50 Health Scares That Fizzled

50 Health Scares That Fizzled

50 Health Scares That Fizzled

50 Health Scares That Fizzled


This engaging, nontechnical book discusses 50 health scares that captured the public's attention before fading away, covering real and perceived health threats from long-ago eras to present times.

• Provides information about 50 health scares in 7 categories that abruptly surfaced then fizzled, providing a representative sample of similar events over the last half-century

• Includes sidebar sections highlighting anecdotes or examples

• A bibliography provides an extensive reading list for each topic chapter and the introduction

• A glossary defines biomedical and other unfamiliar terms


It’s much easier to scare people than to unscare them.

—Dr. Paul Offit (Autism’s False Prophets 2008)

As the title suggests, this book is about media events known as health scares that have ended (or mostly ended) not with a bang but a whimper. To “fizzle” means to end in a way that someone finds unsatisfactory. It often refers to an event or trend that holds the promise of a dramatic conclusion and then goes nowhere. A party might be said to fizzle if the guests fall asleep or go home early. The Ford Edsel is a famous example of a car that fizzled, only to be reborn as a classic. Many a child actor’s career has fizzled at puberty.

In the case of a health scare, however, fizzling is more often a cause for celebration. If the latest disease outbreak or toxic exposure du jour turns out to be less dangerous than expected—or if the public and the news media simply lose interest, irrespective of actual risk—then the scare fizzles. But even a false alarm may cause a great deal of fuss and expense that often requires a scapegoat, such as a government agency that acted on the best information available at the time, or the scientists who reported preliminary study findings and lived to eat them.

The English word fizzle was in use by about 1600, when it meant to break wind. By the nineteenth century, however, fizzle referred to a comparable hissing or fizzing noise produced by wet blasting powder when it burned briefly and then went out instead of exploding. Again, whether this outcome was good or bad depended on the narrator’s perspective. As a result of this phenomenon, “keeping one’s powder dry” has become a metaphor for maintaining a constant state of readiness for something.


A health scare is a highly publicized threat (or perceived threat) to human health. These scares come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the fear of high-voltage power lines to the fear of contaminated watercress. Yet the fact that we call something a health “scare” does not necessarily imply that the scare is unfounded, or that people are gullible. A health scare often starts with a valid discovery or hypothesis that somehow fires the public imagination. The scare typically undergoes a period of growth, sometimes budding off new scares in the process, and then fizzles or otherwise ends for a variety of reasons . . .

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