The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich and Orgone Energy Theory

What do Sigmund Freud, English space rock group Hawkwind, and metal filaments encased in resin pyramids have in common?

They’re all connected to Wilhelm Reich and his pet theory of Orgone Energy.

I first became fascinated with Orgone energy when I was sitting at my laptop looking for websites which made false claims about the dangers of electromagnetic radiation, and came across somebody who was selling interesting looking coloured translucent pyramids and stones which were speckled with metallic filaments, called orgonites. They looked like gemstones or polished crystals of some sort, and I thought that perhaps they’d make amusing paperweights.


… shiny? Orgonite pyramid made by etsy seller VioletFlameOrgoneLA.

Unfortunately, when I looked into orgonites a little further, I was disappointed to find that they’re made of resin and not at all heavy enough to make effective paperweights. I continued to read, and fell down a rabbit hole of strangeness… of orgone energy and the man who devised its existence, Wilhelm Reich.


Wilhelm Reich in his mid-twenties. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Born in 1897 and graduating in medicine from the University of Vienna in 1922, Wilhelm Reich rose to prominence as an influential second wave psychoanalyst with some rather radical ideas.

As an undergraduate, he met Sigmund Freud and the two became close, with Freud being so impressed with Reich that he allowed him to see patients while still an undergraduate. Unfortunately, this confidence was misplaced – Reich began an affair with a nineteen year old patient, a habit he continued throughout his career.

Freud and Reich did not see eye to eye for long – while Freud was concerned with what a patient said, Reich became much more focused on inflection, body language and facial expression, and reportedly subjected his patients to harrowing sessions to break down what he percieved as being their resistance and inhibition.

One of the ideas that Reich developed was that of “body armour”, or “Charakterpanzer” in which he contended that a there was a strong link between the character, emotional blocks and tension in the body. He suggested that repression of memories and emotion was the cause of physical illness, this being a theory which pops up with alarming regularity in the world of alternative therapies even today.

In 1930, Reich moved beyond psychoanalytic technique, onto touch therapy, sometimes painful, aimed to retrieve a repressed memory from his patients’ childhood. His goal became to trigger a whole body response with this touching, free from repression and inhibition, which he referred to as “orgasm reflex” – a full body convulsion, distinct from regular climax.

That said, Reich was a great proponent of regular climax also. His promotion of underage sex, emphasis on the importance of orgasm, and his sexual involvement with his patients saw the International Psychoanalytical Association request his resignation, to which Reich responded by camping in a tent outside their conference, while wearing a large knife on his belt.


Sometimes a large knife on your belt is just a large knife on your belt. Photo via Wilhelm Reich Trust.

From there on, his ideas became even more unorthodox – he became convinced that there must be an additional element beyond the physiological which contributes to human orgasm… and this is where orgone energy was born – orgone taking its name from the word ‘orgasm’.

Orgone energy, Reich felt, was everywhere – a biological and cosmic energy which was linked to libido and potency, cancer, frogs, the aurora borealis. He began building contraptions to harness orgone energy… faraday cages made with plywood lined with rock wool and sheet iron, which he referred to as orgone accumulators. He believed that different materials – organic and inorganic, concentrated and reflected orgone energy, and that his orgone accumulators concentrated orgone energy to levels which could be used to treat cancer, experimenting with animals, then using them to treat humans.

Living in the US by this time, in 1940, Reich wrote to Albert Einstein, explaining the hope he had for his orgone accumulators in curing disease and outlining a claim that he could use his accumulators to raise temperature without a heat source. Amazingly, Einstein spent ten days examining an orgone accumulator for evidence of its temperature raising capacity, before dismissing it as the result of ambient temperature gradients. Demonstrating increasing paranoia over the years, Reich believed that Einstein’s dismissal was part of a conspiracy against him.


Woman demonstrating Orgone Accumulator. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Reich continued his persual of orgone theory, applying it further in his therapy, creating more machines – notably, the ‘cloudbuster’ – a series of metal pipes grounded in water and pointed at the sky, which he believed could unblock orgone energy in the atmosphere and cause rain.

His claims about curing cancer were investigated by the FDA, who put an injunction on his literature and orgone machines, which reportedly triggered a further deterioration in his mental health. By the mid 1950s, he was convinced that UFOs were attacking earth with deadly orgone radiation, and would spend nights scanning the skies with binoculars, convinced he was fighting an interplanetary battle, shooting down UFOs with his cloudbusters.


Reich with Cloudbuster. Photo via “New Illuminati“, a fine example of writing by modern Reich believers.

In 1956, an FDA inspector posing as a customer requested an orgone accumulator part be sent over state lines. The part was sent and Reich and an associate were charged with contempt of court. Reich was sentenced to two years imprisonment, his literature ordered to be burnt, and his machines destroyed. Psychiatric assessments were unfavourable, but he served eight months in prison, where he experienced sudden heart failure and died. He was sixty years of age.


Wilhelm Reich, 1897 – 1957. Image via versobooks.

Orgone theory has made its way into popular culture over the years… or at least, popular counterculture. William S Burroughs was convinced that a home built orgone accumulator box greatly assisted him during times of withdrawal from heroin.

