Jan 15 2010

The Nutty Health Teacher

I recently received the following e-mail:

Hi, I just started listening to your podcast and I’m really enjoying it. I noticed one of the things you discuss often is the anti-vaccination movement, and I’m grateful for that because I was able to use the information you guys were talking about to combat some stupidity. I’m a senior in high school and my health teacher is kind of nuts. She was talking about how it’s bad to eat fish when pregnant because of the mercury levels, but then decided to go off about how vaccines cause autism because of the mercury in them. I raised my hand and told her that the levels of mercury in vaccines were lower than in fish comparatively. She waffled a bit and said something about how some studies show different things and whatever. She then went on to talk about how she doesn’t want to vaccinate her kid and that the doctors just want to shove like 100 vaccines in her and get a kick back. I raised my hand again and told her that that’s not really a good idea because diseases like mumps are coming back because people aren’t vaccinating their kids. She misunderstood me I guess and then said something about how it is good to vaccinate in third world countries because of that and I said no, there have been outbreaks of mumps recently in the united states because some dumbasses decided not to vaccinate their stupid kids. She backtracked and said something about how it was good that I was playing the devil’s advocate, pretending like I was agreeing with her or something and completely ignored what I said. She then went on a rant about how corrupt the medical industry is and how doctors are just giving you pills to make money and the pills don’t really work and it’s all just the placebo effect, and then decided to talk about how awesome homeopathy is. I was so angry by then I was afraid if I opened my mouth an unintelligible stream of curses would just spew out. It just makes me so angry that someone like her is not only teaching, but teaching health of all things. She should not be telling people such bullshit, especially when she’s in such a powerful and influential position. She also earlier said some bullshit about how HIV could possibly not be real or something crazy because they’ve never seen the virus under a microscope and the symptoms are just other diseases. Is this like a new crazy thing that I’ve never heard of? She also loves chiropractors. Ugh.
I just really really really appreciate you guys and the sense that you guys make and in assuring me that there are sensible people out there in the world. Your rationality makes me feel warm and fuzzy on the inside and makes me not want to rip my hair out.

This is, unfortunately, not an isolated example. I frequently receive similar e-mails.

First, let me address some of the factual claims reportedly made by this health teacher, then I will discuss the bigger issue. There is indeed mercury in fish – and the “bad” kind of mercury, methylmercury. The EPA advises that people limit (but not eliminate) their consumption of certain kind of fish and shellfish. Pregnant women especially should avoid mercury.

However, fish is also very healthful, and contains sphingolipids that are critical to brain development. So avoiding fish altogether is not a good idea. How do we balance the risks and benefits of consuming fish? It is not yet entirely clear, but the evidence leans in favor of the benefits of fish consumption, which outweigh the risks of the extra mercury.

Here are the current EPA recommendations:

  1. Do not eat Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, or Tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.
  2. Eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.
    • Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.
    • Another commonly eaten fish, albacore (“white”) tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.
  3. Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) per week of fish you catch from local waters, but don’t consume any other fish during that week.

I will add that the study I linked to above only found benefits from eating > 2 servings of fish per week, while the EPA recommends up to two servings. So while further research is needed, it seems the best advice to pregnant women and for growing children is to eat about 3 servings a week of low mercury fish and shellfish species.

That is a far cry from this health teacher’s recommendation to simply avoid fish, and I wonder where she got that recommendation. But then, of course, she heads south from there claiming that mercury in vaccines is linked to autism. Readers of this blog know I have covered this topic extensively, and at present the evidence strongly favors the conclusion that there is no link between vaccines and autism. Further, the routine childhood vaccine schedule (since about 2002) contains only trace amounts of ethyl mercury (ethyl mercury is much less toxic than methyl mercury). So the health teacher’s information is both wrong and outdated.

The teacher also claimed that doctors receive a kickback for vaccinating their patients. This is not true – such kickbacks are unethical and a good way for a doctor to lose their license. In fact, the evidence shows that doctors, if anything, lose money from vaccinating their patients (depending on the insurer). Primary care doctors see vaccines as a money-loser, but vaccinate anyway.

The e-mailer is also correct about there being mumps and measles outbreaks in Western countries, including the US. Most recently there was a mumps outbreak in Brooklyn, New York – the outbreak took place in a community with low vaccination rates – and most of the affected children were not vaccinated.


The health teacher in question is not teaching accurate health information to her classes. Rather, she is spreading her personal ideology, which appears to be a hodge-podge of anti-scientific medicine propaganda. Clearly she has drunk deeply of the “alternative” medicine flavored sugar-drink.

I question whether or not she has the proper background in science and health to teach such a class at all. Further, it did not take me long to find, for example, the EPA guidelines on mercury and fish. Therefore the teacher does not appear to be doing anything resembling due diligence on the information she is passing on to her classes. She is making no attempt to even present both sides or represent the accepted scientific position. She seems content to spread her personal idiosyncratic beliefs.

In this way she is no different than a creationist teaching creationism and anti-evolution propaganda in their biology class.

In my personal response to this e-mailer I offered my advice and help if they choose to make an official complaint against this teacher, which I hope they do. I applaud them – as a high school student – for standing up for science and skepticism in the classroom. That does take a certain amount of intestinal fortitude. But I also hope they take it to the next step. It is definitely time to take action against pseudoscience in the classroom – or otherwise tolerance will be interpreted as acceptance.

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