Empress of the Universe

Monday, December 11, 2006

Someone has to think about these things....that must be MY job!

I haven't been feeling well the last couple of weeks, hence my absence. But this topic inspired me out of my stupor...

The December 4th edition of Time magazine featured a cover story entitled Why We Worry About The Things We Shouldn't... ...And Ignore The Things We Should. Click here to read the full story. In effect, the article is about risk assessment, as opposed to risk management. Turns out there are real, prehistoric, physiological symptoms that alert us to risk and help us assess its potential. I love this section in particular:

"Which risks get excessive attention and which get overlooked depends on a hierarchy of factors. Perhaps the most important is dread. For most creatures, all death is created pretty much equal. Whether you're eaten by a lion or drowned in a river, your time on the savanna is over. That's not the way humans see things. The more pain or suffering something causes, the more we tend to fear it; the cleaner or at least quicker the death, the less it troubles us. "We dread anything that poses a greater risk for cancer more than the things that injure us in a traditional way, like an auto crash," says Slovic. "That's the dread factor." In other words, the more we dread, the more anxious we get, and the more anxious we get, the less precisely we calculate the odds of the thing actually happening. "It's called probability neglect," says Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago professor of law specializing in risk regulation.

The same is true for, say, AIDS, which takes you slowly, compared with a heart attack, which can kill you in seconds, despite the fact that heart disease claims nearly 50 times as many Americans than AIDS each year. We also dread catastrophic risks, those that cause the deaths of a lot of people in a single stroke, as opposed to those that kill in a chronic, distributed way."

I love the idea of a "science of risk." Almost wish I'd thought of that myself. In fact, they even have names for the process of risk analysis - like "habituation" (ie. to grow accustomed to certain risks, thereby becoming desensitized to the reality of the risk) or "optimism bias" ("the convenient belief that risks that apply to other people don't apply to us").

I found the article fascinating and stored it away in this overstimulated brain of mine.

Until today when I read an alarming headline on AOL.com: "BEWARE: 13 Foods That Kill". Doesn't that sound frightening? At first, you'd think the two stories were completely unrelated, right? Bite into this:

"According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 76 million Americans will suffer from food-borne illness, and at least 5,000 will die this year. Children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are at the greatest risk."

The short list? 1. Lettuce. 2. Water. 3. Raw sprouts. 4. Unpasteurized milk, juice, cheese. 5. Moldy peanuts. 6. Raw or undercooked shellfish. 7. Shark, swordfish, mackerel, tilefish. 8. Caesar salad. 9. Wild mushrooms. 10. Raw cookie dough. 11. Rare hamburger. 12. Turkey and stuffing. 13. Shakes and eggs.

Click here to read the entire story. I do recommend it.

Now I've had severe food poisoning (hospitalized on IV and everything) and it is NOT a pretty thing. I would wish it on no one. The intro to the story says that the CDC predicts at least 5,000 people will die each year from these everyday food dangers. Look out!

But wait, the principal source for the Time magazine story was the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), too. According to the Time story, here's the breakdown of American deaths:

  • Homicide 17,732
  • Suicide 31,484
  • Accidents 109,277
  • Other diseases 681,150
  • Diabetes 74,219
  • Chronic lower-respiratory disease 126,382
  • Stroke 157,689
  • Cancer 556,902
  • Heart disease 685,089
  • All other deaths 8,364

  • Diseases account for 2.3 million deaths a year, or about 92% of all deaths. "All other deaths" total 8,364 -- which, I guess, includes the 5,000 people who will die from eating those 13 deadly foods. According to the CIA website (Huh? Spies have a public website? Really -- I'm killing myself laughing, there's a subject for another post!) -- According to the CIA, the population of the United States is 298,444,215 souls. If I'm doing the math correctly, 2,500,000 people die each year, so that's less than a 1% risk or, statistically, a 1 in 119 random chance (not factoring for age/risk assessment) of dying in the next 12 months. If that person does die, s/he has a 92% chance of dying of disease - and a 2/100th of a percent chance of dying of food poisoning. Or, another way of looking at it: you have a 1 in 119 random chance of dying in the next year, you have a 1 in 60,000 chance of dying of food poisoning.

    Compare that to the chances of dying in a car accident: 1 in 6,000.

    Back to the Time story:

    Officials are fond of reassuring the public that they run a greater risk from, for example, drowning in the bathtub, which kills 320 Americans a year, than from a new peril like mad cow disease, which has so far killed no one in the U.S. That's pretty reassuring--and very misleading. The fact is that anyone over 6 and under 80--which is to say, the overwhelming majority of the U.S. population--faces almost no risk of perishing in the tub. For most of us, the apples of drowning and the oranges of mad cow disease don't line up in any useful way.

    But such statistical straw men get trotted out all the time. People defending the safety of pesticides and other toxins often argue that you stand a greater risk of being hit by a falling airplane (about 1 in 250,000 over the course of your entire life) than you do of being harmed by this or that contaminant. If you live near an airport, however, the risk of getting beaned is about 1 in 10,000. Two very different probabilities are being conflated into one flawed forecast. "My favorite is the one that says you stand a greater risk from dying while skydiving than you do from some pesticide," says Susan Egan Keane of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Well, I don't skydive, so my risk is zero."

    I think I'll continue living dangerously -- taking my chances eating lettuce, turkey dressing, seafood, hamburger and still drinking the water. But then again, I'm lucky I don't live near an airport!


    Anonymous Greg Benton said...

    Although precise statistics are not available, it is estimated that every human being that has lived from the net human year '0' up to @1890 is now dead. This might indicate a trend.

    Again, although precise information is not readily at hand, it is estimated that, of those human beings who have died in that period, a variety of foods and diets were consumed prior to death; including diets from the Mediterranean, Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas and, it is suspected, even Australasia. This would suggest that eating might lead to death.

    While no firm study has concluded that breathing itself might be a factor, it is probable that, of all those who died, most, if not all, at one time or another, breathed.

    Similar conclusions can also be made with respect to sitting, walking, swimming, running and even bathing.
    Some might also suggest that bowel movements, common to most people of a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds, was also a factor leading up to the time of death.

    As a result of these findings, it would seem that life itself leads to death and is probably the leading cause of death.

    People should first consult their doctor to determine if they show symptoms of life and discuss their clinical options.

    Living with living has plagued humankind since creation. Researchers continue to seek a way in which people can avoid living and thus avoid death but warn that an answer may be years away.


    11:37 AM  
    Blogger Michelle Henderson said...

    As my mother so wisely pointed out, every single person dies of heart failure.


    1:40 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Risk-Meter Alert moves to Level Orange...I'm going to have my salad in the tub tonight.

    9:24 PM  

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