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Living dangerously.

It can sometimes seem as if everything

in the world is out to get you.

Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh recently reported that showers can be bad for your health. It appears that while we are merrily lathering away and singing our hearts out, toxic chemicals in the water are quietly turning into vapors, exposing us to chemical doses that may in certain conditions be up to 100 times greater than normally encountered.

Meanwhile, researchers at Loughborough University in England have announced that snoring can cause brain damage-honestly-and scientists at Britain's Medical Research Council have suggested that using aluminum pots and pans may lead to dementia. Even the money in your pocket is apparently a threat. According to a study by two scientists at the University of Louisville, 13 percent of all coins and 42 percent of paper money carry infectious organisms.

In short, it can sometimes seem as if everything in the world is out to get you. So routinely are we informed of risks from chemicals, pesticides, food additives, acid rain, cholesterol, and all the other substances around us that we may be excused for wondering if every possible human activity, from making bread to making whoopee, is in some way bad for us. It has even been calculated-and here is a truly depressing statistic for youthat every time you take a walk down the street you reduce your life expectancy by an average of 37 days.

So is the world really such a dangerous place? Well, yes and no. The problem isn't so much that things are getting worse as that we are getting better at detecting the dangers. It is worth remembering that two-thirds of the scientists who have ever lived are alive right now, and most of them are busily at work measuring something, and measuring it with increasingly precise and sophisticated equipment. Take a glass of water. Up to 1970, scientists had managed to identify about 100 organic compounds in an ordinary glass of tap water. Now, in less than 20 years, the number they have identified has grown to almost 500. It should come as no surprise that some of these newly discovered compounds are potentially harmful.

The world has always been a dangerous place, and it is safer now than it ever has been. Our increasing lifespans (71.8 years for a man, 78 years for a woman) are proof of that. The remarkable thing is not that the world is so full of hazards but that we are so bad at assessing them. Most of the things we most fear-crashing in an airplane, being killed by a burglar, dying on the operating table-are unlikely ever to happen to us. Yet we blithely ignore the things that really might send us to an early grave.

"We are risk illiterate," one safety expert says. "We don't appreciate what are the big risks and what are the small ones." In short, we have a completely distorted view of life's perils.

One of the biggest fears for most people is of dying in an airplane crash. Yet the chances of this happening to you are just 1 in 100,000. Statistically, you are more likely to be kicked to death by a donkey. Fear of being murdered is also extremely high, yet you are eight times more likely to be killed playing a sport than you are to be shot by a stranger. A third great fear is surgery-dying on the operating table. But once again, the chances of death there are tiny (1 in 40,000) compared with the risk you take every day as a motorist, when the chance of death is a much more sobering I in 4,000. Indeed, for people aged between 5 and 35, automobile accidents are now the most common cause of death. But don't be too alarmed. The chance of having a fatal accident on any one occasion is just 1 in 4 million-practically negligible. The problem is that we use the car so much-the ordinary person makes about 50,000 trips in a lifetime-that the possibility of coming to grief sometime, somewhere, is vastly heightened.

For motorcyclists the dangers are greater still. For every 480 motorcyclists you see on the road, 1 on average will die in the next yearand a far greater proportion will be seriously injured. Yet except where the law requires it, few motorcyclists wear helmets and few motorists wear scat belts-even though both greatly reduce the odds of injury.

But then, where risk is concerned most of us are curiously irrational-as evidenced by our chronic urge to gamble. The next time you buy a lottery ticket, you might want to bear in mind that you are at least three times as likely to be struck by lightning as you are to win a jackpot. It is one of the great human ironies that we are prepared to spend money on extremely long and improbable odds, such as gambling, and yet blithely ignore relatively short odds that concern our health and well-being. As a British parliamentary inquiry into risk recently concluded: "It is apparent that the human view of risk is much more complex than a simple analysis of statistical probability." Put another way, when it comes to risk, we are idiots.

Because we behave in such predictable, if irrational, ways, insurance companies can forecast where and how we will come a cropper with startling accuracy. Actuaries know that in the next year 750,000 people in America will die from heart disease, 50,000 from pneumonia, 2,000 from tuberculosis, 200 in floods, 100 from lightning, another 100 from tornadoes, 50 from snakebites and bee stings. They can tell you that being 30 percent overweight knocks 3 1/2 years on average off your life expectancy, that being poor reduces it by a further 2 years, that simply being unmarried and male slashes almost a decade off your probable lifespan. (Unmarried females are luckier-or hardier; they lose just four years off their average life expectancy.)

Some of these calculations are precise to the point of being barely credible. For example, it has been calculated that for every can of beer you drink or cigarette you smoke, you increase your chances of death by one in a million. However dubious some of the calculations may be, they are certainly comprehensive. There is scarcely a happenstance or circumstance that has not at some time or other fallen under the beady statistical gaze of an insurance assessor. One of them even once calculated that if you were to wear both a belt and suspenders, the chance of your suffering "coincident failure"-that is, of having both snap at once and your pants fall down-is one occurrence every 36,000 years.

The grim predictability of our mortality rates is something that has long puzzled social scientists. After all, there is no natural reason why 2,500 people should accidentally shoot themselves each year or why 7,000 should drown or 55,000 die in their cars. No one establishes a quota for each type of death. It just happens that they follow a consistent pattern year after year.

