Safe And Sorry

July 06, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

The dental hygienist handed me protective plastic goggles.

"Don't want anything splashing out of your mouth into your eyes," she said pertly, as she set about her excavations. "Better safe than sorry."

Earlier that day the newspaper reported that automobile air bags can kill. At breakfast I put my self-control at risk by having a second cup of coffee.

Now I'm threatened by my own spit.

What was it like before seat belts? Or when asbestos slumped in schoolhouse ceilings? When our interiors were fogged by second-hand smoke and the very walls that protected us were thick with lead-based paint? Do you remember when people drank whole milk and thought it was good for them?

A bicycle safety group announced that 20 percent of those who ride bikes use helmets. It seems a lot more do than that. What did we do before we had "bicycle safety groups" to give out accident statistics that fall upon us depressingly, like yellow rain?

So many behaviors once thought harmless, even salubrious, are now deemed reckless. I used to put my young son on the crossbar of my bike and ride around the neighborhood with him. Nobody seemed to think much of it. It's not like that today. When I do the same with my grandson, people stare. They disapprove.

A man in the neighborhood wears a particle mask while he mows his lawn. Maybe he's allergic. If not, he has given up the aroma of newly mowed grass for the assurance that not a shred of it will ever enter his mouth or nose and strangle him. Aren't some things worth the risk?

Somebody once said that every good cause becomes a business, sometimes a racket. What can be said of the safety business is it seems to get bigger and bigger.

The Encyclopedia of Associations lists 267 organizations in this country devoted to safety. They send people out to inspect elevators, sell fire sprinklers, give advice and police the workplace. They generate employment for tens of thousands. The safety bureaucracy is growing. It has not heard of downsizing.

A lot of people do well in this business, people like Larry Laudan, who, determined to remind us of what a nasty, brutish and short experience life is, produced "The Book of Risks."

At the outset, Laudan writes: "No other society in history has been as sensitized to risks, dangers, and threats to life and limb as our own. If the food we eat isn't killing us, then it is the air we breathe, or the water we drink. ...

"Parents worry about whether to let Johnny have that peanut-butter sandwich because they read somewhere that peanuts carry a potential carcinogen, aflatoxin. We have been told to avoid meat, milk, cigarettes, alcohol, fats, small cars, breast implants, sunny beaches, tap water, smoke-filled rooms, high-rise hotels, nonorganically produced vegetables, and terrorist-infested foreign countries -- to mention only a few."

He then goes on for the next 221 pages to many, many more than a "few."

Then there was Ted Ferry, who narrowed the focus. He published a book last year listing the perils peculiar to your home. That's where you are supposed to feel safe.

Don't fool yourself.

"Tens of thousands of Americans lose their lives in household accidents each year," reads the promotional material for Ferry's book. They are poisoned, burnt up in fires, suffocated. Be especially careful in the bathroom: People get drowned there, and electrocuted.

Ferry wrote 17 other books on safety before he died last year. (No, it wasn't an accident.) He was posthumously inducted into the Safety and Health Hall of Fame International.

How many people are aware such an institution exists? In terms of public awareness, probably the National Softball Hall of Fame draws more visitors. Or the Guy Lombardo museum.

These organizations are assiduous and mean well. But they have been known to generate panics. Panics don't contribute to public safety.

Smithsonian magazine published an article not long ago on "the new science of risk theory," the quintessentially American idea.

People in this discipline strive to "manage the hazards that surround us." Corporations pay big money to have this done for them. The article's author recalled the great apple scare of 1989 generated by a television network report that a chemical used by apple growers, Alar, was dangerous. Apparently it wasn't.

But a number of apple growers here and abroad went broke before the truth reached the public. One woman called the Environmental Protection Agency and asked if she could pour her apple juice down the drain or had to take it to a toxic dump.

Why do so many people expect the very worst outcomes?

Whatever the reasons, these general and abiding forebodings rampant in the population have enriched those who own private security firms and people who breed dogs that bite. Garrison Keillor, the radio wit, still does well with his satirical commercial for the Fear Monger's Shop.

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