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Things that are unlikely to kill you this summer, despite alarming news headlines

Want to beat the heat by swimming along the Gulf coast this summer? Maybe not such a great idea, as apparently there’s a flesh-eating army lurking in those waters, threatening to go full zombie on you:

scare-monger-montage

Sunscreen, barbecue brushes, Vibrio germs, waxing–none of these thing are likely to harm you this summer.

The good news? These infections aren’t new or common. While indeed virulent, the critter at hand–Vibrio vulnificus–typically only sickens people who already have open flesh wounds and chronic severe illnesses like liver disease. And it doesn’t seem to be any more common today than it was 10 or possibly a million years ago. As one expert put it in this 2013 CBS story, “It’s normal flora in the water. It belongs there.”

Also, it doesn’t technically consume your flesh, though Vibrio organisms can rapidly infect the skin (and, more typically, your digestive tract, just like many other germs).

But that didn’t stop many news outlets across the South from putting “flesh-eating” in front of “bacteria” and presenting these recent cases as something new and alarming. And it’s far from the only fear-provoking news media stories you might see this summer.

‘Tis the season for scare-mongering

Even though there are lots of things that are way more likely to get you than a flesh-eating bacterium or a leg-chomping shark, it’s hard to generate captivating headlines by telling people they’re more likely to be killed by choking on meat, falling out of bed or being crushed by a vending machine. That’s why summer scare mongering is so prevalent.

Another possible culprit? Vacations and sales. Journalists and editors are people too and they need vacations like regular folk. With short-staffed newsrooms, the likelihood increases that fluff pieces floating in off the news wires will be uncritically snatched up and used to feed the beast.

The other reason is connected to the old adage about headlines and blood: “If it bleeds, it leads.” In other words, anything provoking fear and loathing is likely to sell. And it sells both ideas and products.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of our favorite finds here at HealthNewsReview.org:

Avoid: All invertebrates?

What could be more summer-related than bugs and other sorts of obnoxious creepy-crawlers? According to Minority Nurse, maybe it’s just better to stay inside, because summer brings us “mosquitoes, ticks, ants, bees, and jellyfish,” adding that “no matter what gets you, it can hurt and cause lasting ill-effects.” Now wouldn’t that be taking the fun out of the season if we all stayed inside because of irrational insect fears?

The trendy scary plant of 2016 award goes to…

Just when you’ve taken all precautions against the invertebrate group, you find out plants are off-limits, too. Every year it seems like one species gets pegged as the bad one. And this year, it’s poor wild parsnip.

“From the Beltline to your backyard, wild parsnip is popping up all over southern Wisconsin,” WMTV  NBC-15 warns, one of several news sites in the Midwest that has reported on wild parsnip this summer. “It burns your skin. It hurts, it really hurts,” a local tells the reporter.

Granted, it can cause some nasty skin lesions. But it’s far from the only plant to do so–and to be wary of. Sure, poison ivy and poison oak are always good to avoid, as well as several other pain-inducing plants, but …boring. They’re so 2015. Wild parsnip is where it’s at now, people.

Bug spray and sunscreen and chemicals, oh my

To keep the aforementioned summer bugs at bay, we use chemicals like DEET. But that too generates headlines–we are a decidedly chemophobic culture. Wikipedia tells us that “According to the American Council on Science and Health, chemophobia is a fear of synthetic substances arising from ‘scare stories’ and exaggerated claims about their dangers prevalent in the media.” (Is it worth mentioning that the American Council on Science and Health is largely funded by the drug, chemical, and food industries.)

But speaking of irrational fears, unadulterated fear can sure “move product,” so to speak, regardless if there is anything really worth fearing. Let’s say you had a new and improved brand of “organic” sunscreen you wanted to flog. One could harness fear by tapping into some of that latent chemophobia and telling the public that most of the “other” sunscreen is chemical-laden and toxic. Or, want to sell your brand of chemical-laden sunscreen? Then scare the public (<–adult-language-in-headline-alert) sailing the opposite tack, by saying the “organic” stuff is a massive fraud, a waste of money and simply no better than good old, reliable chemical goop.

Bikini waxing and STD stories — blatant click-baiting? 

There’s nothing like trying to sell papers, and eyeballs, with egregious fear-provoking headlines that mix two of our favorite summer things: swimsuits and sex. How about telling people they WON’T get a sexually-transmitted disease from bikini waxing, then quote some “research” that says an apparent five-fold increase in genital injuries that ended in the emergency room was linked to pubic hair grooming. Yikes! “Three percent of ALL genital injuries were due to pubic hair grooming?” Double Yikes! Even if you’re someone who’s never devoted a single brain cell to the topic in your entire life, because this subject is so prurient and deliciously presented, you may now find yourself reading the entire article to the bitter end to find out what caused the other 97% of genital injuries.

Not even barbecuing is off limits? 

At this point you’re probably tempted to just forget about it all, grab a cold drink, and go out and scrub down your barbecue to get it ready for summer fun of roasting large slabs of meat, but there’s stuff to fear there, too.

According to this report, you may be in for serious tummy trouble when you accidentally ingest a small piece of wire that comes off the brush you use to scrub your barbecue grill. Don’t believe us? According to the CDC, in 2012 there were at least six cases of people swallowing wire from a grill-cleaning brush.

Granted, there are probably more such cases of wire ingestion that weren’t reported to public health authorities. But in a country of 330 million or so Americans who routinely cook their steaks on barbecues, the absolute risk of this would likely be minuscule.

It’s a small chance, but hey, like most things out there, it’s worth fearing.

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Comments (1)

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Danielle Venton

July 18, 2016 at 4:29 am

I’m a bit bewildered by the ire over the bikini waxing/STI story in the HuffPo (which I didn’t write, nor do I know the writer). From what I can see she’s actually linked to real studies, so why the scare quotes around “research”? Also, this sentence strikes me as bizzare: “Even if you’re someone who’s never devoted a single brain cell to the topic in your entire life, because this subject is so prurient and deliciously presented, you may now find yourself reading the entire article to the bitter end to find out what caused the other 97% of genital injuries.” Look, shaving and waxing is a thing that lots of women do. Even if the reviewer thinks the subject is beneath their attention, that’s not a good reason to dismiss it as an unworthy read for everyone. Beyond that, just where in the article are the “other 97% of genital injuries” discussed? I sure couldn’t find it. After the introduction the piece seems to be just hair removal tips. If there is a paragraph I’m just not seeing please point it out, I’m one of those morbidly curious folks.