If you’ve seen the video to Kate Bush’s 1985 song Cloudbusting, you may remember Donald Sutherland playing a character who created a large metal vaguely steampunky machine with four long tubes, which he wheeled up onto a hill to point at the sky and create rain. Donald Sutherland was portraying Wilhelm Reich, and Kate Bush his son, the song based on a view of Wilhelm Reich through the eyes of his son Peter.

Then there’s American New Wave band Devo’s Energy Domes – the iconic terraced round ziggeraut style plastic hats worn by band members! One of the stories that has been told about the origin of the energy dome.. and there are several… is that the energy domes recycle the wasted orgone energy lost from the top of the head.


Are they not men to be taken seriously? Photo: Jay Spencer

Space Rock group Hawkwind wrote a ten minute long song titled “Orgone Accumulator”, Dr Durand Durand in Barbarella was loosely based on Wilhelm Reich, orgone energy was mentioned in the BBC comedy Peep Show when Jez and Super Hans joined a cult, the orgone accumulator box was parodied in the Woody Allen film Sleeper… but what is the relevance of orgone theory today?

(I dare you to listen to the whole thing)


Doctor Durand Durand’s Excessive Machine


Close enough, automatic subtitles. Video here.

Well, there are still the true believers out there, who pen missives defending Wilhelm Reich, claim he was assassinated as part of a grand conspiracy to suppress the truth… and there are also people selling products based on orgone theory. In 2000, a couple in America who had been studying Reich’s work, decided that layering metal filaments and quartz crystal in catalyzed organic fiberglass resin created an item which harnessed the power of orgone energy, much the way Reich’s accumulators were meant to, with their layers of plywood, rock wool and sheet iron.

Orgonites are quite the cottage industry.

Orgonites: quite the cottage industry.

At the last Mind, Body, Wallet Festival we went to, I came across two seperate groups selling orgone related paraphenalia – and one was selling a variety of orgonites! They weren’t directly referring to Reich’s theories, but were going down the electromagnetic radiation fearmongering path, claiming that their orgonites could protect against damaging negative energies.

With a pang of regret as I handed money over to a Mind, Body, Wallet vendor who wasn’t located in the cafeteria area, I bought myself a souvenir.

Protected from weird energy!

Protected from weird energy!

Online, there are also many orgonite selling businesses, including those who’ve gone further and sell cloudbusting machines, which would make perfectly serviceable but expensive trellises for growing beans on, if you’re into that kind of thing. There are orgonites made specifically for using to protect against energy emitted by computers, phones, and mobile phone towers, against nuclear energy, against bad vibes from neighbours.

It’s a little strange though – that the people I’ve encountered selling items based on orgone energy don’t tend to mention Wilhelm Reich and the kinda sexy roots of his theory. I haven’t quite had the audacity to ask an orgonite salesperson where orgone energy theory came from, but perhaps one day.

This post is an adapted version of a report I gave on The Skeptic Zone Live Show, episode #355 {permalink}.

Michael Leunig, Conscience, and The Choice to Vaccinate

Popular whimsical Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig has again raised controversy with a cartoon published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald on the 19th of August on the topic of vaccination.

The cartoon, depicting a close-up of the hands in Michaelangelo’s painting “The Creation of Adam”, with the hand of Adam holding a syringe is titled, “Fascist Epiphany”, and states, “The God of Science grants politicians the divine right to enforce mass medication upon babies and children”.

Michael Leunig's August 19 cartoon, via his website

Michael Leunig’s August 19 2015 cartoon, via Leunig’s website.

Criticism via social and online media was prompt, with several news outlets running stories that morning – one of which was Mamamia, who contacted me to discuss the cartoon.

Speaking to Mamamia, Alabaster said she believed the cartoon to be “highly problematic”.

“It sends the community a message of fear and mistrust, based on ideas that simply aren’t truthful. Science gives us the knowledge that vaccines are the safest and most effective way we can protect our children against vaccine preventable diseases.”

She argues that reframing the Government’s policy as “forced mass medication” is disingenuous at best, and at worst, could put children in danger.

“We need to be reassuring parents with the facts, not scaring them with emotive cartoons about fascism,” she said.

Leunig has made several statements in response to the public’s reaction to his cartoon, in which he’s refused to disclose his personal opinion on vaccination, nor acknowledge the science supporting them, instead diverting the conversation to his opinions on the government’s decision.

From The Age:

“I was conscripted for military service in Vietnam when I was young,” Leunig said.

“I felt the full weight of that kind of authoritarianism for a futile and sad tragedy that took place in Vietnam.

“I am weary of compliance in the name of civic responsibility.”

I feel immense compassion for those who experienced the tragedies of the Vietnam War – any war – and thoroughly support conscientious objection to military conscription. However, I take great issue with comparisons being drawn between conscientious objection to taking part in war, and so-called “conscientious objection” to vaccinations.

Vaccination is in part a matter of conscience, but not in the way the vaccine refusers would like to think. Conscience is involved in making the moral decision to vaccinate, to protect not only our own children, but the wider community… especially those who cannot be immunised due to compromised immune systems, being too young to receive vaccinations, or other legitimate medical reasons.

It is inaccurate to frame parents’ decision not to vaccinate their eligible child as a matter of conscience, in any way similar to a person’s refusal to participate in a war; it’s a matter of fear-driven misinformation – not morality – influencing a decision, which tragically robs children of protection against disease.

