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Student Questions: Swine Flu and Depleted Uranium

Skeptoid answers questions sent in by students all around the world.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid Podcast #158
June 16, 2009
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe


Chuck Yeager and the Bell X-1
A Mexican soldier handing out facemasks to stem the swine flu
(Photo credit: Wikimedia)

This week we have some more questions sent in by students all around the globe. Today we're going to find out if wearing a face mask will prevent you from catching the swine flu; whether depleted uranium on a battlefield can give you lymphoma or other cancers; whether expensive audio cables can affect the tone or quality of sound from a guitar; we're going to see what kind of research has been done to test the usefulness of New Age "Family Constellations" therapy; and we're going to look into whether "Functional Medicine" is fact or fancy.

Hi Brian. This is Johnny from Mexico City. In relation to the whole swine flu epidemic, the Mexican government recommended that people wear surgical masks to prevent infections. How effective are these masks in preventing an infection like swine flu?

It's a good question, so I went to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to find out the latest recommendations. The short answer is no, the CDC is not recommending that people wear facemasks to avoid getting sick, in most cases. Surgical facemasks are neither designed nor intended to offer protection from aerosol particles containing viruses, instead they protect against splashes or sprays. The CDC offers the same three rules that everyone should follow:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or an alcohol-based cleanser,

  • Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, and nose, and

  • Avoid close contact (being within about 6 feet) of anyone exhibiting flu-like symptoms.

For people who already are sick with flu-like symptoms, the CDC says they should stay home from work and avoid contact with anyone. If they have to go out, it's important that they cover their mouth when they cough, and cough away from other people. If they do have to be in close contact with others, they probably should wear a facemask.

There are two exceptions. The CDC does recommend that facemasks or respirators should probably be worn by healthy people if they are healthcare workers who are required to be in close personal contact with people exhibiting flu-like symptoms, or if they have some health problem that puts them at high risk of severe illness from influenza and are required to be in close personal contact with people exhibiting flu-like symptoms. For the rest of us, even if you have a family member at home who's ill, the CDC does not find any special benefit from wearing a facemask.

Hey Brian, this is Iris. My brother-in-law, an Iraqi war vet, has been diagnosed with lymphoma. My mom says this is because of depleted uranium sources in Iraq. Is this true?

There's a lot of controversy, and misinformation, about the military use of depleted uranium. It's often used in projectiles because it's super dense and carries a massive kinetic energy whallop. In modern battlegrounds like Iraq, hundreds of tons of depleted uranium can be splattered around the country in a single week. People often react with "Oh, it's uranium, it's radioactive, it's going to give us cancer." Not true. Although depleted uranium is weakly radioactive, it's not dangerous, no more so than the glow-in-the-dark buttons on your TV remote control. The danger comes from the fact that it's a toxic heavy metal, similar to lead or mercury. When you have a high-energy projectile impact, the depleted uranium can vaporize into the air, where it can be inhaled. The predominant health effects from depleted uranium toxicity include kidney damage, neurological effects, nausea and vomiting, and possible birth defects. Lung cancer has been reported in animal tests, but so far not in humans.

Searching online I found plenty of references to depleted uranium and leukemia, lymphoma, and other cancers, but these are speculations and are in sharp contrast to the medical literature. For example, one study of the long term effects of depleted uranium on Croatian children published in the European Journal of Epidemiology found that leukemia and lymphoma actually decreased during and after the war.

Depleted uranium also has civilian uses, again because of its density: It's used as shielding for x-ray machines, in gyroscopes, and as balance weights, uses which are generally safe because they don't involve exploding the metal into the environment. A projectile that has missed and is sitting in the sand somewhere is stable and safe, but out of fears that it might leach into the water table or something like that, the Pentagon spends millions in ongoing cleanup efforts.

Hi, my name is Mario and I'm a music student at Queens College in New York. I want to know if different or more expensive audio and guitar cables can actually make a difference in the tone of the instrument.

The short answer is no. There are cases where a really bad setup can cause noticeable problems, however. Using a ridiculously long run of cable, or unrealistically thin wire, can result in noticeably reduced or muted levels. Unshielded cables in a noisy electrical environment can produce hum or interference. Cables with cheap connectors on the ends can cut out if the contact is broken. Beyond obvious cases like that, any commercial cables produce sound quality just as good as any other, despite the claims made by manufacturers of high-end cables. Expensive cables may be more durable or better shielded, or better made and less likely to rust and degrade, but they can't produce better sound.

Conductive wire is characterized by its resistance, its capacitance and its inductance, and virtually any copper wire has capabilities that far exceed the electrically modest needs of professional audio. A thicker cable produces less resistance, but any common cable already has way less resistance than the audio requires. That would be like being more or less pregnant. As far as a specific subtlety produced in the audio, like variations in the tone of a guitar, no. This is not a capability that cable manufacturers can control. Yes, there are many articles available online that go into great detail discussing all kinds of subtle effects and different ways of coring or braiding the wire. It's over-the-top to a degree that's just goofy. Audio simply doesn't require fancy wiring.

