Warning: Everything Can Kill You

Have you ever been swallowed by an escalator or viciously attacked by a guitar? Neither has writer Lenore Skenazy. But after a hair-raising week in front of the TV set, she's become petrified.

By Lenore Skenazy from Reader's Digest | November 2010

Watch Out for Overheating!

Warning! “Hot weather can have a dire effect on senior health,” reads the website Everyday Inflated Fears. Er, sorry—Everyday Health. So what are the symptoms of overheating? You’ll never guess. Tops on the list: thirst! Then come those ever so subtle hints including “staggering,” “fainting,” “high body temperature,” and, in case you still didn’t get the message, “coma.”

My God, is there any way to avoid this stealthy danger? Thankfully, yes. Try these obscure but possibly helpful remedies: “Drink plenty of liquids.” Also: “Avoid exercising in the heat.” And:

“Cover windows that are in direct sunlight.” Do you think?

Not that I ever want to see seniors suffer from overheating, but I also don’t want to see seniors suffer from being treated as if they’ve got bingo chips for brains. Anyone who’s been around for 60 or more years has probably figured out by now that when you’re thirsty, you should drink, and when you’re staggering, it’s time to take a break. Same goes for when you’re in a coma.

Watch Out for Musical Instruments!

“You don’t want your child to live in a bubble, but remember that the more chances you take, the more likely your child will be injured or killed by an accident,” reads the passive-aggressive Hidden Dangers to Your Child’s Safety page on about.com.

And so it warns about the “hidden dangers” of bouncy houses and parade floats (“which can run over a child along the parade route”) and my favorite new fear, “musical instruments, such as a guitar, that can hurt a young child who is playing with the string … if one of the strings that is under high tension breaks, flying into his eye, or scratches his face.”

Forget the terrible grammar.

To me, that is the gold standard of warnings: a warning about an item that has been around almost forever and never been associated with any danger except to the eardrums of parents and music teachers. And now it’s a bona fide health hazard! To come up with not just one but two possible injuries from a guitar takes warning genius. My hat is off to you, Child Safety Basic writers. (I just hope it doesn’t accidentally hit you in the eye and scratch your cornea, possibly causing blindness.)

Watch Out for Weather!

Have you noticed that when a big storm is coming up, it’s no longer just a storm; it is “Winter Storm ’07!” or “Heat Wave ’10!” Jack Glass has. He’s a scientist and an expert on disaster communication, and he has been watching “weather creep” for the past five years or so. “Now everything has a year after it,” says Glass. The not-so-hidden message? This is it! The biggie! The one you’ll always remember! “So everybody is out buying their milk, bread, and eggs, and suddenly it comes and goes with absolutely no impact.”

But at least you’ve got food in the house.

Watch Out for Warnings that Sound as if They Were Written By Lawyers on Crack!

T-Mobile put out a set of instructions for its customers, encouraging them to “use your phone in a safe and sensible manner.” One of these “sensible” tips? “If your device rings and you discover it’s in the backseat, do not crawl over the seat to answer it while driving.”

That’s verbatim. And it pretty much illustrates the whole problem. We get so many warnings flying at us that real dangers (drunk driving) and the almost hallucinatory ones (backseat-climbing driving) get jumbled together. What’s really going to kill us? A kamikaze float? Winter Storm ’11? Or sitting in the La-Z-Boy watching the news and overdosing on Doritos?

The fact is, the more strange and striking the warning, the less likely it is to be true, says David Freedman, author of Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us—And How to Know When Not to Trust Them. We viewers tune in to the shocking studies because for some strange reason we like to be scared. As kids, we had ghost stories. As adults, we have health stories. Either way, we listen up because something that seemed so innocent is about to kill us! But shouldn’t it have killed us already? If the world is full of such horrible ills, why are we living longer than ever?

Turns out, we live in very safe times. Not perfectly safe; nothing is. But safe enough that instead of worrying about diphtheria, we’re worrying about dip.

Pay attention to your health—and a little less to the health scare of the day—and you’ll be fine. Provided, that is, you watch out for that onion dip, and the shopping carts, and your kid’s Polly Pockets, and Fall Foliage Color-palooza ’10, and the top button on your shirt, and …

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