Respectful Insolence

It just never ends.

Four years ago, I was one of the very first bloggers to notice that the then-new liberal blog The Huffington Post was from its very inception a hotbed of antivaccine lunacy. David Kirby, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Dr. Jay Gordon, Deirde Imus, all the luminaries of the antivaccine movement were there right from the very beginning, aided and abetted by Special Projects Editor Rachel Sklar. But HuffPo didn’t limit itself to just antivaccine lunacy. Oh, no. It wasn’t long before Woo-meister Supreme Deepak Chopra joined the woo crew there. About a week and a half ago, I noticed that, not content supporting autism quackery and quantum woo, HuffPo had sunk to having credulous bloggers promote The Secret and distance healing quackery. Meanwhile, last week blog bud PalMD noticed some rip-roaringly stupid commentary about vitamins on HuffPo.

So what could be left to add to HuffPo’s armamentarium of credulous supporters of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM)?

Why, detox nonsense, of course, courtesy of “Dr.” Patricia Fitzgerald, who, we’re told, has a Master’s Degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine and a Doctorate in Homeopathic Medicine:

In earlier times, giving special attention to liver health and detoxification was a springtime ritual in many cultures. Although it is, of course, important to take care of our liver (as well as our whole body) year-round, we can often draw inspiration from traditions that have been passed down from our ancestors. The thinking behind supporting the liver in this season is that spring brings new life, so it is time to shed what is no longer needed.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (also referred to as TCM) is a system of healing passed down through several thousand years. Treatments include herbs, acupuncture, nutritional therapy, massage, etc., and the care is based on the principles of living in harmony with nature and striving for balance. According to TCM, the liver is responsible for the smooth flow of qi (our vital energy) and blood.

When our qi is flowing well, we journey through life smoothly without a buildup of toxins, stress, and tension. This ideal scenario isn’t always the case. In our 21st century fast-paced lifestyle, a pattern of liver disharmony observed in TCM called “liver qi stagnation” has become quite commonplace.

The funny thing about this first post is that the actual advice for what to do to “detox” your liver isn’t actually all that bad. No, it won’t “detox your liver,” but it is in general (with a couple of exceptions) decent advice, such as eating green vegetables and citrus every day, decreasing your intake of trans fats, reducing sugar consumption, and reducing or eliminating use of caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. It’s yet another example of “bait and switch,” in which CAM advocates appropriate perfectly fine science-based modalities in the name of “diet” and “prevention,” while implying that all the serious woo under the CAM rubric is just as legitimate as diet and exercise. Of course, the reason why such advice is mostly decent advice has nothing to do with “toxins” or the “stagnation of qi.” Rather, it’s just basic nutrition and avoiding the use of substances that can harm your body. There’s nothing magical there.

That is, until “Dr.” Fitzgerald’s followup post on the topic:

The topic of detox is intriguing, whether you are viewing it from a drug or alcohol perspective, or just looking for a solution to your health, weight, and energy challenges. We live in a world where our food and atmosphere contain toxic chemicals, and we truly don’t know what effects this may have on our health. Even so, we want to be healthy. We don’t want to be paranoid, but, at the same time, we don’t want to be in denial.

There is a lot of misunderstanding regarding the subject of detox. The truth is, we don’t know everything. We are living in an unprecedented time on the planet in terms of toxins. Our bodies are designed to deal with toxins on a regular basis. In theory, we shouldn’t need to do anything special. Our body has the wisdom to filter out toxins effectively. However, there has been no period like this before in history with such an extreme amount of toxic influences.

