A Reminder about Water Safety


I’m always dismayed when people try to exaggerate the health risks of certain substances by calling them “chemicals”. “We have to worry about chemicals in apple juice” they’ll warn, or “chemicals in plastic bottles”. As anyone who’s taken a chemistry class can tell you, “chemicals” is just an intimidating word for “stuff”. Calling it a chemical doesn’t tell you anything about what it is or how it affects people. Roses and clouds and rocket fuel and spaghetti are all made of chemicals, because they’re made of stuff. Typically the chemicals that scare mongers are trying to warn us about are harmful only in concentrations millions of times higher than we’re likely to face.

This unnecessary anxiety is even more pernicious because it takes our attention away from another chemical that is a major killer. This chemical is natural, ubiquitous in our environment, and responsible for thousands of deaths in the US every year. This chemical is water. The same molecule that is essential to all life becomes life-threatening when it gets into our lungs.

Drowning is the second largest cause of fatal injury in children, after car accidents. Drowning kills more children ages 1 to 4 than any cause other than birth defects. In the US there are over 3,500 fatal drownings annually, not counting boating accidents.

This week the ” target=”_blank”>New England Journal of Medicine also reviewed the topic a few weeks ago. Though most of the Journal article is written for physicians, the last section on prevention (Table 3) is a useful guide for the general public.

The ” target=”_blank”>Respect for Water Cuts Risk of Drowning (Well, the New York Times health column)
” target=”_blank”> Drowning Facts (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Important legal mumbo jumbo:
Anything you read on the web should be used to supplement, not replace, your doctor’s advice.  Anything that I write is no exception.  I’m a doctor, but I’m not your doctor.