I have sympathy with the urge to mistrust something which is being perceived as a direction from the government (I am a skeptic after all – blind acceptance is not one of my fortes), but we’ve got to stand back and look at the evidence here. While some might find the tactics of “No Jab, No Play” and “No Jab, No Pay” policies heavy handed, their goal is to protect lives. I urge people to please not let their feelings on our current governments and these policies influence their view of the science supporting vaccination.

I’d also like to add that throwing around emotive and hyperbolic words such as “fascist” and “enforce” aren’t adding much reason to the narrative, to be frank – and they’re both inaccurate. While Leunig argues that:

… he was not saying that the government was fascist, but that every government could have a “fascist moment” or make “fascist decisions”.

The cartoonist argued that “fascist” was just another word for authoritarian.

“Why can’t we name something for what it is?,” he said.

“Fascist is just another name for totalitarian. What are we afraid of about this word?

“I am a cartoonist who uses the words that are real. I don’t want to pussyfoot around here.”

I would argue that “fascist”, while used colloquially as a denigration to suggest authoritarianism, is inescapably linked to fascist regimes, in the same way that “nazi” recants the National Socialist German Worker’s Party and Hitler. It’s an incredibly strong word to use, with specific connotations. Leunig is welcome to invoke such connotations of course, but I think it disingenuous for him to defend “fascist” as being “just another word for authoritarian”.

I also take issue with the suggestion that the “No Jab, No Play” and “No Jab, No Pay” policies are equivalent to enforced mass medication. Putting aside the pedantic point that vaccines are preventative biological agents and are not technically classified as medications, I think that “enforced” is too strong a word for these policies. Parents still have a choice to refuse to vaccinate their children, though the consequences for not doing so (risk of disease, disability and death aside) will be somewhat harder to live with. Alternative arrangements will need to be made by the families of preschoolers in Victoria whose parents refuse vaccination but require childcare. Vaccine refusing families nationwide who rely on the family benefits which are to be revoked under “No Jab, No Pay” will do it tougher financially. It could be argued that there’s some coercion involved in both of these policies, but it isn’t mandatory enforcement.

As you may have guessed by now, I’m actually with Leunig to a degree; I do think that the ethical issues surrounding “No Jab, No Play” and “No Jab, No Pay” policies need to be examined carefully. At the risk of being quoted out of context by anti-vaccination campaigners, I am somebody who is very firmly in the pro-vaccination camp and there are parts of these legislations that I am a not comfortable with. In an ideal world, parents would not require any loss of benefits in order to be prompted to vaccinate their children, they’d do so because they understood the importance of protecting both their kids and the wider community from disease.

Indeed, with the proposed policies requiring children to be vaccinated (unless medically exempt), before being permitted to attend preschool services, or their families granted government payments, we could invoke the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child, which determine that children have the right to access education and social welfare. When discussing the rights of children, I think that it is important to note that the treaty also recognises the right of children to access quality healthcare, including preventative healthcare. This is an obligation that the parents who refuse to vaccinate their children are failing to meet.

I think that we also need to consider the right of children who attend preschool services to do so in a safe environment, particularly those children who are unable to be vaccinated due to medical reasons. I cannot fathom the experiences of parents of children with cancer, who on top of dealing with their children’s illness, have the added worry that they will be exposed to a vaccine preventable disease when participating in community life. I imagine that knowing that the children their kids interact with on a daily basis were offering them as much protection as possible would alleviate some of the stress in their lives, and it would certainly reduce the risk of potentially fatal illness.

One of my concerns is that strong government policies such as these run the risk of further polarising fringe groups who oppose vaccination, removing them from discussion and reinforcing their fear and mistrust. Conversely, these policies may shift some people from closer to the middle ground, those who are merely a little hesitant, over the fence – and I very much hope that these people have compassionate GPs, or contact with people such as the Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporters, who can listen to their concerns and reassure them about the decision they’re making.

A previous Leunig cartoon which may be interpreted as being anti-vaccination, via Leunig's website.

A Leunig cartoon from April 2015 which may be interpreted as being anti-vaccination, via Leunig’s website.

So while there is certainly discussion to be had on the ethics of immunisation legislation, I think that it needs to happen very carefully, with full acknowledgement that vaccination is the safest and most effective way to protect our children from vaccine preventable diseases. Without stressing the importance and efficacy of vaccination, we risk giving people an incomplete message on the issue, and providing anti-vaccination campaigners with cartoons and quotes which they can frame with misinformation and use to try and further their cause.

It would be a terrible thing to use your freedom of expression on a nationwide platform to espouse the virtues of freedom of choice, then express yourself in such a way that some people may become focused on the ethics of policy without being mindful of the science supporting vaccination.

To be clear, I support Michael Leunig’s freedom of expression, just as I support parents’ freedom to choose whether or not to immunise their children. But with those freedoms come consequences; and I want both Michael Leunig and parents who refuse to vaccinate to be aware of the facts about immunisation, the potential outcomes of their actions, and for them to make conscientious decisions.

RACGP on homeopathy, the Good Thinking Society, and Homeopathic Owl – O Rly?

The following is a transcript of Evidence, Please on The Skeptic Zone Podcast #346 {Permalink}.

This week, news about that continual thorn in our side, homeopathy!

First up, I’d like to read you a media release from the Royal Australian College of General Practicioners, which was picked up as a news story by several media outlets this week.


Homeopathy treatment not effective and should not be prescribed

3 June 2015

GPs should not prescribe homeopathic remedies for their patients and pharmacists should not sell or recommend the use of homeopathic products, according to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP).