Naturally, Fitzgerald cites zero evidence that there has been “no period like this before in history with such an extreme amount of toxic influence.” Apparently she is unaware of some basic history and the conditions in many cities in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, before there were any laws regulating pollution or the environment. It goes even further back than that; in ancient Rome there was considerable pollution from lead smelters. Here is an old picture from Victorian England demonstrating serious air and water pollution:

i-a59856c15fe00d238cca3194c9d8c93a-ir_pollution.jpg

Indeed, there are numerous studies and articles about air and water pollution in, for example, England dating back to medieval times. If anything, arguably in terms of pollution air and water quality, at least in the U.S. and Western Europe, are better than they have been in quite some time. Smog, although by no means vanquished, is not as bad in, for example, southern California than it was 40 or 50 years ago. There hasn’t been another Great Smog of London of 1952, which is estimated to have contributed to the deaths of between 4,000 to 8,000 people. No, I’m not saying that environmental pollution isn’t still a problem, but rather pointing out that there is no evidence to support that this is the worst period in history for “toxic influences.” That’s just nonsense.

It’s also nonsense that there is something about today’s “toxins” that the body can’t handle. However, that’s just what Fitzgerald says:

Skeptics of our ability to enhance the body’s detoxification processes may say that our liver and kidneys do a great job of getting rid of toxins naturally. But to say that our bodies automatically remove toxic residues completely no matter what we eat, drink, smoke or are exposed to in our environment just doesn’t make sense. Still, we have so much more to learn and study about how the chemicals of our time are affecting us.

For the skeptic, I would point out that there are many studies showing that our bodies store toxic levels of chemicals. There is not one single study that I have found to prove that our bodies efficiently eliminate all of these toxic chemicals.

There is evidence that environmental chemicals are being stored in human body tissues. Environmental health expert, Laurine Brown, PhD, MPH has summarized some of these studies in her article, “What’s Your Chemical Body Burden?” She references the Centers for Disease Control’s Second National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, which analyzed the blood and urine levels of 116 chemicals in a sampling of some 2,500 Americans ages 6 and older. The CDC found toxic residues in virtually every sample tested. And that is just blood and urine. Over time, toxic residues accumulate in our fat tissue as well. This accumulation has been linked to numerous health concerns.

The World Health Organization released a statement that cancer will overtake heart disease as the number one global health killer by 2010. I don’t deny that the cause of cancer is multifactorial, but a leading cause is toxic chemicals, whether from smoking, pesticides, or industrial chemicals.

Actually, the leading cause of cancer is genes combined with age. Cancer is, above all, a disease of aging. Yes, “toxic” chemicals can contribute to the development of cancer, but the effects of these chemicals can be quantified and direct risks measured. This is not what Fitzgerald is talking about. Her argument is that, because humans are exposed to a variety of chemicals that can be detected in blood and urine, then her “alt-med” form of detox is necessary and works. It’s a clever argument: “Oh, look, chemicals! We’re full of chemicals! You’d better listen to me and ‘detox’!” She takes this to an irony meter-shattering extreme with this statement:

Bottom line: Research on the subject of detoxification is not only limited, it can be downright inaccurate, flawed, and/or skewed.

My bottom line is that, no matter how limited, inaccurate, flawed, and/or skewed research on environmental exposures to potentially toxic chemicals may be, it’s orders of magnitude better than any “research” showing that “detox” regimens favored by homeopaths like Fitzgerald, naturopaths, and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine do anything to actually “detoxify” the body above and beyond what the body can do on its own. Of course, in marked contrast to the CDC studies cited, homeopaths and naturopaths never actually define which “toxins” they are eliminating with their “detox regimes.” Worse, without any evidence that they indicate a problem or guide treatment, often CAM practitioners subject patients to a battery of tests looking for heavy metals, “toxins,” various hormone levels, and a number of other tests. Serving these practitioners are a variety of dubious laboratories that do these tests, regardless of whether they’ve ever been clinically validated or not, usually for cash on the barrelhead. No mucking about with insurance companies or other third party payers for these mavericks!

