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If books could kill . . .

Published July 5, 2004

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.

Candles. Screwdrivers. Teddy bears. Books.


Here's Lee's warning.

- MARGO HAMMOND, Times Book Editor

Books are an often overlooked hazard, sending more people to the emergency rooms than many common sports. In case you were looking for an excuse to put down that copy of Tolstoy's War and Peace, here it is: in the United Kingdom more people are hurt by books (2,707 a year) than by training weights (1,884), trampolines (1,902) or cricket balls and bats (1,174). Lest you think only British books are hazardous, you should know that 10,683 U.S. citizens lose their battles with what the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System categorizes as "books, magazines, albums or scrapbooks" in an average year, and another 1,490 are clobbered by magazine racks or bookends. What are so many people doing wrong?

"From working with books for many years," said Karen Miller of the American Library Association, "I could offer up things like broken toes when books fall, losing one's balance when reaching for books and repetitive stress from shelving them. Magazines could also be dangerous if the staples are loose and scrape the skin."

The heft of books is a special problem. Back injuries from moving overloaded boxes of books are common. Heavy schoolbags also are a concern.

In 2003, a Hong Kong schoolboy was killed when his heavy book bag pulled him over the railing of his high-rise apartment. . . .

Second-hand book use can also be hazardous to your health. Researchers in Bogota, Colombia, tested the book dust in twelve libraries and ran skin tests on fifty-seven librarians. About 12 percent of the librarians had allergic reactions to the book dust, but the doctors found no evidence of common allergens. This led researchers to conclude that new respiratory allergens may be lurking and evolving in the stacks.

Book exposure may even get you high. Mycologist (fungus doctor) Dr. R.J. Hay, of Guy's Hospital in London, reported to a British medical journal, the Lancet, that various fungi that feed on the pages of old books could be a source of hallucinogenic spores.

"The source of inspiration for many great literary figures may have been nothing more than a quick sniff of the bouquet of moldy books," wrote Hay.

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