Sometimes I have nightmares about brain-eating amoebas. These slimy microscopic blobs squirm up my nose while I swim in a lake. The parasite bores holes deep into my brain and before I even realize I've been infected, I'm dead. It's not surprising that this is the stuff my dreams are made of—I read the news.
The latest batch of health dangers, of course, come in the form of listicles about what could destroy you this summer, devastating the buzz I have from these first balmy breezes of the season. As I google full-body mosquito nets and shark tasers, I begin to wonder just how worried I need to be about these alleged hazards. So I dig in to the research. Here where we ended up:
Brain-Eating Amoebas: Not that worried
Naegleria fowleri, the brain-eating amoeba, is a real thing. This parasite has a horror-plot storyline, so it's no wonder media outlets flock at its mention. And as far as we know, anyone ever infected with a brain-eating amoeba has died. There's no cure, and it's always fatal, but just how common are these little buggers?
Fortunately, brain-eating amoeba infections are extremely rare. In the US, between 2006 and 2015, only thirty-seven people died from this parasitic infection. That's fewer than four people a year. It's sad when any lives are lost, but statistics say you're more likely to be killed by a cow than a brain-eating amoeba. Not burgers—a cow. Twenty people die from cows every year, but we don't say many reports about that. Be careful out there.
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Toxic Algae Blooms: Slightly concerned for the children and dogs, but not myself
Just because you (most likely) aren't in danger from brain-eating amoebas doesn't mean your swimming hole is 100 percent safe. Consider toxic algae blooms. "Harmful algal blooms can be quite dangerous," says Laura T. Johnson, director of the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University.
Not all algae blooms are harmful, though. Johnson notes that often "you can tell by looking that water has an algal bloom, but you can't tell if it's toxic without testing. The best bet is to avoid green water and check your state agency."
But if by some odd occurrence you do happen to fall into an algae-filled pond, don't freak out. Even if it is toxic, you won't likely emerge a swamp monster. "Most people only have skin irritation or gastrointestinal distress," Johnson says. However, ingesting large amounts of contaminated water has the potential to be lethal. Most adults won't drink water from scummy ponds, but keep an eye on kids, pets, and thirsty drunken idiots.
Truth is, direct contact with contaminated water isn't the biggest health risk associated with algae blooms. Food poisoning "usually happens after consuming contaminated shellfish, as these animals feed primarily on microalgae and accumulate a lot of toxins," says Jose M. Eirin-Lopez, marine sciences professor at Florida International University. But clam eaters can take comfort in knowing that shellfish get tested regularly for this kind of thing, and taken off the shelves if they're contaminated.
Grilled food: Marinating in caution
So I guess local shellfish is off the menu during an algae bloom. Are there any foods left we can consume without concern? It depends on who you ask. According to some reports, you can't even enjoy grilled chicken without upping your risk for cancer. Here's what they're saying about grilling: When meat or fish is cooked at a high temperature (like on a grill) it produces cancer-causing toxins, HCAs (heterocyclic amines) and/or PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). This has me wondering if summer BBQs are doomed to become a thing of the past, like sun-basking in baby oil.
Probably not. While some research does support this concern, studies show that HCAs and PAHs can cause a variety of cancers in animals (breast, bone, leukemia, prostate, colon, etc.). It's important to note that no population studies have determined a direct link. So before you kick your grill to the curb, keep in mind we're not really sure how awful one charred steak might be. In actuality, your filet has a small amount of HCAs and PAHs compared to the massive amounts studied in animal models.
Now, I'm not suggesting you switch to totally lean meat or anything buuuut some research suggests that cutting the fatty bits off can reduce the charring and therefore lower the carcinogens, as can cooking smaller pieces of meat (since they take less time to cook) and marinating it (since that delicious sauce seems to get in the way of HCA formation).
Thing is, none of this is really news. Science has known about the link between HCAs, cooked meat, and cancer since the 90s at least. The link is enough of a concern that the Department of Health & Humans Services named HCAs a likely carcinogen. However, the USDA points out that there might be a greater risk hiding on our buffet tables this summer. Just a few bites of tainted potato salad could leave you in the back of an Uber, shitting your seersucker shorts and vomiting into a plastic bag. Which brings me to:
Food Poisoning: Worried enough to stock Pepto
The summer's increase in food poisoning is attributed to warmer temperatures, which create a super incubation environment for these nasty little organisms. It's not just a shitty experience—food poisoning can be quite serious. The CDC estimates that more than a thousand people die every year from foodborne illnesses. And food poisoning is often preventable.
For example, some people are just plain gross; they don't wash their hands. If Johnny uses the bathroom but doesn't wash well and then digs into the potato salad, he's leaving microscopic nasties in everyone else's meal. Oh, and if a bowl of something is sitting in summer's heat, you can expect organisms in it to multiply rapidly—especially if there's dairy products or meat involved. Wash your grubby hands and be a little more cognizant of what's been sitting out for too long.
Sand Suffocation: Not scared because I'm not an idiot
When I was little, we used to picnic on the beach with unwashed hands; somehow I survived. Then again, I also used to dig deep holes trying to reach China, somehow I survived that too. Today, many beaches have a "knee-deep rule". That means, no one is allowed to dig a hole deeper than their knees. Has the internet ruined all our summer pastimes?
Every summer, news reports flash about people being buried alive in collapsing sand holes. A review published in the New England Journal of Medicine says a hole as shallow as two feet can collapse on top of someone, the sand then suffocates or crushes them to death. During the decade studied there were 31 deaths, which makes being buried alive slightly less likely than dying from a brain-eating amoeba but significantly less likely than death by cow.
I'm not suggesting that the knee-deep rule is bogus; collapsing sand holes are dangerous. Still, I can't help but wonder if we're safer digging holes rather than splashing in the amoeba-ridden water.
Sunscreen: No fear; I don't want to look like a handbag
Of course, in order to incur any of these summer dangers, you actually have to leave the house. And the sun plays no games on a July afternoon. But with reports about potentially harmful sunscreens (oxybenzodone is purported to cause hormone disruption and allergies, for example), some of us are a little hesitant to slather it on. Do it anyway, experts say. "The risk of a sunburn dramatically outweighs the risks of so-called 'toxic chemicals' in sunscreens. We know sunburns are associated with skin cancer, including melanoma, which can be deadly," says Whitney Bowe, dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine. "The vast majority of concerns surrounding chemicals in sunscreen arise from small animal studies or laboratory studies that don't translate into day-to-day practical use."
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