Which Alarming Health Concerns You Can (and Can’t) Ignore
Scary medical headlines grab all the attention, but these everyday habits may be more likely to harm you.
You almost can’t watch or read the news without stumbling on some alarming health crisis. You know the stories—flesh-eating bacteria lying in wait, the latest pandemic that sends you scrambling to Google its symptoms, or the pesticide report that puts the words kale and toxic in the same sound bite. These headlines get your attention, but sometimes the reality is a little less sensational. In actual fact, more common, mundane issues pose greater threats to your well-being. Let’s give six media-hyped health scares a dose of perspective.
HEALTH FEAR: Getting sick from recalled meat, lettuce and more
• WORRY MORE ABOUT: Improper food handling at home
This past summer, a brand of prepackaged salad greens was linked to an eruption of Cyclospora, a rare parasite that can trigger weeks of explosive diarrhea. Last year, certain chopped onions were yanked from store shelves for possible Listeria contamination. The year before, a company recalled about 36 million pounds of ground turkey products that may have been tainted with Salmonella. Food recalls and foodborne-disease outbreaks generate big headlines (and in this case, we support spreading awareness). But most instances of food poisoning are not part of these widely covered incidents. In 2009 and 2010, for example, federal officials documented only about 30,000 outbreak-linked illnesses, while an average of 48 million people get sick from contaminated food every year. Translation: The odds of big, news-making outbreaks affecting you are relatively slim. More likely to make your stomach churn are disease-spreading habits in places like restaurants, cafeterias, and even your own kitchen.
Many cases of foodborne illness result from improper food handling at home, according to a paper published by Elizabeth Scott, codirector of the Simmons Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community in Boston. Some ways we slip up: About 60 percent of people aren’t diligent about hand washing before handling food, even though this may eliminate nearly half of all cases of food poisoning. Not thoroughly rinsing produce under running water can expose you to germs on its surface. (A recent government study found that leafy vegetables account for nearly half of foodborne-illness cases.) Sponges and dishrags are breeding grounds for bacteria, but about one third of people wait a month or until the sponges fall apart before replacing them. And about 90 percent of people say they wash raw poultry before cooking it, even though food safety experts recommend not to. The practice spreads germs around your sink and counters; cooking poultry to the proper temperature will kill any pathogens.
HEALTH FEAR: Radiation from cell phones
• WORRY MORE ABOUT: Texting while driving
Fact: Over the past few years, some studies have suggested a possible link between cell phone use and an increased risk of specific types of brain tumors. Cell phones emit radiation, after all, and radiation can cause cancer. But the operative words here are suggested and possible, and the results are far from conclusive.
Many more recent studies express skepticism. Although the World Health Organization added cell phone radiation to its list of possible carcinogens in 2011, that list also includes items such as pickled vegetables. The WHO’s threshold for a possible carcinogen is pretty low, says Richard Besser, MD, chief health and medical editor for ABC News. He points out one important distinction: There are different kinds of radiation, which do different things. Ionizing radiation (which includes X-rays and some UV rays) damages DNA and may cause cancer. But cell phones emit nonionizing radiation, which does not damage DNA, explains Dr. Besser, who wrote Tell Me the Truth, Doctor. What experts agree on: Given the increasingly young age at which people start using cell phones, we need more research on long-term risks.
However, there is ample evidence that cell phones do pose an immediate threat of a different kind: endangering drivers and passengers. Consider this: Sending or reading a text can take your eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, akin to driving the length of a football field at 55 mph … blind. And you’re 23 times more likely to crash if you text while driving. “Studies show that driving while texting is equivalent to driving drunk,” says Dr. Besser. “It’s tempting to pick up that phone when you hear an incoming text message. The smartest move: Turn off your phone before you get in the car, or put it in the glove compartment.”
HEALTH FEAR: Pesticides on produce
• WORRY MORE ABOUT: Not eating enough fruits and veggies
We’re all aware of the bad stuff about pesticides—that certain studies have linked them to nerve damage, cancer, birth defects, and other health problems. And every year, the Environmental Working Group puts out a much-publicized list of what it deems the “dirtiest” fruits and vegetables in terms of pesticide residue. But before you stop eating apples (named the most-contaminated this year) or think twice about buying kale (also on the list), consider this reassuring statement from Carl Winter, director of the FoodSafe Program and Cooperative Extension and a food toxicologist at the University of California at Davis: “We are all exposed to small amounts of pesticides in our produce, but it’s typically at levels one million times lower than even amounts that don’t cause any noticeable effects in lab animals exposed to pesticides every day of their lives,” he explains. Eating organics may lower exposure but won’t fully eliminate it.
But if fears of pesticides prevent you from eating plants, that’s a real concern. Compelling evidence shows that a diet rich in produce can lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain cancers; it can also help manage your weight, improve brain function, and literally add years to your life. One new study that followed more than 71,000 Swedes for 13 years found that those who ate at least three servings of vegetables per day lived almost three years longer than people who reported not eating vegetables. Regardless of whether you consume conventional, organic, local, or imported, aim for two cups of fruit and two and a half cups of vegetables daily, and choose from a wide variety. “While eating produce may seem hazardous to some, not eating it is always fatal,” says Winter.
