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December 16, 2019

4 everyday ways you could die (and how to lower your risk)

Daily Briefing

    Each day, people encounter seemingly mundane choices that could increase their risk of dying, Alexander Webb writes for the New York Times.

    The germs on a plane—and how to avoid them

    He rounds up four everyday scenarios that could up the risk of dying—and how you can make changes to increase the likelihood that you'll live another day.

    Scenario 1: Commuting to work

    When it comes to their morning commuting, Webb writes that most people consider the convenience and cost but not the safety of their mode of transportation.

    "Although most people know that some transport methods are safer than others, few understand how vast the differences are," he writes.

    For instance, according to Ian Savage, professor of economics at Northwestern University, "motorcycles are a real outlier" in traffic fatalities. According to Savage, motorcycles are responsible for 29 times more fatal accidents per passenger mile than cars.

    And while motorcycles make cars seem like the safe option, trains and busses are both safer than cars, Webb notes. "Per mile, trains are about 17 times safer than cars, while buses are about 67 times safer," he writes.

    But regardless of which mode of transportation you choose, if a seatbelt is available, you should wear it, Webb writes. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show about 13% of Americans do not wear a seatbelt in the car, but they account for about 50% of people who die in traffic crashes. As Guohua Li, a professor and director of the Center for Injury Science and Prevention at Columbia University, said, simply wearing a seatbelt can "substantially reduce your risk of sustaining serious injuries and double your chance of survival in a crash."

    Scenario 2: Shaking hands

    When you meet someone new, it's customary to shake their hands, Webb writes, but before you do you should ask yourself: when was the last time you washed your hands?

    People often shortchange handwashing—and they shouldn't, Webb contends.

    Even a short hand wash with just water can remove 90% of the bacteria that was added to your hands throughout the day, and washing for 20 seconds with soap removes 99% of that bacteria, according to Donald Schaffner, a food science specialist and professor at Rutgers University. Schaffner noted that hand sanitizer is similarly effective.

    In fact, UNICEF in 2008 estimated that effective handwashing could prevent about 1.4 million deaths worldwide per year. Handwashing also reduces the incidence of less serious illnesses, such as colds, which can be lethal for people with weak immune systems.

    So, wash your hands at the office, even if it's a short wash, Webb writes.

    Scenario 3: Going out to lunch

    When you go out for lunch, you might want to rethink that sushi order, Webb writes.

    According to CDC, about 48 million people in the United States get foodborne illness each year. Of these individuals, Webb writes about 128,000 will be hospitalized and 3,000 will die. Webb notes that when food "is not cooked, any bacteria present in the food will enter your body."

    And research has shown seafood is the riskiest food to consume, accounting for "about 19 times as many infections per pound of consumption as dairy, and six times as many as vegetables," Webb writes.

    That's why CDC recommends that "children younger than five years, pregnant women, adults older than 65 years, and people with weakened immune systems" should avoid eating raw fish or meat, Webb writes. When you're cooking at home, remember to keep your food under 40 degrees Fahrenheit to reduce bacteria growth and cook the food at over 140 degrees to kill the bacteria, Webb adds.

    Scenario 4: Attending after work happy hours

    In the United States, it's not unusual for some people to have a drink or two after work at happy hour and still remain under the legal alcohol limit to get behind the wheel. But even if you're blood alcohol concentration is below 0.08, which is the legal limit in most U.S. states, that doesn't mean it's safe to drive, Webb writes.

    He cited CDC data that show about 29 people die in alcohol-related traffic accidents each day in the United States. According to the National Highway Traffic Administration, a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05 doubles the odds of a traffic accident compared to sober driving, and the odds quadruple at 0.08.

    But even if you don't drive home, drinking every night is not great for your health, Webb writes. One study found that drinking 18 drinks per week can reduce your life expectancy by four to five years.

    Should you be worried?

    Thinking about risk this much can be "maddening," Webb writes.  

    "No matter how often you wash your hands, you'll still get sick sometimes. And what's the real risk of taking the bus or train if you have to walk or bike a mile to the stop," Webb writes.

    But according to Webb, this doesn't mean we shouldn't try to reduce our risk of death or injury. By taking "sensible steps to improve our safety where we can," we can reduce harm to others and possibly extend our lives to spend more time doing what we love. "Understanding risk isn't about paranoia, it's about priorities," Webb writes (Webb, New York Times, 12/12).

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