Every weekly news cycle seems to throw up a new health scare or existential threat to worry about – but what if science surgically broke down the noise to reveal the everyday things we should really be worrying about? Surely that would free us of a whole heap of generalised anxiety from worrying about everything from fluoride to asteroid strikes? Fortunately, authors Lise Johnson and Eric Chudler have done just that in their new book, ‘Worried?’ RSNG read it to find out what is worrying, and what’s not, so much…
Worry About These Things:
In the USA every year, one in six people get sick, 128,000 people are hospitalised and 3,000 people die from eating contaminated food. There are at least 30 different organisms that can contaminate food and make you sick. If you cook at home you can take precautions to avoid cross contamination, but when you eat out you are trusting the staff to do so. Many kinds of meat need to be thoroughly cooked to kill pathogens and as Lise Johnson and Eric Chudler, the authors of Worried? point out: ‘Some viruses that cause respiratory illnesses can survive on fruit and vegetables for several days.’
Pesticides and contaminants can be introduced into the supply chain at various points and we rely on these and restaurants to be tested by government authorities for our safety, but as the authors say: ‘The large number of manufacturers and huge quantities of food that require examination are a burden. It is impossible to inspect everything, and therefore, foodborne illness is a serious public health concern.’
So, choose restaurants to eat at with caution and always check their hygiene ratings, as well as their online reviews. You can also check that they wash their fruit and vegetables, and always do so yourself. As Worried? warns: ‘Some pesticides used in food production are carcinogenic, neurotoxic or endocrine disruptors.’
Of course, it’s critical when cooking at home to prepare meat and fish separately to fruit and veg, to wash hands and utensils after handling meat and fish, and to cook it to the recommended internal temperatures (up to 75°C, or 165°F for poultry). Use a meat thermometer if you are unsure if it has reached temperature.
‘Sugar is linked to tooth decay, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease’
When we think of dangerous animals we usually imagine sharks, bears or other apex wild predators. Of course, the chances of actually meeting one of these as we go about our daily business is vanishingly slim. But there are a lot of man’s best friends roaming the streets, and as cute as they can be, Worried? reveals that dogs kill more people in the USA than sharks, snakes and spiders combined. Deaths are still rare but dogs do bite more than 4.5 million people in the US every year and send 800,000 people to the doc’s.
There are still upsides to dogs. ‘Having a dog can reduce a person’s stress, blood pressure and cholesterol levels,’ say the authors. But there are health risks, too. Dog bites and scratches can cause bacterial infections and dogs carry parasites such as tapeworms.
In the end, it’s down to the owners of dogs to take responsibility for controlling and vaccinating them, but you can protect yourself by always washing your hands after petting dogs, or cleaning up after them.
‘Healthy’ foods go in and out of fashion depending on the scientific studies and cultural perception of them, but there’s one ‘anti-health’ food that all serious scientists agree has done lasting damage to public health: sugar. As Worried? says, ‘Sugar consumption is linked to tooth decay, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. These conditions lead to risk factors, for other diseases, like cancer and blindness.’ Yikes.
We should point out that sugar is present in fruit as sucrose, and fruit is good for you, right? Well, yes but that’s because it contains fibre, vitamins and other nutrients. ‘The problem arises when you remove the sugar from the fruit and consume it in a different context.’
Added sugar in pre-prepared food is hidden and therefore hard to avoid, but the worst kind of sugar consumption is from sodas. ‘A can of soda has no fibre, no protein, no vitamins and can contain up to 12 teaspoons of sugar, which causes a huge spike in blood sugar,’ reveals Worried. They’re very high in calories but the body does not register them in the same way as with food, meaning that you don’t ever feel full from drinking them so you can binge without realising it, and your body will store those cals as fat.
The fix is simple: first, ‘stop drinking sweet beverage such as sodas, blended coffee, energy drinks, powdered drink mixes and even fruit juices.’ Then tackle processed foods, and go easy on deserts and sweets. You don’t have to cut sugar out, but cutting down is essential for your long-term health.
