Bad science: baking soda, fungi, cancer, nuclear fallout, rosacea

By Grant Jacobs 02/09/2012 14

Partly because it’s the weekend, partly because the NZ Skeptics conference is on, I wander through some examples where critical reasoning was absent.[1]

According this blurb for the second edition of the Sodium Bicarbonate e-book, baking soda is the cure-all. Titled Sodium Bicarbonate – Rich Man’s Poor Man’s Cancer Treatment, by Mark Sircus, merely fixing cancer was not enough for the second edition:

“The main thrust of the first edition was on the use of sodium bicarbonate for cancer treatment. This vastly expanded second edition extends coverage into important areas of kidney disease, diabetes, treatment of flu and the common cold, and other areas of general medicine. Truly sodium bicarbonate is a universal medicine that is nutritional as well as safe and is of help no matter what syndrome we are facing.”

Yes, that right, baking soda is the cure to end them all![2]

They’ve even recommend it for use to weather “the toxic [oil slick] storm that continues to build over the Gulf region.” (Clarification in square brackets mine.)

The blurb writes “This authoritative volume is the only full medical review available on the subject.” I’m not surprised, although not for the reason the author would like. I’d quibble at their use of the word ‘medical’, too.

I’ll let you entertain yourself with—as the blurb puts it—The Mightly Mallet of Baking Soda. You might also want to read the respectfully insolent case on this.

I found the book’s advertising blurb via a web forum, Beyond Vaccination, sidetracking while following leads on New Zealander Hilary Butler’s involvement with the Renatas after the death of their daughter, Jasmine – the subject of a recent coroner’s inquiry.[3] Hilary is also the founder of the anti-vaccine Immune Awareness Society. (This forum is also linked from Peter and Hilary Butler’s website Beyond Conformity: “We alse run an Oceania FORUM,BEYOND VACCINATION, where you will find more information, and people to talk to.”)

At Beyond Vaccination member ‘Barefoot’ posted a link to the book’s blurb titled ‘Knock out the Flu with Baking Soda’. That post was edited by Hilary Butler (aka ‘Momtezuma Tuatara’[4]).

Did she correct the forum member of the bad science on offer? No.

Point out how daft the idea was? No.

She edited it’s title from baking powder to baking soda: “Reason for edit. Baking powder, is quite different to baking soda :-)”

So that it’s not baking powder but baking soda is important but the nonsense in the blurb itself doesn’t matter?

(Note that to make her correction to the forum poster’s shout-out of the blurb, she’d have to read the blurb to realise that baking soda was being referred to as the comment posting the link offers no way of realising the error. Point is, she’d have seen the nonsense it is.)

There’s more: not only did she not criticise this, she supports the idea that baking soda should be used to treat cancer.

While looking to see what else Hilary had said with reference to baking soda I encountered this:

“Oral sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) can diminish the severity of the changes produced by uranium in the kidneys.”

It’s in a grab-bag titled Nuclear Fallout where Hilary offers a list of (dubious) remedies for treatment of radiation damage. She’s clearly hunted down ‘remedies’ with words associated with radiation damage, regardless of whatever merit they might have, and plunked them down on the page with no critical thought. (There may be an element of truth in protecting kidney function, but it’s been over-played; other suggestions there are plainly silly.)

Her call on using baking soda is echoed in more exaggerated form on Mark Sircus’s blog: “And importantly, it [baking soda] is also a powerful buffer against radiation exposure, so everyone should be up to speed on its use. Everybody’s physiology is under heavy nuclear attack from strong radioactive winds that are circling the northern hemisphere.” Talk about appealing to fears.

Particularly telling is Hilary’s list of homeopathic remedies for treating radiation.[5]

I draw attention to the homeopathic remedies Hilary lists because of rule of thumb I have: anyone who promotes or sells homeopathic remedies has either lost ability to think critically or, if they know homeopathic remedies are worthless remedies, are being unethical.[6] Homeopathy is probably the easiest of the ‘woo’ to see as junk. Dilute (supposed) active ingredients until they are no longer in the remedy—yes, that’s really what they do—then dress the remedy up with stories about water having memories and whatnot. Ridiculous doesn’t even start to describe it. Steven Novella at Science-Based Medicine put it this way:

 In my opinion the conclusion is ineluctable – homeopathy is a fraud being perpetrated on the public worldwide.  Governments and regulatory agencies that are supposed to protect the public from medical fraud have failed to do so.

