeat burgers to get a harmful dose. Now I’ve watched a lot of ‘Man V. Food’ but 500 burgers seems a pretty unachievable feat, especially over a short period of time.
Similarly, many other controversial science related topics have been presented in a misleading way by the media in order to evoke worry and concern in the reader. Take the chemical Algar, a plant growth regulator that was sprayed on fruit to regulate growth and make harvesting more efficient. In the 1980’s concern developed in the United States over the use of Alar on apples, over fears that the residues of the chemical detected in apple juice may be carcinogenic. The media portrayal of this chemical led to many supermarkets refusing to accept Alar-treated apples, resulting in huge losses for apple growers. However the lab test results that led to this scare required an amount of Algar equivalent to over 20,000 litres of apple juice a day. Awkward moment for whoever published that scientific report.
This scaremongering isn’t just limited to food produce either, with many stories appearing about the negative health effects of wireless devices such as mobile phones. The particular frequency range that these devices use is known as radiofrequency (RF), with many newspapers reporting that the heat let off by these devices has the potential to cause cancer. In reality, being close to an active mobile phone may increase your body temperature by 0.1ºC. For a student who can barely afford heating, a change of 0.1ºC is nothing to write home about. The Mail on Sunday once even reported that having an abortion can increase a woman’s chances of developing breast cancer. It doesn’t take a scientist to work out that that’s a complete untruth. So the next time a controversial topic appears in the media remember not to take it too seriously.