Releasing its position statement on homeopathy, RACGP President Dr Frank R Jones said GPs practiced in evidence-based medicine and there was robust evidence homeopathy had no effect beyond a placebo as a treatment for various clinical conditions.

“Given this lack of evidence, it does not make sense for homeopathy products to be prescribed by GPs or sold, recommended or supported by pharmacists,” Dr Jones said.

The RACGP position statement maintains that homeopathic alternatives should not be used in place of conventional immunisation.

“It is irresponsible to claim that homeopathic vaccines are a proven alternative to conventional vaccination. The reality is that these alternatives do not prevent diseases or increase protective antibodies and there is no plausible biological mechanism by which these alternatives could prevent infection.

“Individuals and the community are exposed to preventable diseases when homeopathic vaccines are used as an alternative to conventional immunisation,” Dr Jones said.

Another risk of homeopathy is that people delay or avoid seeing a GP – exacerbating their condition through delayed care – and reject conventional medical approaches.

“Spurious claims made by homeopathic practitioners and retailers can mislead people about the effectiveness of conventional medicine and this can result in serious health consequences,” Dr Jones said.

The position statement also outlines that many private health insurers subsidise homeopathy through ‘extras’ cover when alternative evidence-based treatment methods are available.

“Whilst we appreciate and recognise the right of patients who may choose or seek homeopathy, unfortunately all taxpayers are funding homeopathy via the Federal Government’s private health insurance rebate,” Dr Jones said.

“The RACGP is concerned that health insurance premiums continue to rise as significant subsides are paid for homeopathy and other natural therapies. In 2013-14 health insurers paid out $164 million in benefits for natural therapies, an increase of almost 60% from 2010-11.”

Earlier this year the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) analysed the scientific evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy in treating a range of clinical conditions. It concluded that homeopathy produces no health benefits over and above that of a placebo, or equivalent to that of another treatment.

While all of this is really good – and an excellent public statement to be making to help the population become more aware of issues surrounding homeopathy… the fact that it doesn’t work, that something that doesn’t work is being sold in pharmacies, that something that doesn’t work is being included in taxpayer subsidised private health cover and is driving up premiums… I can’t help but feel a little stunned that doctors and pharmacists would ever need to be told not to recommend homeopathy. How anyone who has studied medicine – pharmacology in particular – could give a moment’s thought to even allowing patients to select homeopathic treatment without an explanation as to its lack of efficacy – let alone
recommend it – is quite beyond me.

Still, the RACGP’s position statement is, like the NHMRC’s findings, more weight coming down on homeopathy.

Homeopathy in pharmacies is one of my greatest bug bears. It’s easy for people to consider its existence alongside evidence based treatments to be an endorsement for its efficacy, particularly given the credibility of pharmacists.

One argument as to why pharmacies stock homeopathy is that they’re being run as businesses, and there’s a public demand for homeopathic products. Which is frustrating, as they’re businesses which we rely on for vital health information and products (and discount glitter nail polish, an integral item for my personal well being). Pharmacies are businesses, but
they’re also an essential service – one that most of us need to use from time to time, one through which we rely on the services of a university trained professional.

Accepting the business model though, makes me wonder whether part of the push for change could come from consumer demand. Perhaps one day we could get a large enough percentage of the public to say no to homeopathy… and if a pharmacy chain removes it from its shelves, reward them with our custom.

This is highly idealistic, I realise. In the meantime, we do have groups such as Friends of Science in Medicine lobbying for the removal of non-evidence based products from pharmacy shelves – you can see what they’re up to and if you’re so inclined, lend them your support by going to

"Dilution" by xkcd

“Dilution” by xkcd –

Across and up to the UK now, where the Good Thinking Society have been campaigning to have homeopathy struck off of the NHS – that’s the National Health Service, akin to Medicare down here, which funds homeopathic hospitals! The campaign has had a great success so far, with extensive media coverage and Clinical Commissioning Groups – local area groups which organise the delivery of NHS services – reassessing their support for homeopathy – some
announcing that they will no longer be funding such.

As part of the Good Thinking Society’s efforts to examine and publicise what’s going on with NHS funded homeopathy in the UK, our eminent friend Michael Marshall investigated precisely what’s being sold by homeopathic pharmacies which supply the NHS… and came across something rather bizarre… an owl remedy!

Freeman’s homeopathic pharmacy in Glasgow lists all sorts of weird and wonderful remedies on their website, including three different remedies labeled “Owl”! Marsh decided to find out more about the owl remedy, and called Freeman’s.

What followed was a slightly surreal conversation, in which the pharmacy assistant informed Marsh that the remedy was made from owl feathers, and was prescribed by homeopathic “doctors” and practicioners not for owl allergies, but for people who were taking on the characteristics of owls, such as… not sleeping.

The entire conversation is available as a YouTube video, I’ll put a link in the show notes, as it’s well worth a listen – and a watch.

During the conversation, the homeopathic pharmacy assistant stated that homeopathic owl was for doctors and practicioners to prescribe, and not sold over the counter – yet the Good Thinking Society was able to purchase it online without a prescription, nor a warning that one is required. Hmm.


