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Today’s dose of health scaremongering

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It hardly bears mentioning that The Huffington Post remains one of the least reliable sources of decent, scientifically-literate reporting on health and medicine, but this piece by natural diet guru John Robbins is nearly beyond belief. Inspired by vague, unconfirmed reports that a handful of Chinese babies have grown breasts after consuming infant formula, Robbins builds a meandering, tissue-thin argument that, as best I can reconstruct it, follows like so:

  1. Chinese babies are growing breasts
  2. Hormones in milk production are to blame
  3. Here are links to my books and website
  4. Something weird happened in Puerto Rico in the early 1980s
  5. Hormones are used in US milk production
  6. High levels of certain hormones are associated with certain cancers
  7. Monsanto is SO FUCKING EVIL
  8. Women should breastfeed their babies and restrict themselves to European cheese

Robbins’ article has been promoted widely (and with depressingly uncritical reception) on all the social media sites over the past day or so (e.g.), which means that if you’re a young parent, in all likelihood someone you know will be pestering you about this by the end of the week.  There are so many weak ligaments in the argument, though, it’s hard to know where to begin twisting.  For starters, when Robbins insists that “the evidence is overwhelming that the milk formula” in China is responsible for the instances of breast growth, he’s engaging in what’s politely known in the trade as “making shit up.”  In fact, there’s no evidence of anything at the moment — no evidence that the reports from China are valid, no evidence that the milk formula was contaminated (because sample testing has yet to occur), and no evidence that what we’re actually talking about aren’t in fact cases of benign premature thelarche. But so far as John Robbins is concerned, bovine growth hormones — used to enhance milk production — are the obvious culprit.

To buttress his hypothesis, Robbins reminds his readers that something similar happened in Puerto Rico during the early 1980s. To wit:

There were four-year-old girls with fully developed breasts. There were three-year old girls with pubic hair and vaginal bleeding. There were one-year-old girls who had not yet begun to walk but whose breasts were growing. And it wasn’t just the females. Young boys were also affected. Many had to have surgery to deal with breasts that had become grossly swollen.

What he’s describing here was, in fact, a massive, freak epidemic of premature sexual development that was thought to be the result of estrogen contamination in the Puerto Rican food supply as well as in medicines and creams that contained high levels of the hormone.  The Puerto Rican episode has become boilerplate in the organic/natural food literature (thanks in no small part to Robbins himself, who mentions it in most of his books), but it requires some qualification. While Robbins cites the initial study describing the phenomenon, he fails to mention that it was most likely caused by the use of diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen drug that was conclusively linked with vaginal cancer and was fairly soon withdrawn from use in both medicine and agriculture. By the late 1980s, DES and other synthetic estrogens were no longer turning up in food sample testing. This would be what we might call “an important detail.”

But since Robbins isn’t concerned with distinguishing this week’s reports from China from the 25-year-old anomalies in Puerto Rico, it’s not surprising that he isn’t willing to distinguish between different kinds of hormones. And why should he? Most Americans aren’t endocrinologists, but most Americans have absorbed panicky warnings about hormones in their food, and people like John Robbins are in the business of selling books to panicky non-endocrinologists who happen to loathe gigantic, scary corporations like Monsanto. And Monsanto, we’re reminded, makes the recombinant bovine growth hormone (Posilac) that is supposedly going to kill us all, or turn us into brain-nibbling zombies, or whatever other apocalyptic scenarios actual science has so far failed to bear out. So when Robbins spends the rest of his article, for example, warning readers — falsely — that Monsanto’s own data show that retail milk supplies are teeming with hormones like IGF-1, he’s banking on the fact that his readers (a) don’t know how to use PubMed; (b) won’t understand that rBGH and IGF-1 are proteins that break down in digestion, while estradiol and other sex hormones are steroids that remain active in the body after ingestion; and (c) the human body produces all these scary hormones (IGF-1 included) in vastly greater quantities than we could ever derive from normal patterns of consumption. Even worse, Robbins elides the distinction between cause and correlation, making the strong claim that high levels of IGF-1 pose a “risk” for causing cancer — a claim that is, so far as I can tell, not supported by the research and is in fact contradicted by the very same Lancet article he cites in defense of his increasingly weird argument.

So what’s the point of it all? Well, Robbins tosses all of this together like a pig’s dinner and concludes that prolonged breastfeeding and European dairy products are the only way to avoid the horrifying infant sexual development that may or may not have taken place in a handful of central Chinese households; the horrifying epidemic of early puberty that struck Puerto Rico due to a completely unrelated public health anomaly a quarter century ago; and the wrath of cancers that probably aren’t caused by the hormone that doesn’t actually exist at greater levels in Monsanto Milk. And that’s basically it.

To echo a thought that Rob has expressed in a slightly different context, I’d be willing to develop arguments three times as shitty for a mere fraction of what John Robbins earns writing nonsense like this. And since I’m not actually a scientist or a medical doctor, I’ve already got the proper credentials to write for The Huffington Post!

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