Many are dying young as we sort life's dangers

January 17, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

My friend had explained to me why he was such an unlikely candidate to die young.

"I don't drink; I don't smoke; I exercise, and I'm a vegetarian," he said. "I'm really a lousy candidate for this."

"This" was a brain tumor. Which he died of a few weeks ago.

I told this anecdote to a colleague who immediately asked: "Was your friend a gardener?"

I really don't know, I said. Why?

"The chemicals," he said. "I understand a lot of them can kill you."

My college roommate, whose professional and personal life revolves around the game of golf, told me recently that he does things differently now.

"To get a smudge off the ball, I'd lick my thumb and rub it off," he said. "I'd do that several times a game. I don't do that now." I was baffled.

"Do you know the kind of chemicals they use on golf courses?" he said. "You don't want to be licking that stuff."

A recent houseguest, unused to the cold, told me she was sorry she had not brought her electric blanket with her.

I don't think you're supposed to be using electric blankets, anymore, I said. Let me check.

Naturally I forgot all about checking until the other day when I got a catalog from a company that sells goose down comforters. On the cover there was one of those circle-and-slash symbols over a mushroom cloud and the words: "Radiation Free Bedding. No Electrical Products."

So the next day I starting checking on electric blankets. And found there has been an incredible number of stories done in the past few years on the possible dangers from electromagnetic fields:

* Electromagnetic fields, the kind generated by all electrical appliances, have been been linked inconclusively to breast cancer in four studies.

* Research has shown that children born to mothers who used electric blankets during pregnancy were at slightly increased risk of brain tumors and leukemia, but heat and not electricity might have been the cause.

* The Food and Drug Administration said in December 1992 that it could not determine whether electric blankets are risky.

* A 1979 study showed higher childhood cancer rates for families living near high-current electric lines, but some scientists dismiss the possibility.

* This summer, the National Cancer Institute is due to release a much-awaited study of the relation ship between electromagnetic fields and cancer in women.

* Some experts say that whatever risk people run from electric blankets, hair dryers, microwave ovens, television sets, etc., it is small compared to hazards like alcohol and cigarettes.

* Other scientists say that is a nonsensical argument and that public outrage is not controlled by comparing statistical probabilities.

When we read that hundreds and maybe thousands of people were exposed to radiation in government experiments, we are outraged regardless of whether those people faced greater dangers in their everyday life.

It is the pound of feathers vs. the pound of lead metaphor: Both weigh the same, but if you learned that scientists were dropping pounds of lead onto people from a high building, it would outrage you more than if you learned they were dropping pounds of feathers.

I have vivid memories of going to the department store with my mother when I was young. In the shoe department of that store they had an X-ray machine. You could stick your foot into it and see your bones. It was fun to do so and wiggle your toes.

I am sure such machines are illegal today. But who knew back then? And who knows what will be illegal tomorrow?

I know several people who spend a lot of time following the rules: They jog, they eat skinless chicken, they take anti-oxidant vitamins, they avoid cholesterol and fats.

I also know people -- too many people -- who are dying much too young.

Why? Gardening? Golf? Electric blankets? Things they did as children? None of the above? All of the above?

I am typing this column on a video display terminal. I sit in front of it many hours a day. I have done so for many years. The radiation hurtles at my head at the speed of light, but the government says there is no conclusive reason to worry.

It is all just a pound of feathers.

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