A few years ago a Canadian psychologist named Gerald Wilde became interested in this phenomenon. He noticed that mortality rates for violent and accidental deaths throughout the Western world have remained oddly static throughout the whole of this century, despite all the technological advances and in creases in safety standards that have happened in that time. Peo ple now die in different ways-no one, for instance, was killed in a snowmobile crash in 1900-but the proportion of people suffering accidental deaths has been remarkably consistent. Wilde developed an intriguing theory "risk homeostasis." According to this theory, people instinctively live with a certain level of risk. When something is made safer, people will get around the measure in some way to reassert the original level of danger. If, for instance, they are required to wear seat belts, they will feel safer and thus will drive a little faster and a little more recklessly, thereby statistically canceling out the benefits that the seat belt confers. Other studies have shown that where an intersection is made safer, the accident rate invariably falls there but rises to a compensating level elsewhere along the same stretch of road. It appears, then, that we have an innate need for danger.

In all events, it is becoming clearer and clearer to scientists that the factors influencing our lifespans are far more subtle and complex than had been previously thought. It now appears that if you wish to live a long life, it isn't simply a matter of adhering to certain precautionseating the right foods, not smoking, driving with care. You must also have the right attitude. Scientists at the Duke University Medical Center made a 15 -year study of 500 persons' personalities and found, somewhat to their surprise, that people with a suspicious or mistrustful nature die prematurely far more often than people with a sunny disposition. Looking on the bright side, it seems, can add years to your life span.

Weather also plays a bigger role than most people realize. In the

United States, the number of deaths from all causes rises from the yearround average by 8 percent in the winter and falls by 5 percent during the summer. In other countries, the range of variation is even more dramatic. In Scotland and Italy, for example, the number of winter deaths exceeds summer deaths by almost a third. Much of this is for obvious reasons-people slipping on ice, the elderly being more susceptible to the effects of cold-but not enough to account entirely for the variation. For whatever reason, people simply seem to have a greater will to live when the weather is pleasant.

Boredom is also a great killer. Studies at Columbia University in New York and the National Institute for Psychosocial Factors in Stockholm, Sweden, have shown that the more boring a job you have, the more likely you are to suffer from heart disease-and thus the more likely you are to die before your time. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the overworked, overstressed executive who is most at risk, but rather the production-line employee, someone with a "low decision latitude"-that is, a job that is repetitive, rigidly controlled, and with little or no contribution to decision-making. Having a boring job is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. And what is the most boring and dangerous job of all? Probably being a mail sorter, according to the two studies.

Equally hard on health is shift work. According to Charles F. Ehret of the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, working nights can severely affect employees' health-to the point of turning some people psychotic. The problem, reported in the Chicago SunTimes, is worse for those who work rotating shifts. The difficulty is that our body clock-called the circadian rhythm-is set on a cycle of about 25 hours, and thus needs to be readjusted every day. Staying up all night on shift work interferes with this readjustment and leads inevitably to feelings of fatigue, malaise, and depression. These in turn impair job performance. In a study at the University of Oklahoma, scientists found that rats trained to avoid an electric shock lost this ability when their circadian rhythms were disrupted. Repeated studies have shown that a disproportionate number of accidentsincluding the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979-occur during night shifts. The problem is so severe that in Japan it has been proposed that shift work be made illegal. Yet in the United States about 30 percent of all people now work nonstandard hours.

The consequences of many risks often don't become apparent for a long time. The Romans never realized that they were slowly poisoning themselves with lead, just as industrial workers later discovered the dangers of mercury, asbestos, and coal dust far too late. Those of us living now may one day find that we have been killing ourselves at a glacial rate with overexposure to microwaves or the electromagnetic fields generated by televisions and computers-or by something else altogether. A recent study by Dr. Jay Gould of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington found that for people aged between 25 and 34, the death rate from natural causes increased by an alarming 5 percent between 1985 and 1986. Evidence so far is sketchy, but there is reason to suspect that those of us who were children in the 1950s may have had our immune systems weakened by the nuclear fallout floating around back then as a consequence of aboveground testing.

You may be excused for concluding from all of this bad news that the only safe thing to do is stay at home. But that would be a mistake. In point of fact, the most dangerous place on earth for you i your home-and the most dangerous place in your house is the staircase. More than 15,000 people suffer fatal accidents at home each in America, and the greatest proportion of those die from falling down the stairs. In fact, the number of people who suffer fatal falls at home is greater than the number of combined deaths from electrocution, poisoning by gas, lightning, floods, tornadoes, polio, meningitis, and fireworks.

Even if you have no stairs in your home, don't feel too smug. Scientists at Harvard University made a thorough study last year of all the chemicals found in the ordinary home-in toiletries, in deaning materials, in food packing, in furniture, and so on-and they concluded that you are more likely to get cancer from breathing the air of your own home than from breathing the air outdoors.

In short, it appears that there is just no escaping the dangers of everyday life. An old story-possibly apocryphal, possibly not-illustrates the point. In 1940, an American businessman named Wilson, tired of the Great Depression, rising taxes, and increasing crime, sold his home and business and moved to an island in the Pacific as far away from the troubles of 20thcentury fife as possible. Balmy and ringed with beautiful beaches, the island seemed like paradise. Its name? Iwo Jima.
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Title Annotation:though world is safer now, we are better at identifying and measuring dangers
Author:Bryson, William
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1988
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