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Dirty bombs vs. dirty desks

Two books take a look at the world's dangers. One sounds like what the government would warn us about; the other sounds like your mom.

Published July 5, 2004


If books
could kill . . .

We are worrying about the wrong things, says Laura Lee in 100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life and What You Can Do About Them. The most dangerous threats are right under our noses.

If it were necessary to divide the world into two groups, you could do worse than to force people to choose between two books that have just hit the market: Jane's Citizen's Safety Guide and 100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life and What You Can Do About Them.

The first is an Orange Alert kind of book, brought to you by the same sober folks who have for years been the last word on identifying planes and military hardware. Well, they've gone and done the same thing for personal safety. From schoolyard bullies to nuclear attacks, from pickpockets to posttraumatic stress disorder, Jane's (Jane's Information Group, $27) lays bare a world of risk and pain, and tells you how to cope with it.

"The world in which we live seems to grow more dangerous each day," the Jane's authors write by way of explaining the need for such a book. "More products that we regularly use cause cancer; the ozone layer is eroding and terrorism is rearing its ugly head in more places. Images of tragedy and loss bombard us on a daily basis. How much is hype and how much is real?"

Excellent question, Laura Lee, the author of the second book (Broadway, $12.95), might say.

"Human beings, in general, tend to overstate the dangers of rare events while dismissing the dangers of everyday ones," Lee writes. "In fact, everyday events are more likely to cause you harm if for no other reason than they happen every day."

Lee does not devote a single chapter to anything remotely like nuclear war. High heels, yes. High yield nukes, no. Art supplies, yes. Anthrax, no.

Lee's book, her fourth (she authored something called The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation, to give you an idea of her take on the world), is a nutty hybrid of News of the Weird and an actuarial table. If Lee can find a way to tell the story about the Scottish woman who died in 2003 when she fell into her dishwasher and landed on a knifepoint, she will. But she's eager to provide statistical context: "Each year in the United States an estimated 7,477 people suffer dishwasher-related injuries."

There you have it broadly put. You can gird yourself with a book that tells you what questions to ask if you answer the phone at work and find a bomb suspect on the line ("Where did you place the bomb?"), or you can indulge yourself with a primer on how foul holy water can be (a 1998 study in Ireland found coliforms, staphylococcis, yeast and mold in several fonts).

This is the stuff of a modern-day Aesop's fable, but instead of gathering food for winter, it's preparedness lists and powers of attorney.

The first book is for ants who like to make lists, check batteries and inventory canned goods. The second is for grasshoppers who tune out the annoying evacuation bulletins by reading about doofuses who accidentally impale their playing partners when they snap their golf clubs after a bad shot.

These grasshoppers, always ready with a snappy anecdote at the cocktail party ("Do you know more people are killed each year by teddy bears than grizzly bears?"), are the ones who'll forget to turn off their air conditioning in the middle of a chemical attack and find themselves mooching gas masks from the ants down the street.

"The truth is, you can't create a risk-free environment no matter how hard you try," Lee writes. There are often unintended consequences to well-meaning protections, she notes. Gas masks issued to the British public in 1938 had filters made of asbestos.

"One can take solace in this book's paradoxical purpose, which is not to increase general paranoia but to diminish it. If you can look such deadly items as kitchen knives, bedding, vegetables and teddy bears in the face each day without fear, you should be able to stare down the much more statistically unlikely threats that now haunt our collective consciousness."

In fairness, the Jane's folks say they want to diminish paranoia, too.

"Alarm and panic come from a lack of knowledge," Sony Shepherd, lead writer on the project, said. "I think the book is an antidote to alarmism."

Shepherd traces the origin of the book back to last year's widely publicized recommendations by the Department of Homeland Security on how to prepare for a chemical attack.

"The government was giving directions for duct tape and plastic sheeting," Shepherd said. "There was so much more the general public could do to keep themselves safe."

Drawing on her experience working in bioterrorism, emergency response and school safety for the state of Georgia, Shepherd assembled answers to the questions she had most often heard from citizens.

" 'Can I drink the water after a chemical attack?' 'I work across town. How will I get my child from school in the case of a natural disaster?' The book takes what emergency responders know and puts it in layman's terms," she said.

A noble goal, but for sheer readability there are few things quite as accessible to the layman as a discussion of exploding toilet seats, which is why Laura Lee includes the statistic that in excess of 60,000 Americans are injured while relieving themselves each year.

Shepherd insists that fear of terrorism may have been the genesis of the book, but the bulk of its content addresses everyday menaces.

"We have emerging threats, but we can't forget about the old things. There may be terrorists, but we can't forget children are more likely to be threatened by a weapon in school," she said.

Yet despite their attention to the everyday, the two books often find themselves in the same room, so to speak, but one is looking out the window for storm clouds (Page 127), while the other is waiting for the ceiling fan to fall (Page 36).

For example, Jane's devotes an entire chapter to workplace safety (bomb threats, suspicious packages, violent employees).

"Since security is only as good as the people putting it into action," Jane's intones, "each employee plays a vital role in maintaining an effective workplace preparedness plan. Therefore, as an employee, it is important that you remain aware of the hazards in your workplace and report any safety-related changes to your supervisor."

Lee has nothing to say about letter bombs, not even paper cuts from letters, but she's a Cassandra about a far more commonplace office hazard.

"Your office desk is four-hundred times dirtier than a toilet seat," Lee writes, quoting research by a microbiology professor from the University of Arizona.

Talk about biological warfare.

And Jane's says nothing about the far more prevalent problem of misused office supplies.

"Every year in the United States about 13,411 people are injured by the stuff on their desks," Lee writes. Statistics from the U.S. National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, a source that Lee leans on heavily, indicate that many office workers get into trouble when they use usually benign items for nonrecommended purposes, to wit, paper clips to clean ear wax.

The NEISS data base has recorded these other misadventures: "Accidentally put correction fluid in eyes, thinking it was eyedrops." "Sat on letter opener and pierced left buttock." "Patient put rubber band around penis two days ago. Penile swelling. Pain with urination."

Lee's advice (she does have a responsible side to her): "The thing with the rubber band - don't do that."

On the subject of travel, Jane's wants you to remember that when traveling it is preferable to ask directions from police officers or other authorities to protect yourself from street crime.

Lee's advice? Beware of sand.

"Between 1996 and 2002, seven people were killed on New England beaches while trapped in the sand. It took 300 years to rack up that many shark attack deaths in the same area," Lee writes.

Jane's reminds fliers to request a center or window seat in the middle of the plane to avoid unnecessary contact with hijackers "who usually position themselves at the front and back of the plane. . . . In the rare chance that you find yourself in such a situation, remain calm and fight back only as a last resort."

More useful perhaps is Jane's advice to keep your carry-on luggage under your seat. "Doing so will help you keep better track of your possessions," not to mention prevent the risk of the bag falling on your head.

Which, as Lee reminds us, is the cause of some 4,000 injuries each year. Lee recommends a window seat, too. But for different reasons than avoiding hijackers: People on the aisle are more likely to get brained by a plummeting Samsonite.

- Bill Duryea can be reached at 727 893-8457 or

[Last modified July 2, 2004, 14:32:30]

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