If breakfast doesn't do you in, a hazard lurks every minute of the day

RISKY BUSINESS

October 25, 1992|By Douglas Birch

"Do I dare to eat a peach?"

--T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" Good question, J. Alfred.

You're sitting at the breakfast table, in front of a bowl of fruit,

reading a newspaper story about a recent scientific study of 156 previous health studies. This survey found that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables cut by half the risk of cancers of the lung, larynx, mouth, esophagus, stomach, colon, rectum, bladder, pancreas, cervix and ovary.

Great. Grab that peach.

But whoa. The Natural Resources Defense Council reported in 1989 that peaches are treated with five pesticides linked to cancer. The lambent fuzz of this hefty yellow specimen might promise a simple succulent treat, followed by a ripe old age. Or it could presage an early, agonizing death.

OK, reach for the apple. Hmm. Nice and red. Maybe too red. Who knows if it's been treated with Alar, a chemical that makes apples redder faster -- and that the Natural Resources Defense Council claims is linked to cancer?

Have a banana? An unblemished yellow beauty. But there's a chance growers used the pesticide aldicarb, which can penetrate the skin of the fruit. (In June 1991, California health officials considered advising children to avoid bananas after unusually high residues of aldicarb were found.)

Forget the fruit. How about a peanut butter sandwich, or a bowl of cornflakes with wholesome whole milk?

Hold your horses. Peanut butter, corn and milk all might -- just might -- be frothing with Aspergillus parasiticus, or some other ungodly but natural fungus that produces the carcinogenic compound aflatoxin.

Because of the threat of aflatoxin, eating 4 tablespoons of peanut butter a day for a year carries a one out of 125,000 risk of triggering a fatal cancer, according to my well-thumbed copy of "Risk/Benefit Analysis" by Richard Wilson and Edmund A. C. Crouch.

Milk? Milk? You want to drink that?Haven't you heard about studies linking milk with anemia and diabetes?

*

The morning meal can be deadly. If your favorite food hasn't been put on somebody's list of carcinogenic, toxic or just plain uncontrolled dangerous substances, it's probably because no one's studied it yet.

And you don't just put your life on the line when you eat.

Take a shower, ride a bus to work, play pingpong -- risk doom. Stand there minding your own business, and whap! You might get splattered by a meteorite, just like the dinosaurs.

What you need, buddy, is a map through the minefield of daily life. A strategy for dodging the risks that threaten to blindside you at every corner. A prudent Prufrockian guide to living.

Now the "experts" -- from Mom to the surgeon general -- will tell you it's easy to live a long life. Don't smoke. Don't drink and drive. Keep your seat belts buckled. Eat your vegetables. Avoid cholesterol, recreational drugs and unsafe sex. Don't covet thy neighbor's wife or the parking spot in front of his house. Forget exotic hobbies, like sky diving and bungee-jumping. Cross only with the green, never in between.

There, they say. You're more than halfway to outliving your usefulness. Compared to these risks, most of the rest are trivial, small change, far-fetched and unlikely.

But we prudent neo-Prufrockians know better.

Here's a survival guide for the next 24 hours. Ignore it at your peril.

*

Start with daybreak. Birds twitter. The alarm rattles. Maybe you start the day with a shower.

Fool!

You see, chances are your water is chlorinated. And repeated exposure to the chloroform created when the chlorine in your water hits the air may cause a fatal bout with cancer. Curtis Travis, director of the Center for Risk Management at Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee, estimates that if you shower every day, you have a one in 10,000 chance of eventually dying from your daily hygienic ritual.

The Environmental Protection Agency, he points out, considers any risk lower than one in 1 million to be unacceptable. "It would qualify your shower water for cleanup if it was at a Superfund site," Mr. Travis concludes, referring to the EPA's program for mopping up chemically contaminated sites.

You could take a bath. But there is a one in 685,000 chance during the year that you might drown in the bathtub. So don't go near that water.

What about the rest of your morning regimen? Brushing your teeth seems safe.

Which reminds us: If you're like most people, you have half-a-dozen fillings. When you chew, each filling leaches a tiny amount of highly toxic mercury, much of it in the form of vapor. As a result, you breathe in a tiny but measureable amount of the metal each day -- about 20 micrograms, according to some estimates.

Mercury poisoning can cause neurological damage and other serious ailments, including multiple sclerosis. But the latest word from a Food and Drug Administration panel of experts is that there is no evidence the small doses released by fillings are dangerous. You can probably get by without yanking them out.

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