Root Cause: Dentistry professional bodies want Netflix to withdraw film

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Dentists, endodontists and dental researchers are warning Netflix, Apple, Amazon and Vimeo to remove a documentary that spreads fear and misinformation about the safety of root canals and extracting wisdom teeth, reports The Guardian.

The film Root Cause takes viewers through the Australian film-maker Frazer Bailey’s years-long quest to identify the cause of his fatigue, anxiety and depression. Bailey tries therapy, antidepressant medication, juice cleanses, chakra balancing and hypnosis. He even drinks his own urine. But aided by holistic dentists, he eventually concludes that the source of his malaise is a root canal he got as a young man – a procedure he needed to save a tooth after getting punched in the mouth.

The report says Bailey’s 72-minute film makes eye-popping claims about how cancer, heart conditions and other serious illnesses are caused by asymptomatic infections inside root canals or in the empty spaces left behind after a wisdom tooth extraction. Bacteria and other toxins, the film argues, fester in the jaw and then travel to other organs along “meridian lines”, which according to traditional Chinese medicine move life force throughout the body, spreading infection and causing cancer and other illnesses to take root.

Among the most jarring claims in Root Cause, the report says, is a connection between root canals and breast cancer. “Ninety-eight per cent of women that have breast cancer have a root canal tooth on the same side as their offending breast cancer,” the film repeats.

Concerned that dentists are receiving more and more questions from patients about the treatments, the American Dental Association (ADA), American Association of Endodontists (AAE) and American Association of Dental Research (AADR) warned the media companies in a private letter sent late last month that continuing to host the film could harm the viewing public by spreading long-disproven claims.

“The premise the film is based on dates back to research conducted in the 1920s which was later disproved because the original conditions for the experiments were poorly controlled and performed in non-sterile environments. Perhaps most importantly, other researchers have not been able to duplicate the results from the original experiment. Why portray information demonstrated to be incorrect as fact?” the letter asks.

The report says in a separate letter, directed at the three associations’ approximately 174,000 members, they advise readers on how to answer patients’ questions about the movie. It’s the first time the AAE and AADR have ever issued a member-wide alert or written to a media platform in response to a film or TV programme.

The report says Root Cause got little attention when it was released in the fall of 2018, but dentists say that patients have begun asking them more about the safety of root canals since the film was picked up by Netflix last month. While Netflix doesn’t release data on the number of viewers a programme attracts, it has approximately 58m subscribers in the US.

The size of the content platform, as well as its ability to suggest new content to users based on their previous viewing activity, can help make inaccurate things go viral, said Paul Resnick, director of the Centre for Social Media Responsibility at the University of Michigan.

One way to militate against fringe, potentially harmful content is to simply stop suggesting it to viewers, Resnick said. However, media platforms also have an additional responsibility to viewers, he said, which is to preserve a “healthy marketplace of ideas” as much as possible.
The right to free speech, however, doesn’t absolve these large media platforms of the responsibility to vet the content they host, argued Erica Austin, founding director of the Edward R Murrow Centre for Media & Health Promotion Research at Washington State University. Unlike user-generated content sites like Facebook or YouTube, Netflix offers a curated selection that includes its own produced content as well as other TV shows and films. “People are likely to view the fact that the outlet is publishing the content as an endorsement of it,” Austin is quoted in the report as saying. “If that is not the intention then the management of the site has a responsibility to very clearly preface the content with a disclaimer and to label opinions as something distinct from evidence-based reporting.”

The report says Netflix declined a request for comment. Apple, Amazon and Vimeo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Dr Jennifer Gibbs, director of endodontics at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, was also uncomfortable saying that Netflix and other platforms should simply delete the film from their sites. But, the report says, she stood firm against the film’s message, and expressed worry that it could influence people to get rid of infected teeth unnecessarily. “I don’t know where their claims are coming from,” the report quotes Gibbs as saying about the breast cancer figure. “I don’t think they’re based on any kind of scientific research that is evidence-based or peer-reviewed.”

Large-scale population-based research shows that people with root canals actually have a lower risk of cardiovascular mortality or death from a cardiovascular condition. And there aren’t any studies that show people who get root canals have a higher risk of cancer, said Eric Jacobs, senior scientific director of epidemiology research at the American Cancer Society. In fact, research on the link between cancer and endodontic procedures like root canals shows that people who have had these treatments have a lower risk of certain cancers.

“The danger of these claims is that these fears can crowd out other, real cancer risks,” Jacobs said, noting that viewers may wind up ignoring known risk factors for getting or dying of cancer, including smoking, weight gain, and failing to get the right cancer screening tests on time.

The report says instead of getting a root canal, the film claims that pulling the infected tooth is the safest approach, and dentists worry the film is influencing patients to unnecessarily have damaged teeth removed. “This is a really well-produced film designed to scare people into seeking out some fringe medical and dental therapies,” said Gibbs.

Tooth extraction can result in serious health consequences over time, said Dr Mo Kang, professor and chair of the section of endodontics at the University of California Los Angeles School of Dentistry. While root canals can’t save every tooth, said Kang, leaving the natural tooth intact helps maintain the jawbone’s original structure. Without the original tooth, the surrounding jawbone that once supported it will eventually break down, affecting a person’s appearance and their ability to chew.

“Let’s say I have an infection under my fingernail,” said Kang in the report. “Do you amputate my finger because of that? That’s exactly what they’re claiming.”

The Guardian report

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