The funny thing is that Fitzgerald is representing herself as the “voice of reason” arguing against all those nasty “radical” detox regimes. She doesn’t believe in all that purging and fasting, which is a good thing. She also advocates basic healthy diet choices, which is also a good thing. However, her advice is maddeningly vague. For example, she suggests “decreasing your toxic exposures over time,” whatever that means, without actually saying much about how one would go about doing it. However, because she doesn’t advocate chelation therapy, colon cleanses, or liver flushes, sadly, she is among the more “reasonable” of the CAM crowd.

The concept of “detoxification” is more a religious/spiritual concept than a scientific one. In the vast majority of cases, the body needs no help “detoxifying.” However, in CAM world, the body is viewed as being hopelessly “polluted” and in need of cleansing (i.e., redemption). From this point of view, “detox” is nothing more than a modern, more secular version of baptism, designed to cleanse one of one’s sins of unhealthy living.

I shudder to wonder what’s coming next from HuffPo.

Comments

  1. #1 Voice 0'Reason
    April 6, 2009

    Good old Traditional Chinese Medicine… I wonder if anyone has any good statistics on morbidity and mortality in premodern China.

  2. #2 mk
    April 6, 2009

    Speaking of the vague-ness. Reduce or eliminate caffeine and alcohol? By how much? From what to what?

  3. #3 Dave Robinson
    April 6, 2009

    It’s blindingly obvious: the degree of reduction or elimination of caffeine and alcohol is completely dependent on the current level of stagnation of your qi. There is no hard and fast number because it’s all completely individual.

    …stops typing because I just can’t take the bullshit anymore.

  4. #4 ebohlman
    April 6, 2009

    The “toxins” of altie-woo are simply externalized emotional states. They’re quite analogous to the “demons” that fundamentalists claim to battle. If you ask a fundamentalist to describe one of those “demons,” he or she will describe what a normal person would call a “doubt” or “temptation.” The relevant psychological concept is that of “locus of control”; someone whose locus of control is primarily internal will speak of his/her own feelings; someone with a primarily external locus of control will talk about the same things, but will treat them as external forces. Fundamentalists give their inconvenient emotional states a flesh-and-blood identity; alties give their inconvenient emotional states a chemical (with a hard-to-pronounce name, as befits the branch of Divination known as “toxiphonics”) identity, even though they don’t know much about chemistry (cue old Sam Cooke song).

  5. #5 LAB
    April 6, 2009

    There’s an amusing book on the subject of our “less toxic” past: The Good Old Days–They Were Terrible! by Otto Bettmann. I received this as a gift 30 years ago, and it was one of the things that kick-started my interest in skepticism. Entries like “Fresh Well Water? The old wooden bucket delusion” and “Adulteration: The cupidity of the food manufacturer is not a petty swindle, it is a crime” would be funny if they weren’t so horrifying. The book is full of absolutely disgusting vintage illustrations and photos showing what life was *really* like in the good old days.

  6. #6 Robert Grumbine
    April 6, 2009

    Sometimes in reading, I get the words out of order. This time, instead of reading ‘doctorate in homeopathic’ I read ‘homeopathic doctorate’. Thence to visions of a purveyor of such degrees taking a real doctoral program — the thousands of pages of literature one would read, hundreds of hours one would spend in lab, etc. — and dilute it to … a walk past a medical library and a couple of minutes watching a TV show?

  7. #7 Mu
    April 6, 2009

    no no no, the homeopathic doctor has to be done by diluting the knowledge with inert material. Walking by the library is way to close to getting the actual thing. You stack Grey’s anatomy with 5000 graphic novels, and then read only the comics. Turn over the pile a couple of times for added potency via succussion.

  8. #8 Badger3k
    April 6, 2009

    What’s next? If we’re taking votes, I’ll go with colon cleansing. It’s similar enough to detox, and I don’t think it’s been done before on HuffWoo.

  9. #9 Denice Walter
    April 6, 2009

    For a homeopathic doctorate: just go to the University of Google.