If you’re interested in homeopathy, Steven‘s article is worth reading for a recent update; you might also look in Footnote 5 for my own more modest efforts. Homeopathy so pathetic that I have admit I occasionally mistype it homeopathetic in an appropriate kind of Freudian slip!

Hilary Butler believes “that cancer is a reaction to fungus” that might be treated with baking soda. That cancer is a fungus and can be treated with baking soda is the thesis of Dr. Tullio Simoncini, whose odd notion that tumours are ‘seeded’ by fungal infections have been widely, to be polite, “questioned”, for example at Respectful Insolence.

The company you keep and all – this website touts an interview of Dr. Simoncini by David Icke. It gets worse: this blog, whose authors include a pathologist, point to articles claiming Dr. Simoncini has been convicted in Italy for manslaughter and medical fraud including causing perforated intestines and has had his license to practice medicine withdrawn. Cancer is not a fungus covers Simoncini’s “science” and sorts out some of the nonsense, including his medical status and earlier career. There are no publications featuring ‘Simoncini cancer sodium bicarbonate’ in PubMed, the major international database of biomedical research literature.

The website for Dr. Simoncini’s book Cancer is a fungus (my emphasis) offers that,

“At the moment, sodium bicarbonate […] is the only remedy capable of making the tumours disappear completely.”

All-encompassing claims like this, saying that all the many different kinds of tumours will “disappear completely”, like the wide ranging claims of baking soda made in the blurb for Sodium Bicarbonate – Rich Man’s Poor Man’s Cancer Treatment, should always be treated with skepticism – if not dismissal in the absence of copious evidence.

There are many different kinds of cancers; it is extremely unlikely there will be one single ‘magic bullet’ to treat them all.

In her article Lucy’s Miracle, Hilary seems to think that baking soda ought to be applied as a cancer treatment—she cites Dr. Simoncini, too—and that oncologists treating fungal infections prior to chemotherapy are inadvertently treating the cancer itself:

To me, the “miracle” is that the Starship specialists treated the fungus first….. even if they did not use bicarbonate of soda. The usual oncologist would completely dismiss any suggestion that cancer is a reaction to fungus, so to treat a fungus, to cure cancer is a preposterous idea, right?  But after watching Dr Tullio Simoncini’s videos showing how fast his cancer patients get better, should we be surprised at just how fast Lucy improved?  I’m sure her family will attribute her seeming remission to the cocktail of highly toxic drugs for which they must don gloves and syringe into her mouth three times a day, after all they continue to give it to her three times a day.., but is it?

And did my mother die of cancer, or of untreated fungus?

I’m no oncologist, but I can see a plainer reason for the fungal treatment – clearing an existing infection before chemotherapy (if the patient can tolerate a delay in chemotherapy) so the patient’s body then won’t also have to cope with the infection during chemotherapy.

There is some literature claiming that ‘pH therapy’ might reduce the spread of some malignant cancers. That tentative claim is far from Simoncini’s bold assertion that it will cause all kinds of tumours to disappear completely. There’s also reason to be skeptical about these claims.[7]

Hilary goes on to segue from fungus and cancer back to her rosacea, which she mentions earlier in her article, offering that it might be a form of candida infection:[8]

Is my rosacea, of nearly 20 years duration, actually a form of systemic candida?

With no place else to turn, and nothing to lose, in October 2008 I started an anti-candida diet.  It’s hard going when you are cutting out what to most people, are the “mainstays of pleasure”.

But, for the first time, I’m starting to see a new me.

The rosacea is retreating.

I’ve energy absolutely leaking out of my ears.

A lot of other things are visibly changing.  What, you may ask?  It may sound silly, but I was born with such dark brown eyes into a blue-eyed family, that the common comment was, “And which milkman was your father?”.  When I married Peter, my eyes were green on the outside, and brown in the middle.  “Hazel” is the term you might have used.  After doing the Ultimate Cleanse in November, two astonishing things happened.  The first was that stuff came out of me, the likes of which you would not believe.  Second, all the brown in my eye colour has disappeared, and my eye colour is now a slate grey blue with a slight green tinge.

She justifies her Ultimate Cleanse course with “I might as well try something truly radical, on the basis that at least, it makes (common) sense to me.” She also doesn’t explain what the stuff that came out of her was and, to be honest, I’m not sure I want to know.

