Arm & Hammer Baking Soda for H1N1 influenza and cancer? Woo at its finest!

There are times when I get really depressed writing this blog. It’s not because I don’t enjoy it, although like any long term hobby my blogging does occasionally feel like more of an obligation than a hobby. That’s only part of the time, though. Most of the time I really do enjoy what I do. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t get to me from time to time, however. After all, how much quackery, pseudoscience, and woo can a plastic box of blinking multicolored lights stand on a daily basis for five years. I would submit to you that Orac is made of quite stern stuff indeed. Still, it’s depressing to see just how far a physician will go over to the dark side.

Such a physician is Dr. Joe Mercola, whose site rivals Mike Adams’ for the title of biggest repository of medical woo on the Internet. There are differences, of course. For instance, Dr. Mercola comes across as seemingly reasonable as he promotes the worst forms of quackery while Mike Adams comes across as unhinged…as he promotes the worst forms of quackery. And, make no mistake, quackery much of it is. The latest example is yet another instance of Mercola taking advantage of the H1N1 pandemic to promote the rankest pseudoscience to an unsuspecting world in an article entitled Overlooked 150 Year Old Household Cleaner a Remedy for Swine Flu? It’s hard to find a more clearly fallacious set of arguments. In fact, this time around Mercola makes Dana Ullman’s support of homeopathy seem almost reasonable.

Well, not really, but Mercola sure does try. Basically, he tries to convince his readers that baking soda will cure H1N1. First, he references a woo-filled article that claims:

In today’s modern world of medicine the FDA just will not let companies that sell products make medical claims about them unless they have been tested at great expense and approved as a drug. But this was not always the case and as we can see in the information in this chapter, which is from a 1924 booklet,[1] published by the Arm & Hammer Soda Company. On page 12 the company starts off saying, “The proven value of Arm & Hammer Bicarbonate of Soda as a therapeutic agent is further evinced by the following evidence of a prominent physician named Dr. Volney S. Cheney, in a letter to the Church & Dwight Company:

“In 1918 and 1919 while fighting the ‘Flu’ with the U. S. Public Health Service it was brought to my attention that rarely any one who had been thoroughly alkalinized with bicarbonate of soda contracted the disease, and those who did contract it, if alkalinized early, would invariably have mild attacks. I have since that time treated all cases of ‘Cold,’ Influenza and LaGripe by first giving generous doses of Bicarbonate of Soda, and in many, many instances within 36 hours the symptoms would have entirely abated. Further, within my own household, before Woman’s Clubs and Parent-Teachers’ Associations, I have advocated the use of Bicarbonate of Soda as a preventive for “Colds,” with the result that now many reports are coming in stating that those who took “Soda” were not affected, while nearly every one around them had the “Flu.”

Amazing, isn’t it? Doesn’t it remind you of the claims of homeopaths that homeopathy routinely produced better results treating the flu during the 1918 influenza pandemic than “conventional” medicine? This was a claim derived from a story that homeopaths relate of W.A. Dewey, MD, who allegedly reported that among patients treated by homeopaths there was a mortality rate of just over 1%, which is less than half the reported case fatality rate observed during the pandemic. Of course, in the story it’s not mentioned that the real case fatality rate was around 2.5% for the pandemic; homepaths claim it was their woo producing a 1% death rate versus a 30% death rate among those treated by conventional doctors.

Much like Dr. Dewey, if you Google Dr. Volney S. Cheney virtually all you will find is various quack-friendly websites citing this same story. Moreover, it’s hard not to point out that this physician’s claims appeared in promotional literature for Arm & Hammer Baking Soda. Arm & Hammer was trying to sell a product, and it could produce no studies that suported its claims for its baking soda. It’s just a friggin’ pamphlet. Woo-meisters fallaciously claim that modern medicine isn’t supported by evidence, but here they cite a nearly 90 year old pamphlet published before there were laws in place to require that advertisements claiming a health benefit due to a product have evidence to back them up.

