Issue 81

Risk perception, limbic capitalism, and embalming in the US

Sept. 29, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

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We’re way more worried about the possibly of unknown risks than we are of known danger.

Found while reporting: The debate around 5G’s safety is getting in the way of science.

A handful of scientists are convinced that cell phones radio waves may cause cancer. That’s a pretty scary thought, considering there are now more cell phones than people.

Although the vast majority of scientists don’t believe this fringe group, it’s a pretty scary thought that won’t seem to die, for a couple of reasons: First, there is no data that proves that radio waves are perfectly safe. They should be, considering that they’re not energetic enough to cause damage to our DNA, but a study from the US National Toxicology Program that came out last year found that there may be an uptick in cancers when rats are exposed high levels of radio wave energy—much higher than our cell phones should be emitting.

I personally have some questions about the methodology and some of the results, which I outline in the article: The absolute number of mice who developed cancer was pretty small, and mice exposed to the highest radio frequency emissions also had the highest survival rates in the experiment. So basically, I don’t think that this particular study gave us much scientific clarity. And it’s this uncertainty that helps the hypothesis live on.

The second factor is that we tend to be suspicious of big businesses interests, Shannon Brownlee, a former journalist and vice president of the Lown Institute, a non-profit health care think tank in Massachusetts, told me for the story. We fear that companies (or governments!) may be trying to hide something from consumers for their benefit, financial or otherwise (but let’s be real, it’s usually financial). And the fact that both major telecom companies and the US government are gung-ho about rolling out 5G may cause some to raise an eyebrow.

This idea that there could be something we don’t know that’s beyond our control makes the potential concerns about 5G seem a lot scarier for some, Brownlee said. Even though we haven’t really seen the spike in cancer cases globally we’d expect to see if cell phone usage were tied to cancer, it’s the uncertainty that freaks us out the most. As I wrote in the story, “the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies radio-frequency electromagnetic fields as a “possible carcinogen” (pdf), that classification speaks to a wide range of potential risks—including no risk.”

To be clear, I highly doubt that 5G, or radio waves from cell phone towers, pose a serious threat to human and animal health—although if data proved the contrary, I’d change my tune. But I do think that the same idea of fear of the unknown is playing a major role in the current fears around vaping in the US.

At the time of writing, there have now been over 800 cases of VAPI (vaping-associated pulmonary illness—you know the person who came up with that acronym was just tickled) and 13 deaths as a result. The only thing patients have in common is they used an e-cigarette in the last month, and that the e-juice either contained THC (weed), or something they altered themselves. While these illnesses are serious, I think the reason users and public health officials are panicking is because of this element of the unknown: E-cigarettes were supposed to be, in theory, safer than cigarettes—which we know cause cancer. Vaping wasn’t supposed to make people sick and had the potentially to make people healthier if they quit smoking, which is why millions of people started using them.

In absolute terms, compared to the number of current vapers, the illness and deaths are probably a statistical blip. But the fact that we don’t know why they occurred is terrifying. The uncertainty, plus skyrocketing teenage smoking rates, has led to the proposed public health policies that included banning flavored cartridges. I have thoughts on that! And you’ll get to read them in the coming weeks as I continue to follow this beat.

This week, I spoke with the BBC Business Week about the news around Juul’s CEO swap (which you can listen to here), and on Friday I actually got to be on live TV to talk to host Aaron Heslehurst about what’s happening in the US (no link from them yet, but my mom took this video which you may be able to view here. Thanks Mom! Love you!).

Bonus fact: It was actually really hard to design cellular radio wave exposure experiment for mice and rats, because their tails have a pesky habit of acting like antennae, Ronald Melnick, one of the toxicologists behind the NTP study, told me. Cutest little antennae you ever did see.

One of the biggest US tobacco companies is making bank with “limbic capitalism.”

Found while reporting: Juul’s new CEO is a Big Tobacco veteran.