Discoveries such as this, while disturbing in a sense, are also incredibly useful. The strange combination of absurdity and bulldust in the homeopathic owl expose caught not only the attention of skeptics and the like on social media, but also that of the Daily Mirror, which ran a story on the Good Thinking Society’s work around homeopathy and the case of the
owl remedy. A huge well done to the Good Thinking Society!

And you know, if you find something similarly bizarre… pursue more information and consider going public! Weirdness can be an excellent way to draw public and media attention to pseudoscience.

Finally, here’s a fantastic tweet which caught my eye from Andy Lewis, whose Twitter handle is @lecanardnoir:

Too right!

You can read more about the Good Thinking Society’s amazing work at

Until next week, have a hoot of a time!

A transcript of this report with links has been posted at my blog, which can be found on

Slapping Therapy – Hongchi Xiao’s ‘Paida and Lajin self-healing’

The media has been reporting that a very sad and rather distressing event has taken place in Sydney this week, in which a seven year old boy whose parents brought him to the seminar of a visiting practitioner of alternative medicine has died the evening following his attendance of a ‘Paida and Lanjing self-healing’ workshop.

The boy, who it is understood had diabetes, attended a workshop run by practitioner Hongchi Xiao, who advocates some rather worrying methods for the treatment of medical conditions.

Hongchi Xiao in Australia in 2013. Photo: Facebook

Hongchi Xiao in Australia in 2013. Photo: Facebook

Hongchi Xiao developed what he refers to as ‘Paida and Lajin self-healing’, which can be used for almost all diseases, in which slapping and patting the body, and stretching tendons, is claimed to promote healing. Xiao claims that repeatedly slapping one part of the body “builds heat, causing blood vessels to expand, and ‘chi’ to flow strongly. Yang rises, yin melts and long-held toxins and blocks are released”.

Video testemonials from Xiao’s website show people slapping themselves until they are bruised – there are reports of people vomiting and falling unconscious. Testimonials also include mention of parents using the slapping technique on their children.

Xiao, who is from China, has been touring Australia and presenting workshops on his method – reportedly the week long Sydney workshop cost $1800 to attend. He is believed to have left Australia after being questioned by police regarding the death of the seven year old boy.

Obviously, we’re not in a position to say precisely what happened to the boy, beyond reports that he and his parents attended the workshop, that he was very unwell afterward, and that he passed away in an ambulance that evening.

For any details beyond that, and before we go forming any certain conclusions on this specific case, I think that we must await the coroner’s investigation and subsequent report.

Based on the news reports though, it’s very difficult not to have an emotional response to this story – I certainly have. The Telegraph have reported that the boy was made to fast for days before the workshop, it is possible that his insulin was
withdrawn as part of Paida and Lajin protocol, and the notion of repeatedly hitting a young child is frankly incredibly sickening to me.

I’ll check in again on this case after the coroner has performed an investigation and their report has been made public. Until then, a note for our overseas listeners… Hongchi Xiao is scheduled to conduct workshops in Salshausen, Germany
later this month, in Hong Kong in June, in Bandung in Indonesia in June and July, then in Seattle in the USA in August.

Should his tours still go ahead, please keep an eye on him – unfortunately he slipped under the radar for us here in Australia, but perhaps if he’s scheduled to visit where you live – if you’re in Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia or the United
States, you’d be able to let people know what Xiao’s methods involve and their potentially dangerous outcomes.

This post is a transcript of Evidence, Please on The Skeptic Zone Podcast, episode #341 {Permalink}.

Reading Signs Skeptically – The Toxic Talc Myth

There’s an inner city suburb in Sydney called Newtown, which is a fantastic place to spend a few hours, wandering up and down the main street, looking at shops and stopping for a coffee or a snack.

Newtown is around four kilometers south-west of the Sydney CBD. In the 1960s and 70s, affordable share-housing and the suburb’s close proximity to the city and universities drew in a large student population and Newtown became something of a bohemian centre, with a thriving cafe and live entertainment culture. Currently, Enmore Road and King Street host over 600 shopfronts… and some of the retailers who have set up in the area make some rather questionable claims.

Recently, The Skeptic Zone took a walk down King Street, Newtown, and in the window of a natural cosmetics shop, noticed this sign:


“TALC is closely related to ASBESTOS.
talc particles have been shown to cause tumors in the ovaries + lungs of cancer victims…
TALCUM is often the No. 1 ingredient in cosmetics. Its cost is ⩷ $50 PER METRIC TONNE! $ $ $ $ DO THE MATHS!!


nano particles are the ticking time bomb of this generation – along with G.M.O
these particles cross the brain/blood barrier.
The Rave of ‘invisible sunscreens is not so glamorous!



So that’s a rather scary claim, that talc causes cancer… and I’m very happy reassure you that it is a myth. It’s an interesting one though, as it did originally have some basis in fact.

The shop window sign claims that talc is closely related to asbestos. This sounds rather alarming, given that most Australians are quite familiar with asbestos fibre inhalation related illnesses, including malignant lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis, and the controversy surrounding and closing down of the asbestos mining and manufacturing industries.

As far as mineral composition goes, talc it fairly closely related to asbestos – talc is hydrated magnesium silicate, asbestos constitutes a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals. However, this does not suggest that talc is a danger. A parallel claim would be to suggest that water, H2O, is dangerous because it has a similar chemical composition to hydrogen peroxide, H2O2. Unlike water, hydrogen peroxide is an oxidant, corrosive and creates localised capillary embolism on contact with human skin. That one extra oxygen molecule resulting in an unstable peroxide bond makes a heck of a lot of difference.