Dr. Mercola then goes on to comment on his own. Hilariously, he warns that “many believe” that Arm & Hammer Baking Soda is “contaminated” with aluminum (and so what if it is?) and asks for more information before promoting baking soda as in essence a cure-all. In this, he is no different from “alkalinization master” Robert O. Young. Dr. Young even claims that “alkalinzation” with sodium bicarbonate will cure cancer. However, Mercola didn’t choose to cite Young. Why, I don’t know. He would seem to be the perfect go-to guy for this sort of thing. On the other hand, Mercola seems to prefer his own variety of acid-base quacks, guys like Dr. Tullio Simoncini and another one I hadn’t heard of, Mark Sircus, Ac, OMD, who buys into the same woo. He also clearly doesn’t understand basic physiology:

Cancer is, fundamentally, a relatively simple oxygen
deficiency disease and the use of bicarbonate
increases oxygen carrying and reaching capacity.

Um, no. Not really. It’s true that increasing the pH of the blood causes hemoglobin to “hold onto” oxygen more tightly, but the problem with that is that oxygen doesn’t do the cells much good unless it can be delivered to the cells, which doesn’t happen as well in regions of high pH. There’s a perfectly good physiological reason for this. Tissues lacking oxygen turn to anaerobic metabolism, and when they do they generate lactic acid, which lowers the pH. Hemoglobin “lets go” of oxygen more easily when the pH is low (acidic).

Mercola is then stupid enough to reference this video by Dr. Simoncini, which I deconstructed before as being so hopelessly ignorant of the science behind cancer. Remember, Simoncini is the guy who thinks that cancer is a fungus because, according to him, cancer is white and fungi are white. Apparently he’s never heard of melanoma or other pigmented cancers or the many varieties of quite colorful fungus. Ignorance this deep is truly an art. A black art, but an art. Sadly, Sircus tries to outdo even Simoncini:

In his book Winning the War on Cancer, Dr. Sircus writes:

“Sodium bicarbonate is the time honored method to ‘speed up’ the return of the body’s bicarbonate levels to normal. Bicarbonate is inorganic, very alkaline and like other mineral type substances, supports an extensive list of biological functions.

Sodium bicarbonate happens to be one of our most useful medicines because bicarbonate physiology is fundamental to life and health.”

Many chemotherapy treatments actually include sodium bicarbonate to help protect the patient’s kidneys, heart and nervous system. It’s been said that administering chemotherapy without bicarbonate could possibly kill you on the spot.

The stupid, it burns! Much like dropping some concentrated sodium hydroxide to “alkalinize” your skin would burn, actually. The reason that sodium bicarbonate is provided as part of a chemotherapy regimen is not to treat the tumor, but to protect the kidneys. Some chemotherapy regimens cause massive tumor cell lysis, and alkalinization of the blood with large doses of sodium bicarbonate helps prevent uric acid from tumor cell lysis from precipitating in the kidney and causing renal failure if urine pH can be kept above 7.0. Indeed, the syndrome has a name: Tumor lysis syndrome. Moreover, Tumor lysis syndrome doesn’t occur unless the chemotherapy has been very successful in killing tumor cells. Sircus is also apparently unaware that there has been some rethinking of whether alkalinization of the urine is as beneficial as once thought; it’s not as routinely done as it used to be. Maybe sodium bicarbonate isn’t so great after all.

Of course, that doesn’t keep Sircus from leaping to this claim:

Could it be that while mixing chemo poisons with baking soda, any improvements seen are the result of the baking soda, and not the toxic poisons? Dr. Sircus believes that may be the case.

“There are no studies separating the effects of bicarbonate from the toxic chemotherapy agents, nor will there ever be,” he says.

There’s a reason for that: It isn’t the bicarbonate that’s causing massive tumor cell lysis. It’s also unethical to give a patient bicarbonate alone without chemotherapy, which is the only way to “separate the effects” of bicarbonate from those of chemotherapy. The reason it’s unethical is because it’s unethical to deny effective treatment to a patient with cancer. In any case, Sircus is just as ignorant as Simoncini; he’s confusing an adjunct use of chemotherapy in a supportive role to try to prevent the complications of killing tumors with chemotherapy with using it therapeutically to treat cancer. I suppose I should be happy that he hasn’t claimed that cancer is a fungus. Little things like that save my sanity.

Dr. Mercola tries to represent himself as a “reasonable” booster of “alternative medicine” in contrast to all those quacks out there. However, given how he clearly buys into (or cynically sells) acid-base woo to his readers, I’m hearing a quacking sound, and it’s emanating from Mercola. He’s promoting quackery for H1N1 in this instance, and he’s promoting cancer quackery from Sircus and Simoncini.

You know, I’m starting to like Mike Adams better. At least he doesn’t pretend to be something he’s not.