You may have seen that Altria, which owns 35% of Juul, and Philip Morris International decided not to pursue a merger in the wake of multiple federal investigations into Juul’s advertising. (To the FTC and FDA and authorities in the Northern California District, it seems like the company may have been advertising to teens and/or claiming their products were safer than cigarettes without the data to back it up.)

Altria is a Virginia-based company that sells products in the US. As I’ve said here before, it owns Philip Morris USA, which makes Marlboro cigarettes. But this week I also learned that Altria also owns:

  • The U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company

  • John Middleton, which makes cigars

  • Nat Sherman, which makes fancy cigarettes and cigars

  • Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which are wine estates

  • a “significant equity investment” in Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world's largest beer brewer

  • and it’s about to acquire Cronos Group, a cannabinoid company

I spoke with a source this week who referred to all these industries as “limbic capitalism”—companies that have recognized there’s big money to be made in altering our brain’s limbic system, which does a lot of emotional regulation. Even though Juul’s future is pretty uncertain at the moment, if I had to guess Altria as a whole will fare just fine because of its other assets.

Embalming in the US became a fad because of the Civil War.

Found while reading: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty.

I love a good memoir, and Doughty’s is both well-written and unique. Doughty is a mortician, and writes about her early days working in a California crematory. Her memoir is about her personal relationship with death and mortality, and also about the industry of death and funerals as a whole.

One of the MANY things she taught me is that embalming—the preservation techniques used to keep dead bodies lively looking for wakes—became popular in the US as a result of the Civil War.

And purification. Don’t forget that gorgeous, smelly biological process.

Prior to the Civil War, Americans would bury their dead after a funeral-like celebration (where corpses were kept on ice to keep them from breaking down) before they were buried. During the war, though, the bodies were piling up too fast for that process to suffice. Armies tried to get other soldiers to bury their dead on the battlefield seemed downright cruel, not to mention smelly. (The few times this has happened, soldiers were allowed to be drunk.)

Although armies could try to send soldiers back to their families, it became quickly apparent that bodies would rot on trains faster than they could get to their families to bury. Trains refused to carry bodies—unless they were in really expensive iron (read: smell-proof) caskets—which wasn’t feasible for most people.

Per Doughty, a new industry was born:

The situation brought out the entrepreneurial impulses of men, who, if a family could pay, would perform a new preservative procedure called embalming—right there on the battlefield. They followed the skirmishes and battles looking for work, America’s first ambulance chasers. Competition was fierce, with stories of embalmers burning down one another’s tents and placing advertisements in local papers reading “Bodies Embalmed by US NEVER TURN BLACK.” To market the effectiveness of their services, the embalmers would display real preserved bodies they had plucked from the unknown dead, propping the corpses up on their feet outside the tents to better demonstrate their talents.

Leave it to Americans to find a way to turn a profit in the face of a bloody tragedy.

Animal of the week: Moon jellies.

One thing that’s brought me a lot of joy these past two weeks has been rewatching the BBC Series “Round Planet” on Netflix. It’s a parody of nature shows, but with real facts. In an episode about ocean life, the narrator character, called Armstrong Wedgewood (voiced by Matt Lucas) refers to these jellies as “haunted marshmallows” and I was just so friggin tickled because it’s true.

Moon jellyfish love warm, open waters. Their mouth is also their anus and also four gonads. They can look purple if they’ve been eating crabs or more orange if they’ve been eating shrimp.

Stuff I learned from others:

Reproducibility and replicability in research mean two different things: The first has to do with crunching the numbers a second time for a single study, and the latter has to do with getting similar results with separate repeated studies over time. AARP is one of the biggest lobbying groups on Capitol Hill. Homebrewing alcohol was only legalized in 1978. The New York metropolitan area has one of the highest inequality ratios in the US, while DC has one of the lowest (honestly, surprising as a DC resident). The equation used to figure out how much member states have to pay for the UN is super complex. Light pollution is changing life on the whole planet. Your Tuesday could always be worse.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

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Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.