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FACT: More people are killed each year by teddy bears than by grizzly bears.
The assertion above defies conventional wisdom, but it's true nonetheless. Grizzlies may have knives for teeth and claws like razors, but they're seldom found in the bedroom. A teddy bear's primary habitat, on the other hand, is under the covers. Particularly sinister ones have been known to sneak in button eyes that can be swallowed, loose fur that can be choked upon and a host of debilitating viruses and bacteria that were picked up at the nursery school. But when was the last time you read a bedtime story featuring a menacing Winnie or Paddington?
Human beings, in general, tend to overestimate the dangers of rare events while dismissing the dangers of everyday ones. In fact, everyday events are more likely to cause you harm if for no other reason than they happen every day. We're also much more likely to fear man-made problems than natural ones. Risk consultant Peter Sandman believes our level of fear tends to correspond more to our level of "outrage" than to our actual level or risk. This is why, for example, we're more worried about getting AIDS from a blood transfusion than by being struck by lightening — when, in fact, the latter is thirty times more likely to occur than the former.
We travel less by plane than we do by car, so we fear it more, even though we're much more likely to die in an automobile. We worry about engineered chemicals even though many foods contain far more natural carcinogens. We worry about being assaulted in the streets but not about being injured in the kitchen (where, in America, for example, 1 million people are seriously hurt each year), the living room (where 400,000 are injured annually) or the bathroom (site of more than 150,000 serious accidents each year).
If you watch the news today, you may have a sense that the world is more fraught with danger than at any time in the past. Yet people in the developed world are healthier, safer and living longer than ever before. In the fourteen hundred years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the 1800s, the life span of an average person living in the most developed societies increased by just nine years, from 38 to 47 years. Since 1900, it has increased almost four times as fast, to nearly 80 years. In the poorer countries of Asia, the average life span has increased by 20 percent since 1950. In a recent study of Swedish national death records conducted at the University of California at Berkeley, the maximum age was found to have moved up slowly throughout the past century, and shows no sign of leveling off. The researchers wrote: "[We found] no scientific basis on which to estimate a fixed upper limit. We are changing the limits of the human life span over time." If you missed that story on the six o'clock news, you probably did not miss the many stories about "epidemics" that are supposedly making us less healthy than previous generations. In fact, in terms of overall life expectancy, the world is probably a safer place now than it was when you started reading this paragraph.
Each year around the holidays there is a story about the dangers of toys. While toys do pose dangers to children, other household objects receive much less attention while posing a much greater threat — a child is eight times as likely to be injured by home furnishings, three times as likely to be injured by stairs and twice as likely to be injured by a chair as by a toy.
The truth is, you can't create a risk-free environment no matter how hard you try. Protecting against one thing often leads to another unintended consequence. To cite one famous example, the masks issued to the British population in September 1938 to protect against the thread of deadly gases released by the Nazis had filters made of asbestos. When used properly, the safety devices sent microscopic fibers of damaging mineral silicates into the lungs.
So what's one to do? Never climb out of bed? Take a vacation and get away from it? Acquire every safety device imaginable?
As it turns out, even avoiding risks is not risk free, but one can take solace in this book's paradoxical purpose, which is not to increase the 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 the words of Helen Keller, "Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."
Don't worry. You're safe.