  10. #10 catgirl
    April 6, 2009

    I am tempted to put tap water into bottles, charge $20 a bottle for it, and slap on a sticker that says “It activates your kidneys to naturally detoxify your body!” It would be more honest than most woo-pushers, and I’d like too see how much publicity I could get for it before everyone realizes it’s a scam.

  11. #11 wintermute
    April 6, 2009

    You stack Grey’s anatomy with 5000 graphic novels, and then read only the comics.

    The textbook, or the TV show?

  12. #12 Mu
    April 6, 2009

    The text book of course, only the purest of ingredients go into a homeopathic concoction.

  13. #13 AL Jeremy
    April 6, 2009

    a Master’s Degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine and a Doctorate in Homeopathic Medicine

    That’s like a restaurant that specializes in big bowls of nothing and hot cups of steam.

  14. #14 Luci
    April 6, 2009

    Catgirl: brilliant. Don’t forget to put ‘intentional’ somewhere on that label. Maybe a headshot of Arianna the enabler.

    HuffPo has never slowed down in it’s quest for tabloidhood. Stopping by the site is the same as scanning the headlines at the grocery store checkout, and that includes the political coverage.

  15. #15 symball
    April 6, 2009

    not the first woo seller to do this

    http://www.fdhom.co.uk/

    but i’m sure you would make a fair bit before anyone noticed

  16. #16 TechSkeptic
    April 6, 2009

    Voice of REason,

    There is some limited data out there. Doesn’t look good for TCM.

    http://techskeptic.blogspot.com/2007/11/ancient-chinese-secret.html

  17. #17 Rita
    April 6, 2009

    What about the Great Stink of London, when the houses of Parliament had to be closed – leading to the installation of drains (finally)?
    And, as one of the troublesome vegans who write in sometimes, it’s thrilling to be on the same side of an animal issue – Traditional Chinese Medicine is anything but careful with other species, mostly appearing to regard them as a quick fix for the ills to which mankind’s flesh is heir.
    Homeopathy is similarly tainted (that poor duck!) and I found a “remedy” on a homeopathic testing site which recommeded pinning a live toad to a board by its feet and scarifying the poor beast’s back to obtain some potion or other.
    I’m always surprised people don’t seem to realise how dodgy ethically a lot of these systems are in respect of other species.
    Rita

  18. #18 BAllanJ
    April 6, 2009

    Of course homeopathy works. Why, I had a cold last week and got better by drinking water. And I’m sure it’s because someone in one of the cities upstream from me had it and got better. Their city sewage treatment is upstream from my city’s water intake (hey, all of the great lakes basin flows past my city). I get a lot of my immunity that way :)

  19. #19 Dangerous Bacon
    April 7, 2009

    The idea of reducing caffeine is fine, but it runs smack into the altie concept of “detoxifying” by means of coffee enemas (popularized via the quack Gerson cancer treatment and its dupes like Prince Charles).

    Fitzgerald: “There is not one single study that I have found to prove that our bodies efficiently eliminate all of these toxic chemicals.”

    And there is not one single study I have found to show that the alties’ detox regimes have any clinical value in removing the “toxic chemicals”. For this proof to exist you’d have to show that:

    1) the “toxins” described are real, instead of some diaphanous speculation about dread environmental unknowns,

    2) the “toxins” cause deleterious effects on the human body in the amounts present,

    3) the “detoxification” plans/supplements are capable of removing the “toxins”, and

    4) people’s health improves as a result.

    Without those conditions being met, all you have is a bunch of handwaving, sometimes bolstered by references to irrelevant test-tube or mouse research and out-of-context or flatly ludicrous quotes by naturopaths, homeopaths and occasionally dubious medical and science types.

    “Detox” (apart from getting addicts clean) is about the biggest scam in the entire world of woo.

  20. #20 Adam Cuerden
    April 7, 2009

    Uh.. Orac? I work with Victorian stuff a lot: That’s not a photo, it’s an engraving or possibly a drawing. While probably quite accurate – I obviously cannot say how much without knowing the source – It’s not what you say it is.