So where’s the fact?

Because of their similar composition, talc deposits are often found close to asbestos deposits. As such, talc deposits can be contaminated with asbestos. While the talc itself is very much innocuous, talc products produced prior to 1973 were sometimes contaminated with asbestos. In 1973, regulation of talc products was introduced, resulting in prior risks associated with contaminated talcum powder being abolished.

Modern talc refining processes are stringently monitored and there is no risk of lung disease associated with modern talcum powder or talc products.

The ovarian cancer claims are based on studies which found an increased ovarian cancer risk associated with the use of talcum powder, but relied on self-reports over a large time period and as such, were unable to measure either the purity of the talc used by participants, nor the frequency and dose at which it was applied. As such, no causal link has been drawn between talc and ovarian cancer, and studies have been deemed inconclusive.

Now… nanoparticles! There is no known health risk associated with products containing nanoparticles applied to the skin. In 2013, the Therapeutic Goods Administration published a review of relevant studies, which concluded that nanoparticles do not penetrate the skin beyond the outermost layer. Systemic absorption of nanoparticles is unlikely. Zinc oxide nanoparticles in particular have been studied; when exposed in vivo to human immune cells, the immune cells absorbed the nanoparticles and broke them down.

Claims regarding the dangers of nanoparticles in skin products are not based on any credible evidence… nor, for that matter, is the other suggestion slipped in on the sign that GMOs pose a health risk to humans, (despite the public successes of anti-GMO campaigners).

You know… I get the impression that the people who run the natural cosmetics store very likely believe that they are doing good. I could be cynical and come to the conclusion that they’re knowingly using bnon-evidence based fear tactics to sell their products, but that’s something I rarely come across when encountering people who manufacture products based around naturalistic fallacy and false dangers.

I think that it’s far more likely that perhaps at some point the store owners came across misinformation on the dangers of talc and nanoparticles, took it as fact, and built a business around something that they felt was going to be good for people. Likewise, the vast majority of alternative medicine practitioners, crystal sellers and other assorted woo-peddlers strike me as genuinely wanting to and believing that they are doing good.

Does this excuse the fact that their practices are not based on solid scientific evidence? Not at all – I feel that everybody has a responsibility not to spread misinformation and pseudoscience, particularly when such can cause people to forego evidence based medical assistance or advice, be seriously out of pocket buying magic beans, or place faith in myths rather than facts.

However, I still try to remain somewhat charitable in dealing with the people who make these claims… they’re rarely made with malicious intent. Likewise, I hope that people are able to understand that when we question their claims and ask for evidence, we’re not doing so to be malicious, smug or dogmatic.

Anyhow – I think that it’s worth keeping an eye out when you’re passing by shop windows or public notice boards, particularly in areas with higher concentrations of alternative lifestylers, alternative practitioners and the like. It can make for a good opportunity to keep on top of the sorts of claims being made, and prompt some interesting fact-finding and discussion!

This post is an excerpt from Evidence, Please on The Skeptic Zone #335 {Permalink}. Also included in the podcast report, are Richard Saunders and Ian Bryce discussing another sign spotted in Newtown, which made claims regarding “crystal bed” therapy, which was in a new age shop window.

Further reading:
American Cancer Council Fact Sheet on Talcum Powder and Cancer
Cancer Council Western Australia: Cancer myth: Talcum powder and cancer
Cancer Council Australia: Nanoparticles and Sunscreen

On Taking Health Advice from Gandhi… World Homeopathy Awareness Week 2015

World Homeopathy Awareness Week (WHAW) is approaching once again, to take place from the 10th to the 16th of April 2015.

Last year’s WHAW took place just as the NHMRC’s draft information paper examining evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy in treating health conditions had been made public, which led to a substantial amount of awareness raising via the media that homeopathy is not an effective modality. Similarly, this year WHAW is taking place the month following the release of the NHMRC’s completed review on homeopathy. This review has lead to headlines stating the findings that homeopathy is no more effective than a placebo, which makes for some fine public awareness of homeopathy from an evidence based perspective.

World Homeopathy Awareness Week’s theme for 2015 is, “Homeopathy For Infectious Diseases’.

There is no evidence for, nor plausible mechanism by which, homeopathy can be of any use in treating infectious disease; and I feel that it is highly unethical and very dangerous to mislead people by claiming such, particularly in the midst of the US’ current measles outbreak, and the ongoing ebola epidemic in West Africa.

The belief that ‘homeoprophylaxis’ (also referred to as ‘homeopathic vaccination’) provides any protection from diseases which ought to be prevented with immunisation leads to parents falsely assuming that they have adequately addressed preventative healthcare. This false sense of safety is both incredibly dangerous and cruel – ‘homeoprophylaxis’ (and homeopathy in general) cheats consumers into believing that they are looking after their own and their childrens’ health.

Speaking of unreliable and non-credible health advice, the organisers of WHAW have uploaded the image below as their cover photo on the Facebook page for World Homeopathy Awareness Week 2015, featuring a pro-homeopathy quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.


Source: WHAW Facebook

Mahatma Gandhi is a widely influential and highly esteemed man; a peace activist, civil rights pioneer and the preeminent leader of Indian independence movement in British-ruled India. His philosophies regarding human rights, non-violent civil disobedience and the nature of humanity are valued by many people worldwide.

