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Emailed Health Warnings: Hoax or Fact?

Is that email message alerting you to a new health hazard bogus or valid?

4. Identify Stroke by a Simple Test?

The email says even nonmedical people can figure out if a person is having a stroke (and needs immediate care) with a simple test: Ask the person to smile, raise his or her arms and keep them up, and repeat a simple sentence.

This information is true, according to Buhler. He tracked down a study presented at the American Stroke Association meeting in 2003. Researchers found that the test, used for years by medical personnel, was also successfully performed by bystanders. They could detect weakness in the face or limbs and slurred speech -- all signs that immediate help is needed.

5. Tampons Contain Asbestos ?

This email warning first surfaced in the late '90s, but like other health warnings may resurface. The alert alleged that tampons are contaminated by asbestos and dioxin during their manufacture and that rayon fibers in them cause toxic shock syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening disease caused by a bacterial toxin. The asbestos was added, so the story goes, by manufacturers because it promotes excessive bleeding and would be good for business.

According to the FDA, the warnings are not supported by scientific evidence. Tampon use and toxic shock syndrome are linked, but experts do not know the exact connection.

6. Microwaving Foods in Plastic Containers or Wrap Is Harmful?

If you microwave food in plastic containers or plastic wrap, chemicals will leach out and exposure can cause cancer and reproductive problems, so the email warning goes.

Microwave-safe containers and plastics are generally safe. The FDA regulates plastic containers and other materials that come into contact with food, testing the migration of chemicals from the products. The level of migration has to be found to be within a margin of safety before a container or wrap is approved for microwave use. "In general, scientific reviews have shown no health effects from low levels of personal exposure, such as microwave containers," says James Kapin, a chemical safety consultant in San Diego and past chairman of the American Chemical Society's division of chemical safety. However, one chemical sometimes found in microwave-approved containers -- Bisphenol A, or BPA -- is currently under scrutiny by an independent panel of scientists convened by the National Institutes of Health. The scientists are focusing on whether exposure to BPA, commonly found in plastic water bottles and baby bottles, raises risks of reproductive or development problems.

Why Do We Fall for These?

It's easy to be sucked in by messages alerting us to health dangers. "These are 'wow' stories," says Buhler, " ... as in 'Wow, did you hear about Britney Spears?' or 'Wow you should have seen the accident I saw on the freeway.'"

And they sound legitimate, often claiming to come from a reputable hospital, physician, or health organization -- even though the sources named often turn out to be fictitious.

Today's climate is often one of anxiety when it comes to our health, furthering the belief that the health warning could be true, even if it sounds unlikely. "Whoever thought you could get sick and die from eating spinach?" Mikkelson asks.

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