By LAURAN NEERGAARD AP Medical Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - An e-mail campaign attacking an artificial sweetener was spreading fear fast: "Could I have been misdiagnosed? Will eliminating the aspartame in my diet eliminate the MS symptoms?" a panicked patient asked the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation.
Absolutely not, the MS Foundation replied, furious that whoever wrote the e-mail not only frightened vulnerable patients but falsely used the group's name as part of the campaign.
"We've been completely inundated with calls about this," said the MS Foundation's Cliff Roer. "It was very alarming."
Welcome to the latest health scare on the Internet, where e-mail or "consumer alerts" can suddenly spark panic by blaring about "DEADLY POISONS.''
"I call them toxic terrorists," said Jeff Stier of the American Council on Science and Health. He investigated after his New York City group got calls from frightened Internet users last week.
Consumer scares are nothing new, but the Internet lets rumors spread faster - and archives them forever, he said. "It's so easy to play on people's fears."
The scare du jour is over claims that aspartame, sold under such brand names as NutraSweet, causes MS or another disease, lupus.
For the record, the Food and Drug Administration says that is false. MS and lupus have been around a lot longer than aspartame has, and repeated scientific studies have found no connection between the sweetener and such symptoms. An MS Foundation neurologist also investigated and calls the allegations "rabidly inaccurate."
But it is not the only scare.
Last fall, a "Shampoo Alert" claimed an ingredient that helps the suds form in almost every shampoo is really an "engine degreaser" that causes cancer. Today, Internet chat rooms still show people asking if they should toss their shampoo. In fact, the ingredient might irritate your eyes or your skin, but cancer experts agree there is no sign it is carcinogenic.
"This is something we're going to see a lot more of," cautioned Dr. Randolph Wykoff of the FDA, which received more than 100 questions about the shampoo scare and dozens so far about aspartame.
The Internet is full of important, even lifesaving, medical information, Wykoff stressed. The quandary is one of consumer savvy: How do you filter out the exaggerations, misinterpretations or falsehoods?
For people searching for information on the Internet, it is less of a problem: Just use Web sites operated by reputable groups such as the National Institutes of Health or medical journals, and be wary of cure-all claims.
The bigger question is what to believe when an alarming e-mail shows up unsolicited - but with just enough science to sound credible, and then snowballs into frightened discussions on Internet bulletin boards.
Take aspartame, which long has been controversial.
Some people do say they are sensitive to it. But the FDA insists that 20 years of research has not found evidence of serious side effects - except in some people with the rare genetic disease PKU or phenylketonuria, who cannot properly process an aspartame component called phenylalinine.
The new scare, however, argues that aspartame causes MS and lupus symptoms by breaking down into toxic methanol. Attempts to find the e-mail's author have failed.
Very high doses of methanol can be toxic, but aspartame causes only the same tiny amounts you would get from fruits or vegetables such as tomatoes and tomato juice, which also produce methanol during digestion, said FDA food safety expert Dr. David Hattan.
Both MS and lupus are diseases that wax and wane, so if a person felt better or worse in connection with how much diet cola she drank, it is pure coincidence, Wykoff added.
But how is a consumer to sort out such claims?
Call your doctor, check science books in libraries or on science-based Web sites, or call reputable consumer groups.
Remember, "if there's a breakthrough, they're not going to read it in
a secret message on the Internet," says Dr. John Renner of the National
Council for Reliable Health Information.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Lauran Neergaard covers health and medical issues for
The Associated Press in Washington.
Copyright © 1999 The Associated Press.