Did this qualify him to speak on matters of medicine and health with any authority though? He had no medical training or expertise (he was educated in law), but nonetheless penned a treatise on health matters, in which he noted, “I have arrived at certain definite conclusions from that experience, and I now set them down for the benefit of my readers.”

“A Guide to Health” by Mahatman Gandhi is available as a free ebook, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. It contains some quite fantastic claims and philosophies about the human body and the nature of disease, which I will gently describe as “ill informed”. For example,

The world is compounded of the five elements,—earth, water, air, fire, and ether. So too is our body. It is a sort of miniature world. Hence the body stands in need of all the elements in due proportion,—pure earth, pure water, pure fire or sunlight, pure air, and open space. When any one of these falls short of its due proportion, illness is caused in the body. – p12

On the cause of fever:

As most fevers are caused by disorders of the bowels, the very first thing to do is to starve the patient. It is a mere superstition that a weak man will get weaker by starving. As we have already seen, only that portion of our food is really useful which is assimilated into the blood, and the remainder only clogs the bowels. In fever the digestive organs are very weak, the tongue gets coated, and the lips are hard and dry. If any food is given to the patient in this condition, it will remain undigested and aid the fever. Starving the patient gives his digestive organs time to perform their work; hence the need to starve him for a day or two. – p100

On smallpox:

In fact it is caused, just like other diseases, by the blood getting impure owing to some disorder of the bowels; and the poison that accumulates in the system is expelled in the form of small-pox. If this view is correct, then there is absolutely no need to be afraid of small-pox. If it were really a contagious disease, everyone should catch it by merely touching the patient; but this is not always the case. – p105

Incidentally, Gandhi is highly quotable by anti-vaccination campaigners:

Vaccination is a barbarous practice, and it is one of the most fatal of all the delusions current in our time, not to be found even among the so-called savage races of the world. – p107

On first aid for burns:

If the skin has simply got red by the burn, there is no more effective remedy than the application of a mud poultice. If the fingers have been burnt, care should be taken, when the poultice is applied, that they do not touch against one another. This same treatment may be applied in cases of acid-burns, and scalds of every description. -p132

(Incidentally, for evidence-based guidelines on treating burns and some unfortunate quackery regarding burns, here is an excellent report by another of the Skeptic Zone reporters, Heidi Robertson.)

Gandhi himself ruminated on whether indeed he was qualified or correct in writing on health matters:

One question which I have asked myself again and again, in the course of writing this book, is why I of all persons should write it. Is there any justification at all for one like me, who am no doctor, and whose knowledge of the matters dealt with in these pages must be necessarily imperfect, attempting to write a book of this kind?

My defence is this. The “science” of medicine is itself based upon imperfect knowledge, most of it being mere quackery. But this book, at any rate, has been prompted by the purest of motives. The attempt is here made not so much to show how to cure diseases as to point out the means of preventing them. And a little reflection will show that the prevention of disease is a comparatively simple matter, not requiring much specialist knowledge, although it is by no means an easy thing to put these principles into practice. Our object has been to show the unity of origin and treatment of all diseases, so that all people may learn to treat their diseases themselves when they do arise, as they often do, in spite of great care in the observance of the laws of health. -p143

Unfortunately, pure motives are not enough when it comes to dispensing health advice, nor was Gandhi’s necessarily qualified to pass judgement that most science based medicine is ‘mere quackery’. It is also pertinent to remember that Gandhi wrote this treatise in 1921 – our body of knowledge in the field of medicine has grown immensely over the past century.

I invite you to have a fossick around “A Guide to Health” (his thoughts on chastity and childbirth were too long to include in this post, but they’re quite amazing) and come to your own conclusions as to whether you think he is a reputable source of health advice.

I ask you to then consider whether the endorsement of homeopathy cited by WHAW holds much gravitas when you’re aware of Gandhi’s ideas on health and medicine in general.

Finally, please take into account what is possibly the icing on the cake here… I have not been able to find any evidence that the quote used by WHAW can reasonably be attributed to Gandhi. Neither have these skeptics on stackexchange, or commenters on this post of Orac’s. Likewise, @zeno001 has been searching for an original source for the quote, to no avail (but he has listed some examples of Gandhi mentioning homeopathy, seemingly not in a favourable light)*.

The only place I’ve found the Gandhi quote “Homeopathy… cures a larger percentage of cases than any other method of treatment and is beyond doubt a safe, economical and a most complete medical science” (or any variations thereof), has been on pro-homeopathy sites – not in any independent archives of Gandhi’s writings or speeches. As such, I think that it’s a fair call to label the quote as unverified.

So to summarise, the WHAW organisers have used an unverified quote from a source whose health advice is highly questionable, to promote awareness of a modality for which there is no evidence of efficacy in treating disease greater than that of a placebo.

World Homeopathy Awareness Week 2015. Once again helping to raise public awareness that homeopathy is bulldust.

* Updated 24/03/2015, thanks to zeno001 for the additional information.

Adult Pertussis Boosters – Please Help Protect Babies from Whooping Cough

There has been some incredibly sad news this week.

Four week old Riley John Hughes from Perth, Australia, has died as a result of contracting whooping cough (pertussis).

