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Assessing everyday risk

Posted by Christopher Shea  March 23, 2009 01:07 PM

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Over its last two issues, Consumer Reports has been reporting the results of a survey that investigates how often Americans engage in senselessly "risky" behavior. But what interests me is not the findings, per se, but what they say about which dangers Americans have been socialized to pay attention to, and which we haven't. (For Americans read: me.)

Some results of the study leave me appalled, the effect CR is going for. A quarter of people sometimes don't buckle up when driving, while 58 percent of bicyclists never wear a helmet (!). Both behaviors strike me as quasi-suicidal (even though I never wore a helmet growing up). Twenty-seven percent of Americans never wear sunscreen, even "when in the sun for an extended time." Evidently the concept of skin cancer -- unlike solar radiation -- has not penetrated their thick skulls.

Yet for all my righteousness, I engage in behaviors that I recognize as risky now that CR has pointed them out. In some cases I feel shamed into modifying my behavior: I really should always use earplugs when I trim the lawn, lest I end up like Pete Townsend.

In other cases, I probably won't change my habits. Forty-eightnine percent of Americans, including me, don't have a carbon-monoxide detector at home. This must be quite bad, since 51 percent are smart enough to own one. But death by CO-poisoning remains an utterly abstract proposition to me. And unplug your toaster when not using it? Really?

What amazes me about the findings related to eating raw cookie dough is not that 39 percent engage in this delectable practice, but that 61 percent do not. Don't these people know what they're missing? (Uh, yes: salmonella.) And 67 percent of Americans order their hamburgers "well done" all the time -- highly advisable behavior, says CR. My reaction: Gross.

I'm unpersuaded that driving 65 in a 55 zone is invariably death-defying, as the magazine asserts (if 45 were the national limit would CR argue that 55 was deadly?), but set such quibbles aside. The survey reaffirms a common insight from the field of risk analysis: The human grasp on threats to health is 1) weak; and 2) shaped by what we've read or heard about most recently. Americans far from terrorist targets duct-tape their houses out of fear of "dirty bombs." Then, before bed, they energetically use cotton swabs to clean their inner ears. That's a serious health no-no, one that's indulged in by 76 percent of our reckless fellow citizens. Call it the silent scourge of broken eardrums.

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2 comments so far...
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