Humor: weapon against hidden dangers

Book tallies perils that most people face during course of a normal day

Health & Fitness

August 08, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | By Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

If you're prone to seeing the entire world through a lens of caution and fear, 100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life: And What You Can Do About Them by Laura Lee (Broadway, $12.95) may not be appropriate bedtime reading.

But if you feel the need to measure the threat of terrorism against your chances of tripping over a garden hose or drinking contaminated tap water, and to chuckle while doing so, Lee's book is worth a read.

In her handbook, Lee, who lives in Detroit, offers surprising statistics that may lead to a redefinition of weapons of mass destruction. From among hundreds of frightening facts uncovered in her extensive inspection of published health data, Lee found that:

Each year in the United States, 12,779 people are injured by washing machines.

An estimated 1,091 American stair climbers are killed and 769,400 are injured every year.

In the United States, 3,038 people are injured annually by Christmas tree lights and 4,542 by non-electric decorations.

Lee's not trying to scare you. She's trying to reassure you that anthrax is probably less of a threat than holy-water fonts brimming with nasty microbes or getting conned by a cute guy. (See "Cute Guy" entry.)

At the same time, Lee can't resist tossing in a number of fascinating freak calamities, such as a 1999 incident in which "two London women were killed by a massive bolt of lightning after the metal wiring in one of their bras acted as a conductor."

100 Most Dangerous Things has a "paradoxical purpose," Lee writes in her introduction. She seeks "not to increase the general paranoia but to diminish it. If you can look such deadly items as kitchen knives, bedding, vegetables and teddy bears in the face each day without fear, you should be able to stare down the much more statistically unlikely threats that now haunt our collective consciousness."

Exploding dust

Those who do crave perspective in a world fraught with perils both enormous and minuscule will find humor in Lee's handbook, as well as tips that range from the obvious (don't run with a tuba) to the mundane (load the flatware in your dishwasher with the sharp points down).

Lee pored through a mountain of medical journals, newspapers, magazines and other publications to research 100 Dangerous Things. Her massive bibliography is crammed with titles such as "More Electric Wheelchair Users Involved in Accidents," "Well at Work, Sick on Vacation," and "Laundryman Dies in Mishap With Machine."

She likes the "idea of poking fun at the culture of fear and warning labels and pointing out that the things that you're least afraid of statistically are the most dangerous," Lee says.

She documents examples of harm caused by teddy bears (choking hazard), dust (sometimes explodes), natural foods (toxins and carcinogens), music (violin-bow injury) and soda (exploding bottles), as well as more predictable causes, such as hospital stays (infections), candles (indoor pollution), cheerleading (stunts gone awry), and paper clips (getting stuck in one's ear).

The potential threats cataloged by Lee range from minor to deadly. Some, such as eating mistletoe, are preventable; others, such as having the bad luck to be underneath a windowpane falling from a skyscraper, are accidents that no one can reasonably anticipate and thus, avoid.

For that reason, Lee's advice ranges from the self-evident to the nonexistent. "Some of the hardest stuff to research was how to avoid some of these things," she says.

For example, there is very little one can do to avoid the dangers of manhood, Lee discovered. A man's life expectancy is significantly lower than a woman's, and yet, all she can suggest, beyond returning to the Middle Ages when men lived longer, is "get a sex change operation."

'Keep risks in context'

Lee's list is not comprehensive; nor are all of her entries inherently dangerous. She selected her "dangerous things" with an emphasis on each one's entertainment quotient. "It's just factual information, told with humor," she says.

Perhaps because humor was a key consideration for Lee, she doesn't touch on guns, smoking, food-borne disease and other significant health threats, as do professional safety experts who must discern between pedestrian and serious health hazards.

Eliot Nelson, a specialist on pediatric injury prevention and a professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, concentrates on injuries that are "serious, common and amenable to interventions that reduce severity and / or frequency."

If "people go 'all out' trying to prevent minor injuries, they risk distracting themselves (and others!) from work on more serious injuries," Nelson says by e-mail. "That's one reason that pediatric injury prevention experts spend a lot of effort on injuries that have significant lethal potential."

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