You almost can’t watch or read the news without stumbling on some alarming health crisis. You know the stories—flesh-eating bacteria lying in wait, the latest pandemic that sends you scrambling to Google its symptoms, or the pesticide report that puts the words kale and toxic in the same sound bite.
These headlines get your attention, but sometimes the reality is a little less sensational. In actual fact, more common, mundane issues pose greater threats to your well-being. Let’s give six media-hyped health scares a dose of perspective.
HEALTH FEAR: Getting sick from recalled meat, lettuce and more
• WORRY MORE ABOUT: Improper food handling at home
This past summer, a brand of prepackaged salad greens was linked to an eruption of Cyclospora, a rare parasite that can trigger weeks of explosive diarrhea. Last year, certain chopped onions were yanked from store shelves for possible Listeria contamination.
The year before, a company recalled about 36 million pounds of ground turkey products that may have been tainted with Salmonella. Food recalls and foodborne-disease outbreaks generate big headlines (and in this case, we support spreading awareness). But most instances of food poisoning are not part of these widely covered incidents.
In 2009 and 2010, for example, federal officials documented only about 30,000 outbreak-linked illnesses, while an average of 48 million people get sick from contaminated food every year. Translation: The odds of big, news-making outbreaks affecting you are relatively slim. More likely to make your stomach churn are disease-spreading habits in places like restaurants, cafeterias, and even your own kitchen.
Many cases of foodborne illness result from improper food handling at home, according to a paper published by Elizabeth Scott, codirector of the Simmons Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community in Boston. Some ways we slip up: About 60 percent of people aren’t diligent about hand washing before handling food, even though this may eliminate nearly half of all cases of food poisoning. Not thoroughly rinsing produce under running water can expose you to germs on its surface.
(A recent government study found that leafy vegetables account for nearly half of foodborne-illness cases.) Sponges and dishrags are breeding grounds for bacteria, but about one third of people wait a month or until the sponges fall apart before replacing them.
And about 90 percent of people say they wash raw poultry before cooking it, even though food safety experts recommend not to. The practice spreads germs around your sink and counters; cooking poultry to the proper temperature will kill any pathogens.
• WORRY MORE ABOUT: Texting while driving
Fact: Over the past few years, some studies have suggested a possible link between cell phone use and an increased risk of specific types of brain tumors. Cell phones emit radiation, after all, and radiation can cause cancer. But the operative words here are suggested and possible, and the results are far from conclusive.
Many more recent studies express skepticism. Although the World Health Organization added cell phone radiation to its list of possible carcinogens in 2011, that list also includes items such as pickled vegetables.
The WHO’s threshold for a possible carcinogen is pretty low, says Richard Besser, MD, chief health and medical editor for ABC News. He points out one important distinction: There are different kinds of radiation, which do different things. Ionizing radiation (which includes X-rays and some UV rays) damages DNA and may cause cancer. But cell phones emit nonionizing radiation, which does not damage DNA, explains Dr. Besser, who wrote Tell Me the Truth, Doctor.
What experts agree on: Given the increasingly young age at which people start using cell phones, we need more research on long-term risks.
However, there is ample evidence that cell phones do pose an immediate threat of a different kind: endangering drivers and passengers. Consider this: Sending or reading a text can take your eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, akin to driving the length of a football field at 55 mph … blind.
And you’re 23 times more likely to crash if you text while driving. “Studies show that driving while texting is equivalent to driving drunk,” says Dr. Besser.
“It’s tempting to pick up that phone when you hear an incoming text message. The smartest move: Turn off your phone before you get in the car, or put it in the glove compartment.”
• WORRY MORE ABOUT: Not eating enough fruits and veggies
We’re all aware of the bad stuff about pesticides—that certain studies have linked them to nerve damage, cancer, birth defects, and other health problems. And every year, the Environmental Working Group puts out a much-publicized list of what it deems the “dirtiest” fruits and vegetables in terms of pesticide residue.
But before you stop eating apples (named the most-contaminated this year) or think twice about buying kale (also on the list), consider this reassuring statement from Carl Winter, director of the FoodSafe Program and Cooperative Extension and a food toxicologist at the University of California at Davis: “We are all exposed to small amounts of pesticides in our produce, but it’s typically at levels one million times lower than even amounts that don’t cause any noticeable effects in lab animals exposed to pesticides every day of their lives,” he explains.
Eating organics may lower exposure but won’t fully eliminate it.
But if fears of pesticides prevent you from eating plants, that’s a real concern. Compelling evidence shows that a diet rich in produce can lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain cancers; it can also help manage your weight, improve brain function, and literally add years to your life. One new study that followed more than 71,000 Swedes for 13 years found that those who ate at least three servings of vegetables per day lived almost three years longer than people who reported not eating vegetables.
Regardless of whether you consume conventional, organic, local, or imported, aim for two cups of fruit and two and a half cups of vegetables daily, and choose from a wide variety. “While eating produce may seem hazardous to some, not eating it is always fatal,” says Winter.
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