Hi Brian. My name is Qayin, I come from Poland. I'm very skeptical about Family Constellations, also known as Systemic Constellations. I'd like to know if any research has been done about this New Age like psychotherapy. Thanks.

Family Constellations, or Systemic Constellations, is a New Age energy based group therapy technique. Let's say one group member is depressed because her husband lost his job. Several group members would stand: One representing the husband, one representing the job, one representing the depression, and the member taking her own place. Nobody speaks. Practitioners believe that this recreates an energy field, and at a certain point, when everyone is positioned just right, the practitioner claps her hands or speaks some sentence, and magically everything is healed. Obviously this is something that's well outside mainstream psychotherapy, as are all magic-based systems that claim miraculous results.

You ask if any research has been done about this, and I presume you mean good quality research from the mainstream. I strongly doubt it. I did spend a few minutes browsing the usual sources and didn't see anything, but my question for them is "Why should anyone research it?" It makes sense to expend the resources to do a good study when there is a measurable effect taking place, or when there is a sound theoretical argument that such an effect might exist. I do not believe Family Constellations has reached that point. Nevertheless, believers in this and many other woo-woo New Age inventions tend to think it's irresponsible for mainstream science to not expend resources to research it: They say we're pooh-poohing it, and that's not responsible science. There's a good reason we don't expend those resources yet, and it's that they have yet to establish that there's anything more to their claims than if I were to suddenly announce that I was an alien from Planet Zero with the ability to transmute stone into ice cream. The question you should ask instead is "Have any Family Constellation proponents put forward any sound theoretical basis for their technique, or presented any measurable clinical effect?" They have to do their job before mainstream science has any reason to respond.

Hi, I'm Kelly Patton.  I'm a student at Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT. I recently ran across something called Functional Medicine. Is Functional Medicine science-based, or is it pseudoscience-based?

Functional Medicine is a relatively new term, and it's made up of New Age folks and doctors who are mistrustful of modern medicine. Nowhere on the association or conference web sites will you find a cogent explanation of what it is. Take this for example:

Functional medicine emphasizes a definable and teachable process of integrating multiple knowledge bases within a pragmatic intellectual matrix that focuses on functionality at many levels.

My reaction to that is "Huh?"

Basically it's yet another label for people who share the same tired old mythical criticisms of medical science. They believe that medical science treats only the symptoms and is disinterested in the actual problem; that doctors see patients as diseases and not as people; and that doctors wrongly see all people as exactly the same and don't understand that everyone is an individual. In short, "We're the only ones smart enough to know anything about doctors; we certainly know more about them than doctors do." Functional Medicine falls into the same old trap of believing that criticism of science constitutes support for pseudoscience, and so they use these beliefs as justification for the usual range of New Age treatments: Vitamin megadosing "personalized" for each individual, "energy" therapies, and "detoxification". Dr. Wallace Sampson has written a fine analysis on the Science-Based Medicine blog.

Their big thing is integrative medicine, which means integrating medical science with medical pseudoscience — which for reasons that elude me, is considered politically correct to do. By definition, alternative medicine consists of practices that have either not been proven to work, or been proven not to work; and unfortunately, the Institute for Functional Medicine is actually accredited to provide continuing education for medical professionals in the United States. Failings of the system like this are on ongoing illustration of why you need to be more vigilant than ever, and why you should always be skeptical.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Student Questions: Swine Flu and Depleted Uranium." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 16 Jun 2009. Web. 26 Nov 2015. <>


References & Further Reading

BPH and IOM. Gulf war and health: Updated literature review of depleted uranium. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2008.

CDC. "Interim Recommendations for Facemask and Respirator Use to Reduce 2009 Influenza A (H1N1) Virus Transmission." H1N1 Flu. CDC, 24 Sep. 2009. Web. 26 Jan. 2010. <>

Labar B., Rudan I., Ivankovic D. et al. "Haematological malignancies in childhood in Croatia: investigating the theories of depleted uranium, chemical plant damage and 'population mixing'." European Journal of Epidemiology. 1 Jan. 2004, Volume 19, Issue 1: 55-60.

Sampson, W. "Functional Medicine – New Kid on the Block." Science-Based Medicine. Science-Based Medicine, 30 Oct. 2008. Web. 16 Jun. 2009. <>

Singer, M., Lalich, J. Crazy Therapies: What Are They? Do They Work? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.

Winer, Ethan. "Dispelling Popular Audio Myths." Audio Media. 1 Apr. 1999, 101: 95.


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