A very recent proposal considers if rosacea is caused face mite faeces or bacterial infection related to them. They note that “Rosacea often improves with antibacterial drugs that don’t affect the mites, such as tetracyclines.” It seems that rosacea has been associated with the face mites (Demodex) for a while now, although a fuller understanding is still lacking and/or may not be as widely appreciated as it might be.[9]

Hilary’s arguments show a collection of erroneous thinking common to those exploring ‘alternative remedies’. There’s the classic lack of critical thought running through much of her writing, such as offering homeopathy as a treatment (for anything). There’s looking for exotic answers when ordinary ones would fare better, such as her reasoning over oncologists treating fungal infections. There’s reliance on ‘common sense’ rather than evidence. There’s overlooking material suggesting the treatment, or the people behind them, are unsound. I could go on.

It’s interesting, too, to see the ‘messages’ travel in circles, re-enforcing the erroneous ideas. My story following them travels a circle, too. I opened with the blurb for Sodium Bicarbonate – Rich Man’s Poor Man’s Cancer Treatment, which cited work at the University of Arizona in support of baking soda treating cancer. As I was completing writing this up, I learnt that Dr. Pagel’s group at the University of Arizona had obtained $US 2 million in funding from NCCAM (the US National Center for Complimentary & Alternative Medicine) to apply imaging techniques that can measure pH towards studying “the effectiveness of personalized baking soda therapy to treat breast cancer.” By personalised they appear to mean to measure the pH of the tumour cells then ‘tailor’ the baking soda solution accordingly. I have no problem with the use of the imaging equipment—that much is fine—but am concerned if spending that much is wise if there are better, more likely, things crying out for funding. But, then again, this is NCCAM funding the work… The author of the book even gets in too early to crow that he’s having the last laugh – well before the issue is resolved.

It’s unfortunate people latch only these ‘new’ ideas with little critical thought. Even less unfortunate is some touting them, in the perhaps well-meant guise of helping others, offering untested or unsound ideas as credible by—if nothing else—leaving out material showing that at worst they’re likely to be fraudulent or at best neither/nor, and so should be ignored until better evidence is found to resolve them one way or other .

Feel free to extend on my tentative start on these in the comments below.


After I had written this article I saw Ed Yong had written a long piece on the Demodex mites, including their link with rosacea; if you’re interested in that aspect, check his article out. (In hindsight I wish I’d focused on that only, but never mind. Not a lot of point now that Ed has covered it…)

Orac also touches on Sircus and Simoncini in other articles. He seems to have covered every major crank, but surprisingly seems not to have covered NZ’s (or, rather, Czechoslovakia’s) Milan Brych, recently the subject of a TV documentary.

1. I’m writing this partly as I need to get some of the nonsense I’ve seen lately out of my system as I’d like to get back to writing about science. To the skeptics: this is far from my best, sorry. But better than nothing! (There’s also a lot related to the Jasmine Renata coroner’s inquest that I’ve read that I could write about, including Hilary Butler’s involvement, but that will have to wait until when (if) I can face several evenings of unrelenting tortured claims.)

2. Having implied it treats cancer they then walk around that, talking how it aids cancer treatment – the sort of word games we’ve come to expect from some proponents of natural health or related stances (e.g. some ant-vaccine—opps ‘pro vaccine-choice—proponents do likewise).

3. She claims to have considerable involvement but it’s also possible that’s an impression she wants to convey, rather than an actual large involvement. While the sitting for the inquest has been held, the coroner’s report has not yet been published.

4. Orac, of Respectful Insolence, mentions her by that name in this post. I get the impression Hilary doesn’t particularly hide that the pseudonym is her, so that the pseudonym is more a moniker she likes(d).

5. I’ve written lots on homeopathy. Here, knock yourself out:

Time for disclaimers on remedies?, “alternative” or not

Homeopathy — practical remedies to address it?

Homeopath says to treat a burn… burn it some more

Message to Otago Daily Times: homeopath is not a sound career option*

In good health or not? — ’natural health’ advertising in newspapers, magazines

Undiluted humour: If Homeopathy Beats Science

Homeopathy check-up: Not in the health system, disclaimers on labels

Homeopathic remedies in NZ pharmacies

Alliances of pharmacists & GPs; opportunities to pressure for removal of useless ’remedies’?

Pharmacists to say that homeopathy does not work?

Medical DIY…

Sources for medical information for non-medics and non-scientists

6. Or should know that homeopathic remedies are worthless. I consider pharmacies that sell homeopathic remedies unethical too. This happens in New Zealand.

