Student Questions: The Montauk Monster and Bee Sting Therapy
This week we answer some questions sent in by students. Today we're going to cover the Montauk Monster, the efficacy of skin moisturizer, bee sting therapy, aluminum antiperspirants as a cause for breast cancer, inexpensive gasoline, and the lifespans of homosexuals. If you're a student, please feel free to come to Skeptoid.com and submit your question for a future episode. Let's get started with a creepy monster story:
The Montauk Monster
The Montauk Monster was the name given to a strange dead animal that washed up in Montauk, New York in 2008. For some time, there was all kinds of speculation in the media as to what it might be. It was hairless, discolored, bloated, and partially decomposed, making identification impossible for the layperson. Some conspiracy theorists even claimed it was an escaped genetic abomination from the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, a Department of Agriculture facility located offshore for the safe study of hoof and mouth disease.
In fact the Montauk Monster was simply a dead raccoon. Dead animals in water lose their fur rather quickly, leaving a hairless body. For some reason the Montauk Monster's nose was missing, either due to predation or decomposition or both, exposing the front part of its skull. It was also missing its top canines and top front teeth. In photos, you can see the holes in the upper jaw where these teeth were. If you do a Google image search for "Montauk raccoon" you'll find a comparison of an actual raccoon skull with a closeup photo of the Montauk Monster's head, including the exposed bone and tooth sockets, and the match is clear. But it sure was fun wondering whether it was some weird monster from Plum Island...
Will Moisturizer Damage Skin?
You're certainly right to be skeptical of beauty industry claims. Reading any ad for a cosmetic product makes me gag: The all-natural fallacy abounds, as well as endless made-up statements about recharging, nourishment, regulatory molecules, rebalancing, and of course detoxification. I like to keep in mind that until relatively recently in human history, nobody ever used moisturizer; and even today, the majority of the world's population (including nearly all men) have never used a moisturizer. So all around you is good evidence that any benefit moisturizer may have for healthy people is not that big of a deal.
Moisturizer is, however, an effective treatment for a number of skin conditions. Retinol-containing lotions have been shown to improve the appearance of sun damaged skin. Another study found that moisturizer can reduce the symptoms of rosacea. Patients with atopic dermatitis also get some relief with moisturizer. But as far as long-term benefits for people who have healthy skin, I could find no studies either supporting or refuting this.
Sunscreen is, of course, another matter. Apply sunscreen whenever you go outside, and you'll end up far ahead. You'll have less sun damage and be far less likely to get skin cancer.
Bee Sting "Therapy"
Yeeeaahhh... I actually hadn't even heard of this until I got this question. Apparently some people are marketing bee stings as an alternative therapy to treat a staggering array of conditions, including orthopedic injuries, cancers, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, eczema, chronic fatigue... I found one page where a guy gives you live bees to sting you and lists 35 different diseases he claims it will cure. Of course, for people who are allergic to bee stings, this "treatment" can easily be fatal; and for the rest, it amounts to little more than what we in the brotherhood call a "wallet extraction".
I found no research whatsoever supporting any kind of therapeutic use for honeybee venom, except in allergy shots for people who are at risk of dying from bee stings. This is called hymenoptera venom immunotherapy. Calibrated doses are carefully given (much less than you'd get from an actual sting), and this can confer a tolerance to the allergen. But even this is not guaranteed.
As far as the use of bee venom as an alternative therapy, this has all the signs of being just another excuse for quacks with no medical training to charge money for some useless trick that can be disguised as a medical therapy. But this is one case where I can absolutely guarantee you that if you give your money to one of these people, you will get stung.
Deodorant Causes Cancer?
Aluminum is the active ingredient in antiperspirants, and it works by temporarily clogging sweat ducts. Some scientists have suggested that the aluminum can be absorbed by the skin where it can mimic the activity of estrogen in the cells. And since estrogen promotes the growth of breast cancer cells, a few scientists have connected the dots and suggested that antiperspirants can contribute to breast cancer.
This is one of those complicated medical questions that's hard to research because there is no clear consensus when you look at the studies that have been done. One survey of breast cancer survivors found that those who had used antiperspirants and shaved their armpits more frequently tended to have been diagnosed at a younger age. However nobody has been able to show that aluminum and related compounds are able to cause the genetic damage that leads to breast cancer. So far we have some correlations, and other studies finding no correlation, and no definitive causations. If there is a breast cancer danger from aluminum, the effect has been so small that we've not been able to clearly see it. So although the danger might be there, the evidence so far shows that it's probably not going to have an appreciable effect on whether or not you get breast cancer.
Either way, never take medical advice from any bonehead podcaster, any more than you should take it from any of a thousand websites trumpeting the Big Pharma conspiracy to spread breast cancer through carcinogenic antiperspirants. Ask a medical doctor.
Will Cheap Gas Hurt Your Engine?
ARCO is a discounted gasoline brand. Doesn't all gas come from the same commodities market? Is there ever a reason to buy expensive gas when the station next door offers the same octane level at a cheaper price? To get a truly authoritative answer, I consulted with Dennis Simanaitis, the longtime engineering editor for Road & Track. Dennis has forgotten more than most automotive engineers will ever know, and he always brings a rational, skeptical perspective to questions like this one.
According to Dennis, the more expensive name brands are more expensive for a reason: They're the ones doing all the R&D in the industry to improve the product and develop better additive packages. This means cleaner fuel injectors, longer lasting fuel lines, and hopefully more efficient combustion. Truthfully, it's unlikely that most people would notice any real-world difference between name brand and discount gasolines. Any benefit is likely to be cumulative over a long period. Whether you're getting 10 cents a gallon's worth of improvement is certainly debatable (and dubious), but it should be noted that the price difference is justified, at least to some degree, by more more work having gone into the product.
Do Homosexuals Die Younger?
This is one of those rumors that's happily proclaimed by political groups, in this case the anti-gay lobby. But that doesn't make it false. In 2008, Danish researchers published a study in which they compared the mortality rates of over 8,000 people who married a same-sex partner. Interestingly, there was indeed a significant increase in mortality. The largest increase came from men who married before 1995, the period when AIDS was primarily in the gay male population and before effective AIDS therapies were available. For women during that period, and for men and women ever since, mortality among Danes with a same-sex partner is still 34% higher than for the general population, but only within the period of 1 to 3 years after marriage. The authors attributed this to people getting married to enjoy their final months together after a terminal AIDS diagnosis.
Another study from the Canadian Journal of Public Health confirmed that gay men are living longer now than they were prior to 1995. Because gays are one community in which AIDS incidence is higher than in the general population, gays overall do indeed have a shorter average life expectancy, though this has diminished as antiretroviral therapies have improved. But if you discount AIDS, then the difference in life expectancy disappears. Homosexuals without AIDS have the same life expectancy as heterosexuals. Thus, making the generalization "Homosexuals have reduced lifespans"is a bit like saying "Civil war veterans had poor manual dexterity" without happening to mention that the reason was that more of them were amputees.
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