HEALTH FEAR: Superbugs
• WORRY MORE ABOUT: Contributing to antibiotic resistance
You’ve been hearing about MRSA for a while: Short for “methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus,” it’s an infection caused by a strain of staph bacteria that’s become resistant to common antibiotics. And if you haven’t heard about a newer family of germs on the rise in U.S. hospitals called CREs (carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae), you will soon. “These superbugs are resistant to our biggest and best drugs and may become resistant to all antibiotics,” says Aaron Milstone, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. More than two million Americans get sick from antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year, and at least 23,000 die from those infections.
That said, we do still have antibiotics to treat most superbugs, says Dr. Milstone. You may have read about instances in which people contracted MRSA while out and about in their community, but such cases are not common; the risk of infection is still much higher in a hospital setting, when you’re having surgery, for example, or receiving a medical device like a catheter. “The risk of severe disease from these bugs is also greater when patients are weak from another condition or have a compromised immune system,” says Dr. Milstone.
What’s more, there’s a lot you can do to protect yourself from superbugs, says Kristin Englund, MD, an infectious disease specialist at the Cleveland Clinic—including frequently washing hands, covering wounds well, and getting vaccinated against certain bacteria (such as pneumococcus, which can cause infections like pneumonia). These precautions have helped reduce the rate of resistant infections.
On the other hand, you’re only going to accelerate the development and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria if, like many Americans, you misuse antibiotics. They are the most commonly prescribed medications, but up to 50 percent of prescriptions are either unnecessary or not the best option, according to the CDC. Every time you use an antibiotic, you give bacteria in your body a chance to evolve and outsmart the medicine. Taking an antibiotic to eliminate a virus, which it is unable to do, or not taking an antibiotic for its full course worsens the problem. The bacteria can then grow and even share resistance, so the next time you need that particular antibiotic, it may not work as well, explains Dr. Englund. If you have overused or misused amoxicillin, for example, a common urinary tract infection may now need stronger meds or a combination of treatments.
HEALTH FEAR: Shark attacks at the beach
• WORRY MORE ABOUT: Too much sun
“Tourist Dies of Shark Attack in Hawaii!” “Shark Tooth Pulled from Florida Girl’s Leg!” “East Coast Shark Sightings on the Rise!” These are all real headlines, they ran just weeks apart this past summer, and they likely elicited equal parts fear and fascination. But what are the odds of wading into the ocean and encountering a carnivorous creature? From the attention these stories get from the news, you’d probably guess the chances are pretty good, says Dr. Besser, but the actual odds are lower than you think—much, much lower. Overall, beachgoers have a one in 11.5 million chance of being attacked by a shark, according to the International Shark Attack File, a global database compiled at the Florida Museum of Natural History. And what about dying from a shark bite? Less than one in 264 million.
Now consider that an estimated one in five Americans will develop skin cancer. “That is a much more ever-present risk to the public, yet you’d never see the headline ‘Woman on Beach Spots Suspicious Mole!’ ” says Dr. Besser. This year alone, nearly 77,000 new cases of invasive melanoma, the most dangerous form, will be diagnosed, and more than 9,000 people will die from it. Sun exposure is the most preventable risk factor for all skin cancers, so take steps to protect yourself from this very real risk. Slather on a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB), water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 but preferably 30 or higher (and reapply often). Wear a wide-brimmed hat and wraparound sunglasses (with 99 percent to 100 percent UV absorption). When the sun’s UV rays are most intense (usually between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.), seek shade under an umbrella. And no, a base tan before a beach vacation won’t prevent sunburns—any change in skin color is a sign of UV damage.
HEALTH FEAR: Catching a disease from the toilet seat
• WORRY MORE ABOUT: Catching a disease from your hands
Some people squat, others perch, some may hover, a few contort—anything not to let their rear end touch a public toilet. Their biggest fear? Contracting a sexually transmitted disease. But experts say there’s never been a documented case of gonorrhea, chlamydia, HIV, or other STD that was spread by a toilet seat. That’s not to say that toilets aren’t teeming with icky bugs. When researchers from the University of Colorado tested 12 public bathrooms, they found gut microbes on seats and toilet handles, as well as skin-associated staph bacteria on faucets, fecal-borne bacteria on the handles of bathroom exits, and a whole mess of organisms on floors.
Now, that may gross you out (and news stories titled “The Germiest Public Places!” perpetuate the hysteria), but the reality is you’re more likely to pick up those bugs on your hands than on your behind. When an unwashed hand touches your eyes, nose, or mouth, germs gain entry and make you sick. So scrub those hands, and do it right. Researchers who discreetly observed about 3,700 people after they used public toilets in a Michigan college town found that only 5 percent washed their hands long enough to kill germs, about 10 percent didn’t wash their hands at all, and almost 23 percent didn’t use soap. The correct way: Lather up with soap, and rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds (the amount of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice), making sure to clean the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.