7. Sodium bicarbonate (i.e. baking soda) is used as an antacid and, according to MedLinePlus, sometimes used to aid management of blood and urine acidity. The latter uses include during chemotherapy to protect kidney function as explained at Respectful Insolence. This literature is recent, limited and with a few exceptions is in the ‘minor’ journals, including ‘alternative medicine’ publications. (The point being that if you do accept these claims, they’re tentative at this stage.) Some of it focuses on proton pump inhibitors rather than sodium bicarbonate.

8. Candida is the fungal genera best known for being the infectious agent in thrush, where people have a white fungal growth on the inside of their mouths, or some types of vaginal infections.

9. I currently have only access to the abstract of this paper.

Other articles on Code for life (for homeopathy, see Footnote 6):

Thoughts on, and for, those trying to choose to vaccinate or not

Do TED lectures need better vetting?

Fact or fallacy, a survey of immunisations statements in the print media

Immunisation then and now

Medical DIY…

Sources for medical information for non-medics and non-scientists

14 Responses to “Bad science: baking soda, fungi, cancer, nuclear fallout, rosacea”

  • This guy at the University of Arizona is working on a study of MRI ability to measure PH. The article is not clear on how that is done. What do you make of it?

    The article also says: “Drinking baking soda has been proven to reduce or eliminate the spread of breast cancer to the lungs, brain and bone, but too much baking soda can also damage normal organs”

    Is this claim supported? or classic journalistic misinterpretation of several unrelated things?

  • Briefly (sorry):

    “The article is not clear on how that is done. What do you make of it?”

    See comment ‘May 17, 10:19 am’ in (Search the page for the comment date.)

    This work could be interpreted a case of having a hammer (fancy equipment + skills with it) and looking for a nail.

    “Is this claim supported? or classic journalistic misinterpretation of several unrelated things?”

    See text that links to Footnote 7 and Footnote 7, incl. the Respectful Insolence article linked.

  • Found the comment. Thank you! A lot of scientific research is essentially hammers looking for nails so that part at least sounds worthwhile to me. I’ll paste the May 17, 10:19 comment here in case anyone else is interested:

    “In NMR spectroscopy (not imaging) measuring pH from the chemical shift of a pH-sensitive compound (e.g. inorganic phosphate inside cells) is a long-established trick. Deriving pH from MRI imaging techniques is much newer, and is experimental. However. Pagel has published on it, see e.g. some of the description and refs here. It is extracellular pH that these techniques assess, so the idea is to measure the pH in the tumour but outside (‘around’) the cells, so in what scientists call the extracellular space, or the ‘interstitial’ fluid.

    Anyway, the idea of the pH measurements in tumours with MRI is legit science. So if you were being charitable, you could say Pagel was simply using NCCAM (and their enthusiasm for pH-woo) to fund his research program. But of course:

    i) there is no reason that research to measure something potentially useful like tumour extracellular pH wouldn’t be eligible for funding by a ‘mainstream’ NIH institute like NCI; and

    ii) having it under NCCAM’s banner, and tied up with the bicarbonate-for-cancer nuts, risks offers said wackos wholly undeserved credibility.

    So.. I’d say this qualifies as a classic example of the kind of things Orac and others have said about NCCAM in the above post (see the discussion of pharmacognosy) and elsewhere.

    Slightly separately, whether Dr Pagel has ‘jumped the shark’ in the way he is promoting the work is something I couldn’t judge without seeing the promo/press stuff, though others may have a view”

  • Should have pasted the comment myself, sorry. Rushing around a bit much…

    My article was more focused on Simoncini and Sircus who are taking things far beyond what science has indicated. People like Sircus are already trying to make out that their ideas have ‘proof’, holding up the grant as the ‘proof’.

    So I agree with your take although I’d have thought that, generally speaking, it’s better to check more closely that it’s a nail before hitting it with your shiny expensive hammer (their MRI equipment in this case), particularly with large dollops of funding involved.

    I’m not one to call it, but it might be a case of chomping at the bit to apply the new technique and coming up with something that, if they’re brutally honest, is more an excuse to use it than because the target is sound.

    Either way, the Simoncini, Sircus, etc. claims are over the top.

  • I had read the article linked in footnote 7:

    The article debunks various silly claims made by bicarb soda & alkaline/acid advocates. No problem there.

    The thing is – it does not directly address the claim made in the University of Arizona article.

