Subject: Toilet Spiders? Not Real, but Good for a Scare
From: ERIC NAGOURNEY
JUL 31, 2001
Toilet Spiders? Not Real, but Good for a Scare
By ERIC NAGOURNEY
The world can be a scary enough place without tales of deodorants that cause cancer, asbestos-laden tampons and, perhaps most alarming of all, the dreaded arachnius gluteus, a spider said to lurk beneath toilet seats waiting to bite those who sit.
Phony though the stories may be, officials at government and private health organizations say they are increasingly having to field inquiries from people taken in by the latest medical hoax or rumor.
"It always amazes me how many people believe some of these rumors without really investigating them," said Dr. Ted Gansler, director of medical content for the American Cancer Society's Web site (cancer.org).
In response, organizations like the cancer society and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have created special sections on their Web sites devoted to debunking medical myths. The C.D.C.'s page was created in November and has become one of the most popular areas on the agency's Web site (cdc.gov). Since June, the site has had 320,000 hits, said Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the centers.
Mr. Skinner said the C.D.C. decided to focus its efforts on rumors that cited the health centers as a source of information. The site takes on unfounded reports about infected syringes pasted to gas-pump handles (or pay phones and vending machines), flesh-eating bacteria on banana peels and a Hawaiian stock clerk who allegedly died after handling materials contaminated with rat urine. The agency also debunks the widespread tale of the Klingerman Virus, a toxic sponge supposedly mailed in blue envelopes to people at random.
Many other wild stories are listed on sites like urbanlegends.com. One of the site's links is to the entomology department at the University of California at Riverside, which has dissected the hoax about the arachnius gluteus, the toilet-seat spider reputed to bite people in the - well, the species name pretty much tells the tale. Symptoms of a bite, according to one report on the Internet, include fever, chills, paralysis and (that most serious symptom of all) death, as several women at a Chicago airport restaurant were said to have discovered.
If there is any solace to be taken from the report, it is that the breed of spider cited is as phony as the location of the incidents ("Blare Airport") and the publication cited as a source ("The Journal of the United Medical Association").
Urbanlegends.com also includes stories about asbestos in crayons and rattlesnakes in the play areas of fast-food restaurants. Many of the rumors are unbelievable, and David Emery, who runs urbanlegends.com, offered a simple explanation for why they still spread so quickly.
"We just like to scare each other," Mr. Emery said. "This kind of thing has been going on forever."
Dr. Jennifer Taylor, a clinical psychologist at McLean Hospital, a Harvard affiliate, agreed. "It's a lot like ghost stories - we've got to have something to be afraid of," she said. "If it's completely ridiculous, then people feel more comfortable."
But it can be more complicated than that. While rumors and hoaxes are hardly new, the Internet allows them to spread with startling speed and reach. Moreover, Mr. Emery said, the fact that they exist in writing, instead of being whispered at the water cooler or next to a campfire, often gives them undeserved credibility.
"There's something about the written word that makes almost anything more convincing," he said.
This is especially true for rumors that contain a grain of truth or play into people's distrust of corporations or the government.
"Most of the e-mail rumors that eventually reach us are from people who genuinely believe that the information is correct," Dr. Gansler said.
Dr. Taylor suggested that the persistence of the rumors reflected many Americans' lack of trust and a lack of sophistication when it came to matters of fast-changing fields of medicine.
"I think that people don't know how to evaluate what is possible from what's totally outlandish," she said.
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