Which Alarming Health Concerns You Can (and Can’t) Ignore

Scary medical headlines grab all the attention, but these everyday habits may be more likely to harm you.

By Teresa Dumain
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine December 2013

health scares pianoDan Saelinger for Reader’s Digest
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.

Next: Worry about texting and driving, not cell phone radiation »

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