February 15, 2013

Werner Braun: Debunking the myths of modern media

The media has a lot of power.

The power to inform, the power to motivate, the power to influence.

But it seems as if the media also has the power, at times, to perpetuate urban myths. Myths like large alligators living in city sewers, that carpeted floors are unhealthy and cause asthma, that weight loss can never be permanent.

That became apparent to me recently when I read an opinion piece written by David H. Freeman called “Survival of the Wrongest,” an article which debunks another article that was printed in The New York Times Magazine about the “unsustainability” of permanent weight loss.

Apparently, health writer Tara Parker-Pope’s research, printed in The New York Times Magazine, on whether significant weight loss can become permanent suggested to her that, no, “maintaining weight loss is a nearly impossible task.”

Parker-Pope presented scientific evidence that implied that only “rare individuals” can achieve weight loss for an extended amount of time and that the science shows that the “human body continues to fight against weight loss long after dieting has stopped.”

She definitely cited experts, including highly credentialed researchers, whose arguments led her to conclude that the “sobering reality” is that “once we become fat, most of us, despite our best efforts, will probably stay fat.”

Freeman took issue with her “findings,” arguing that “many, if not most, researchers and experts who work closely with the overweight and obese would pronounce its main thesis ... dead wrong, and misleading in a way that could seriously, if indirectly, damage the health of millions of people.”

Freeman concluded that Parker-Pope’s “conclusions” were biased, that those who have been successful at permanent weight loss “can’t all be freaks of biology,” and that her article was filled with “major omissions and flaws.”

In the carpet industry, we have been the victim of our own share of myths surrounding the “health” aspects of carpet — myths that often get bandied around by the press and which often result in a mania of undeserved panic among consumers.

One of those myths has been that carpet causes asthma and leads to other respiratory ailments, including allergies.

This myth, probably best referred to as an “urban myth,” circulated widely during the last decade, contributing to carpet losing market share and leading to a persistent myth that carpet contributes to unhealthy indoor air quality.

This type of myth is hard to dispel once it gets entrenched in the collected zeitgeist of popular culture, junk science and the media.

Probably the best way to combat these types of urban myths is with good science. A few years ago, toxicologist Mitch Sauerhoff wrote an article called “Carpet, Asthma and Allergies — Myth or Reality.” In the article, Sauerhoff concludes that the negative perceptions and persistent, long-held beliefs on carpets’ alleged negative characteristics are “not consistent with current research.”

Drawing his conclusions on more than 23 scientific studies, Sauerhoff states, “Based on the available science, carpet does not cause asthma or allergies and does not increase the incidence or severity of asthma or allergies symptoms. In fact, multiple studies have reported few allergy and asthma symptoms associated with carpet.”

Sauerhoff ended his article with an observation that “For more than 50 years, millions of consumers have enjoyed the benefits of carpet. Billions of square yards of carpet have been installed in the vast majority of United States’ homes and office buildings, with very few health-related complaints.”

I agree with his findings completely, for many reasons, but maybe most so “anecdotally,” based upon the lack of health-related claims or complaints coming to us at the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI).

But once a myth gets circulated out there, it can be as hard to get rid of as pulling an alligator out of the toilet — and you can imagine how hard that can be.

Still, you have to try, and at CRI we’ve got our sleeves rolled up, and we’re pulling as hard as we can.

Werner Braun is president of the Dalton-based Carpet and Rug Institute.


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