  21. #21 Adam Cuerden
    April 7, 2009

    A third alternative is that it could be a somewhat crappy black and white photo of a painting. It’s hard to tell at that low resolution.

  22. #22 darius
    April 7, 2009

    Adam Cuerden,

    Orac never said it was a photo, he said it was a picture. While the word “picture” is often used to mean photo, it is certainly not exclusively used to mean photo. A picture can be a painting, drawing, photo, or a representation made using other means (along with other definitions; the one I cite was the primary definition at m-w.com).

  23. #23 Orac
    April 7, 2009

    Actually, I did originally mistakenly use the word photo, but changed it to “picture” after Adam’s annoying pedantry.

  24. #24 LW
    April 7, 2009

    “Naturally, Fitzgerald cites zero evidence that there has been ‘no period like this before in history with such an extreme amount of toxic influence.’ Apparently she is unaware of some basic history and the conditions in many cities in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, before there were any laws regulating pollution or the environment.”

    Orac, what evidence is necessary for such an obvious point? It’s the homeopathic toxins that are causing the problem! The more reduction in pollution, the worse the problem gets.

  25. #25 John Fryer
    April 11, 2009

    Hi Orac

    Thanks for all your factual information on your site.

    When it comes to opinion though I think everyone needs to be aware it is only opinion.

    Everyone with autism has had vaccines on the current schedule.

    I dont know many who would give up a vaccine rather than risk a death giving illness.

    But the number of vaccines in the USA is far too high, far too soon and far too toxic.

    GMO food is banned in most countries but happily supplied to one day babies.

    It has been proved by doctors that feeding a 12 month infant with mashed up adult food is LETHAL for a child.

    So how come injecting the worlds most TOXIC and banned substances to a one day child is GOOD?

    Thats not opinion its science.

  26. #26 Dedj
    April 11, 2009

    “Everyone with autism has had vaccines on the current schedule”

    Chronologically impossible. There are adults with autism who are older than the current schedule. I’ve personally worked with several in the older adult range, and it’s not unknown for older adult services to work alongside autism services with autistic clients – see the Age Concern and National Autistic Society partnership.

    “It has been proved by doctors that feeding a 12 month infant with mashed up adult food is LETHAL for a child”

    No it hasn’t. It’s to do with the significantly higher levels of substances such as salt. Status as an adult food has nothing to do with it, except as an easy indicator.

    “So how come injecting the worlds most TOXIC and banned substances to a one day child is GOOD?”

    Who is doing this? There are substances much more toxic than elemental mercury (which isn;t used in vaccines anyway) that could and would kill in the micro-doses that thimerosal was used in.

    “Thats not opinion its science”

    No, it’s opinion, science at least makes an attempt to gather the facts first, then looks to see what opinion can be derived from it. Using clearly false sources just because they fit your oopinion is not science.

  27. #27 Chris
    April 11, 2009

    I think I saw after a John Fryer comment on the Bad Astronomer or elsewhere that there were several children without vaccines who have autism. One that was mentioned was the youngest autistic child of Kim Stagliano, who is not vaccinate.

  28. #28 Chris
    April 11, 2009

    Ah hah! I found the other story that Fryer was shown when he posted this lie before:

    Everyone with autism has had vaccines on the current schedule.

    It is this story:
    http://notmercury.blogspot.com/2006/02/i-was-wrong.html

    John Fryer: liar, liar, pants on fire!

  29. #29 Joseph
    April 11, 2009

    “Everyone with autism has had vaccines on the current schedule”

    Chronologically impossible.

    Not only that. What about countries other than the US? As has been discussed previously, Sweden apparently has a prevalence of ASD of about 1% (basically the normal rate), and their schedule is a light schedule according to Generation Rescue.

    (The only countries where they report a low prevalence of ASD are those where exhaustive screenings with modern methods have not been done.)

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