Don’t Worry About These Things:
We’ve all been there: busting to go but faced with a kind of public toilet/ restroom roulette. Which cubicle should I go for choose? Am I risking some horrific skin condition by getting up close and personal with the porcelain?
Some of us have elaborate rituals and superstitions about this, from covering the loo seat with toilet paper, to never going in the first cubicle, all of which tells you that we don’t really understand the risks and desperately try to reassure ourselves when we’re, well, desperate!
As the authors of Worried? point out, absorbent, textured toilet roll is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria, whereas a smooth, hard loo seat isn’t. The kind of bacteria normally found in public restrooms can’t make you sick just by touching your skin – it has to enter your body via an open cut or a mucus membrane, so you’re unlikely to get sick sitting on a loo seat. The key to using a public restroom safely is to be super-keen about washing your hands, which will reduce the chances of diarrhoea by 30% and respiratory infections by 16%.
Make sure you put the toilet seat down before flushing because this will reduce the chances of getting hit by a ‘toilet plume’ of infectious material. Sounds nasty, but the authors insist: ‘As long as you wash your hands after you use the restroom, you are not likely to become infected with a microorganism that will make you sick.’
'The likelihood of a catastrophic asteroid strike on the Earth within your lifetime is extremely low’
As every school kid knows, an asteroid hurtling into the Earth like a fiery cue ball, with a diameter of 10-15 kilometres, killed off most life on the planet, including the dinosaurs. On February 15th 2013 a 12,000 tonne space rock hurtled towards the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, hit the atmosphere and with the energy of 500 kilotons of TNT and burst into a fireball 30km above the streets – the shockwave damaged buildings and shattered windows, injuring people with flying glass.
So, you might think that chunks of rock raining down from the heavens would be something to worry about, possibly on a daily basis. Not so, say the authors. The Earth Impact Database lists only 190 confirmed impact craters on Earth, going back 2.4 billion years. To wipe out human civilisation, and cause mass extinction, an asteroid would need to be greater than 10 kilometres in diameter. The Center For Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) Sentry System currently lists 70 potential Earth impact events within the next 100 years. All of these have a zero rating on the Torino Impact Hazard Scale, meaning that the likelihood of collision is essentially zero, or the asteroid is so small it would burn up on impact.
The other point to make is that we currently have no technology capable of diverting the path of an asteroid, so there’s literally no point in worrying about it, especially as the odds are so in our favour. As the authors say: ‘The likelihood of a catastrophic asteroid strike on the Earth within the lifetime of anyone reading our book is extremely low.’
Fluoride In Water
‘In small doses fluoride is good for your teeth,’ say the authors. ‘It protects against tooth decay by binding to the enamel (the hard outer shell of the tooth) and remineralizing the enamel with calcium and phosphate.’ Numerous studies have found that putting fluoride in water supplies cuts tooth decay by 50% – it definitely works, but in very high doses (which can occur naturally in groundwater) it can become toxic, causing a painful and debilitating joint condition called skeletal fluorosis.
So, the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA has set a safe upper limit of fluoride in water of 4 parts per million (ppm), with a recommended range of 0.7ppm, to give the protection against tooth decay without side effects. Some claim that this ‘sweet spot’ doesn’t exist and that fluoride is linked to a host of health issues from cancer to lowered IQ. Several scientific reviews of studies into fluoride have been made and in 2015 the 2016 the EPA published a ‘six-year’ review. It found that follow up studies into bone cancer showed that fluoride had no effect. It also looked at other health concerns but did not find anything alarming enough to lower the safe limit of fluoride.
As the authors conclude: ‘Exposure to fluoride within the normal range is very unlikely to cause any problems. The most likely effect of excessive fluoride is mild dental fluorosis [staining] which can be unattractive but isn’t dangerous.’ So, it seems that stacked against painful cavities and the link between oral health and heart disease, very low levels of fluoride in water are nothing to worry about. Just keep brushing!
WHAT NEXT? 24-hour news stressing you out? Then read the RSNG guide to surviving headline-related stress.
Worried? By Lise Johnson and Eric Chudler (W.W Norton & Company) is out now and can be purchased here.
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations.
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