Above: Image © nicolecioe, iStockphoto.com

There is a lot of scientific information available in the media, especially online. Often, it is used to support claims that aren’t necessarily true. So it can be hard to decide if you should take what you read at face value. Especially when you find conflicting information or references to hard-to-understand scientific studies.

How do you figure out what to believe, what to ignore, and what to investigate further? One strategy you can use is applying the 4 Ws: “Who?”, “What?”, “Where?”, and “When?”.

There is a popular debate on the Internet about whether there is a link between breast cancer and antiperspirant. For example, an article written by Dr. Edward F. Group III and published by the Global Healing Centre says that the aluminum in antiperspirant can cause breast cancer. The article backs up its claims by referring to the results of a single scientific study published in The Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry in 2005. It raised the possibility that there could be a link between the aluminum in antiperspirant and breast cancer, and recommended more studies.

Did you know? Scientific literacy rates in Canada are higher than in many other developed countries. Still, only 42% of Canadians have enough scientific literacy to understand science-related media reports.

When?

The Global Healing Centre’s article was written in 2015. But the scientific study it refers to was published ten years earlier. Scientists are constantly making new discoveries and reinterpreting old ones. So it is always a good idea to see if you can find any more recent information.

For example, try searching “aluminum, breast tissue, cancer” on Google Scholar and limit the results to articles published since 2012. You should see a study published by the journal BMC Cancer in 2013. It found that cancerous breast tumours did not contain higher concentrations of aluminum. While this doesn’t eliminate the possibility that there is a connection between aluminum and breast cancer, it certainly casts doubt on the idea.

It is also important to make sure that a scientific article has not been retracted by its author or the journal where it was published. This happens when mistakes, bogus results, or other problems are discovered after publication. For example, in 1998, The Lancet published a study by British surgeon and medical researcher Andrew Wakefield claiming there could be a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. In 2010, the journal retracted the article, citing errors, fraudulent results, and conflicts of interest.

Where?

The Global Healing Centre’s website contains a large amount of advertising and testimonials. This could indicate bias on the part of an author or publisher more interested in selling products and services than providing accurate information. Government websites, university websites, and peer-reviewed articles listed on Google Scholar tend to be more reliable than commercial websites. But you should still evaluate the quality of any source of information. Look for articles published by a respected organization and that provide multiple references to back up their claims. Websites should be frequently updated and provide contact information. For example, the website of the Canadian Cancer Society would be a good place to look for cancer-related information. They even have an article debunking the myths related to breast cancer and antiperspirants.

Who?

Take a look at who wrote the article published by the Global Healing Centre. Dr. Group is a chiropractor, not a physician or medical researcher, who has also taken courses at Harvard Business School. There is no indication that he has any expertise in cancer research or human physiology. Always try to evaluate an author’s credentials, to get a better idea of how qualified they are to interpret the information on which they base their claims.

Did you know? In about a third of reports, the media exaggerate the importance for human health of research studies on non-human organisms.

What?

The scientific study published in 2005 that Dr. Group refers to in his article was conducted on cells grown in a laboratory, not human participants. Often, the results of research using lab-grown cells or animals are very different from the results of research on humans. Furthermore, the research was based on a previous study of just 20 tissue samples from women with breast cancer and did not use a control group. Ideally, cells from women without breast cancer would have been tested to compare aluminum levels.

Even if significantly higher aluminum levels had been found in breast cancer samples, further studies would be needed to see if these levels were the result of antiperspirant use and whether they contributed to the cancer. After all, correlation does not imply causation: just because aluminum was detected in the cancer cells, that doesn’t mean it caused the cancer.

The authors of the study were careful to note these limitations and the need for more research. Unfortunately, this is the kind of information that tends to be left out of media reports.

* * *

Evaluating scientific evidence can be difficult, and scientific studies can be hard to understand. Along with applying the four Ws, check out the “Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims” provided by Nature, one of the most respected scientific journals. The US National Institutes of Health also published a guide to finding and evaluating online health resources.

Whatever approach you use, it is essential to evaluate any scientific information you encounter online or in other media. By digging a little deeper, you will be able to better understand exactly what is being said and maybe even feel more confident using your antiperspirant!

Learn more!

Additional scientific article on the relationship between aluminum and breast cancer:

Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumors (2004)
P.D. Darbre et al, Journal of Applied Toxicology 24
Link to abstract. Registration or subscription required to view full text.

Research on scientific literacy and the interpretation of scientific claims:

Rachel Roke

Hello Everyone,

My name is Rachel Roke - I am passionate about health care and scientific research! Right now, I am working as a Research Analyst at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre on a breast cancer prevention study.

I have an Honours Bachelor of Science in Biology and Pharmacology, with a minor in Psychology from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. As a part of my degree I completed a thesis project at St. Paul's Hospital (Vancouver, British Columbia) aimed to determine the feasibility of a randomized control trial on the effects of exercise on cardiovascular disease in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and 1 year of co-op terms.

I'm excited to be involved with CurioCity!
- Rachel



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