Baby Riley John Hughes (Source: Facebook)

Baby Riley John Hughes (Source: Facebook)

I cannot fathom what Riley’s family have gone through over the past weeks, caring for their son as he was ill, then holding him as he passed away. The loss of a newborn is a tragedy I have no words for, especially to a cause that we as a society have the capacity to minimise risk for. As with other families who have lost a baby to whooping cough, my heart and all of my support are with the Hughes family, now and in the future.

The capacity that humans have to get through unimaginably awful circumstances is something which I am in awe of. In an unfathomable show of strength and caring, I have witnessed people who have undergone the most terrible losses make the decision to campaign publicly in the hope of affecting change.

Two such people, the parents of Dana McCaffery, who have campaigned extensively for the prevention of whooping cough since losing their beautiful four week old daughter in 2009, brought my attention to the profound importance of vaccination, and inspired me to join others in the fight to prevent the lives of children being placed at risk by this disease.

The parents of Riley John Hughes have also made the decision to go public with their tragic story, in the hope that Riley’s passing will promote public awareness of the danger of whooping cough.

From a post on the Light for Riley Facebook Page, set up by Riley’s family as a contact point with the public and media, Riley’s father Greg has written,

“We’re desperate to ensure the passing of our child has not been in vain and to try and assist other families who may be potentially suffering from similar circumstances,”

“Long term we’d ideally like to be the drivers of change within this country surrounding the treatment, management and long term eradication of this horrific disease.”

Riley’s family have also set up a fundraising page in conjunction with Princess Margaret Hospital, to honour their son’s memory and raise money to be used by PMH to help fight whooping cough, respiratory illness and other preventable diseases.

Following the news of Riley’s death, the NSW Minister for Health, Jillian Skinner, announced that free pertussis vaccines will be made available to pregnant women in their third trimester. Shortly after, WA Health Minister Kim Hames announced to in Parliament that a no cost pertussis vaccine program for pregnant women was being fast-tracked and will be available in two weeks’ time. This will bring New South Wales and Western Australia in line with Queensland and Victoria, who have already implemented free maternal vaccination for women in their third trimester – a strategy which provides both protection to the mother, so that the risk of her contracting whooping cough and passing it on to her newborn is greatly minimised, and protection to the newborn child through passive antibody transfer in-utero.

This is very welcome news, and I hope that the remaining Australian states and territories will follow suit (the Northern Territory offers free pertussis vaccines to parents and close family members of children under seven months old, but no maternal third trimester immunisation). Still, I believe that we need to do more to prevent the spread of whooping cough.

When my son Oscar was born in 2009, New South Wales provided free pertussis vaccines not only to parents of newborn children, but to family members who were likely to come into contact with the child during those most vulnerable few weeks. All of my son’s grandparents and his aunt took this opportunity to access the whooping cough vaccination, which provided us with protection known as the cocooning effect – surrounded by immunised people, he was less likely to be exposed to pertussis.

Sadly, this strategy was unable to completely reduce the risk of my children being exposed to whooping cough. My daughter Daphne arrived in 2011, meaning that both of my children were born during the 2009-2012 whooping cough outbreak, and I was concerned when my children were out in public – particularly as I live in an area with one of the lowest vaccination rates in Australia. Several local playgroups are attended by families who openly don’t vaccinate, and I wasn’t willing to risk my children being exposed to whooping cough; particularly before they turned six months old and had completed their course of three vaccinations (the acellular pertussis vaccine is given at two, four and six months of age, as per the Australian National Immunisation Program Schedule).

I wasn’t only concerned about unvaccinated children and low herd immunity in my local area though; many adults in Australia do not have immunity to whooping cough – be it through not knowing that pertussis vaccines are available, not being aware that adult immunity wanes after 5-10 years and that boosters are required, or not realising the potential outcomes of contracting pertussis… sustained serious illness and the risk of passing it on to others.

Indeed, Riley Hughes’ family members had been vaccinated against pertussis. This minimised his risk of exposure, but was not enough to protect him.

According to the 2009 Adult Vaccination Survey, carried out by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, only 11.5% of adults in Australia have received a pertussis booster.

The people at Tiny Hearts Paediatric First Aid have launched a petition to increase the availability of pertussis booster vaccination at low or no cost for all adults in Australia, and have suggested that people who are concerned about low adult pertussis vaccination rates contact their state health ministers – a call to action which I am firmly behind.

While I acknowledge the difficult job that those creating and implementing public health policy have, performing cost-benefit analysis to determine where limited public health money shall be spent, I strongly conclude that resources are urgently required to increase public awareness of the importance of adult pertussis boosters, and that they need to be accessible to all. Neither cost, nor lack of awareness should be barriers to preventing the unnecessary tragedy of infant death due to whooping cough.

As the importance of adult pertussis booster vaccines is not widely understood, nor are vaccines currently freely available, I would like to ask that you help spread the word – by sharing this post, the graphic above compiled by Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporters, or the videos below (the first a segment from The Project, the second an interview with Toni McCaffery on Today Tonight) which outline Riley’s story and the importance of pertussis boosters for adults.

Additionally, if you have not had a pertussis booster within the last five years and are able, I hope that you will consider speaking with your GP about a booster vaccination. Not only will it provide you with protection from a nasty illness which can persist for several months, with greater numbers of adults in our society immunised against whooping cough, transmission rates will fall. Please help minimise the risk of another baby being lost to this horrible disease.