    Namely: “Drinking baking soda has been proven to reduce or eliminate the spread of breast cancer to the lungs, brain and bone, but too much baking soda can also damage normal organs”.

    The problem is, it is unclear what is the ‘proof’ referred to in the UoA article and therefore very difficult to refute it!

    I watched an interview with Pagels. My overall impression – he is using publicity to generate further funds and support for his research project.

    In the interview he appears to claim that ‘alkalizing diet’ type stuff does prevent the spreading of tumors and that this diet is recommended for cancer patients. He presents this as current practice.

    Mp4 of interview here:

    Flash version here:

    (The video contains far more claims than the text)

    After the video I am now sure the claims in the UoA article originated directly from Pagel.

    Many skeptical sources directly attack alkaline diets as having no basis in research or fact:

    I can find no credible (direct) sources of the claim that alkaline diets prevent the spread of cancer.

    Coda… ‘Alkalising’ stuff aside completely – it is unclear to me to what extent if any diet improvement in general is something that is part of conventional cancer treatment regimen or if diet improvement is just something which has become associated with cancer treatment (as a general good) without being a part of any formal treatment.

  • Sorry for not getting back to you – distracted with other things. Also short on time. Thanks for adding all this. What Pagel said in the video interview is new to me – I didn’t watch it. If he presented it as you’ve accounted it—not wronging you here, I just haven’t time to listen to it, yet—that’s going too far for sure and not a good sign, to be polite.

    The UoA article will be a press release and press releases are poor sources of balanced accounts… it will have come from the researchers, probably via an informal interview by the university’s PR staff.

    BTW, when I wrote ‘pH therapy’, I was being inclusive of all variations on the theme in the broadest sense – injections locally to the tumour, in vitro (‘test tube) studies, etc., not referring to ‘alkaline diets’. The diet idea seems weird – the stomach would simply neutralise the alkali, surely, and if you did manage to overwhelm that you’d put your lower gut at risk (like the example of gut perforation I mentioned ).

    The rest of what you say is familiar and I agree with it. I was taking a different approach – rather than encourage tit-for-tat over the science, simply point that at very best there’s too little be saying anything concrete (this fits my focus on Simoncini and Sircus, rather than Pagel). Part of the reason is that I’ve previously written how people who are not familiar with the science might judge their ideas aren’t well-founded; one pointer is to simply note a lack of scientific literature on the topic. There’s been several years since they earlier published about this (in 2009, in Cancer Res. from memory) but it hasn’t been taken up elsewhere, which is a clue even without reading any science.

  • Should add, I may not be able to get back to this as I’d like to be writing about some aspect of the ENCODE publications (not to mention other things). Feel free to add your thoughts, though!

  • The other thing is, your body takes exquisite care to modulate tissue pH within very narrow limits. Things don’t function too well, otherwise. So why wouldn’t it simply treat added alkali as ‘business as usual’, excreting it to maintain that homeostatic state?

  • No, not a good sign. Media comment on this has been unbalanced entirely. Watching that interview this clearly originates directly because of the way Pagel chooses to present his research. He is an imaging researcher but you would not guess this from his presentation.

    If you are reasonably scientifically literate and know some background it is possible to re-interpret his comments benignly but for the average person watching the interview (in which he has a packet of baking soda on the table in front of him – not kidding!!) and does no further research guaranteed to come away with the wrong idea.

  • Pop,

    “Media comment on this has been unbalanced entirely.”

    Leaving aside the interview, I’m not aware of any media coverage on this. (Then, I haven’t looked very hard; I was following the line of ‘reasoning’ of local anti-vaccine proponent Hilary Butler re Sircus and Simoncini.)

    That Pagel doesn’t work on the medical side was partly why I thought of the hammer and nail analogy – it occurred to me that one explanation might being lead by a desire to use his toy, as it were, rather than good medical science, as it ought to be.

    “in which he has a packet of baking soda on the table in front of him”

    You’re kidding. Must find time to watch the video somehow.

  • I suffered rosacea for several years and candida was indeed the trigger for the symptoms. Healthy food and no sugar were the key for recovering from rosacea symptoms.

  • The best way to get to know the common roots of functional neuro-immune diseases is to read The Plot against Asthma and Allergy Patients, with the “concept of chronic disease”, which points at the second-messenger system and therapeutics at the end of chapter Histaminegate. I understand this articles of yours was written long ago, but still, am trying to reach you. You are right about soda – a laughable mumbo-jumbo without gene expression involvement! Please do not post – just for you.

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