First, I'd like to thank you all on commenting on the weekend's de-lurking post. I really appreciate your taking the time to leave a note. While I write what I feel like, it's nice to get an idea about what sort of things people are reading. For various reasons, I've preferred to write on diverse topics, and it turns out that this attracts readers with diverse interests.
Now down to some serious business. I'm sure that many of you remember the Simon Singh case. Simon is a well-known and well-respected science journalist in England. Last year, the British Chiropractic Association sued him for libel. They weren't too happy when a story of his pointed out that many of their practices are bogus. This was a terribly expensive and presumably traumatic event for Simon, but against all odds (at least those set by English libel laws), he prevailed.
Here in the U.S. we like to think that our saner libel laws give us a bit more protection, and they do, but only to a point. It is still very expensive to mount a defense against a bogus libel allegation. Dr. Paul Offit, one of the leading experts on vaccination, was sued earlier this year by a seemingly unhinged antivaccination activist. This infectious disease promoter, Barbara Loe Fisher, felt that a single phrase he uttered about her during an interview---"She lies"---was terribly damaging to her. Given that she spends an inordinate amount of time making a fool of herself, it's hard to see how anyone else can make her look worse, but she was upset and sued. Her case was thrown out, but I can only imagine what Paul went through.
Last week I learned of similar bad news that hits close to home. Dr. Stephen Barrett has been a tireless crusader against quackery. He has for years maintained the website Quackwatch, which along with several associated websites serves as a remarkably comprehensive repository for data on various medical scams and illegitimate practices. In a series of articles, Dr. Barrett (who is vice president of the Institute for Science in Medicine, of an organization that I am also involved with) explained the trouble with urine toxic metals tests. Doctors Data Labs was mentioned in some of these stories and in a vaguely worded bizarre set of letters, essentially demanded that Barrett not publish anything negative about them. When he asked them to point out specific content to which they objected, they declined and instead sued him. This suit is unlikely to be successful, unless they outspend him enough to break him. Barrett is taking donations for his legal defense. The more cases like this that succeed at trial or by default, the less safe all of us are to combat health fraud.
But what's the big deal about this lab? They offer, among other things, urine toxic metals tests. These tests are promoted as a way to find "toxins" hidden in the body, and are a common tool by those offering chelation therapy. Chelation is an unethical use of dangerous medications, and is used frequently by so-called alternative practitioners to treat nearly anything.
Here's what Doctors Data says about their test:
Urine toxic and essential elements analysis is an invaluable tool for the assessment of retention of toxic metals in the body and the status of essential nutrient elements. Toxic metals do not have any useful physiological function, adversely affect virtually every organ system and disrupt the homeostasis of nutrient elements.
Among the flaws pointed out by Barrett is that this test measures urine metal levels after the patient takes a chelating agent, a drug which scavenges any heavy metal molecules it can find and drags them to the urine. And as a reference range, they use urine levels that are considered high in people who aren't chelated. In other words, the test purposely boosts urine metal levels and them calls the levels "toxic".
The company offers many more tests not offered by labs with more (in my opinion) legitimate reputations. For example, Quest Diagnositics offers several different urine metal tests, none of which are "chelation-provoked".
This is a nuisance lawsuit, but it may be enough of a nuisance to have a significant chilling effect on those of us who are using ethical, science-based practices to help people. To offer unconventional and at best unproven diagnostics or therapeutics, and then sue people who criticize you is unethical, immoral, and dangerous.