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Hidden health hazards: What you don't know can hurt you
The world is a dangerously contaminated place. While you're certainly aware of many common health risks and germ factories, we went looking for less-known hazards that lurk where we sleep, eat and frolic.
Your vacation in filth
Hotels and motels are among the leading culprits for spreading disease. In August 2009, media reports revealed that state inspectors from the Florida Division of Hotels and Restaurants, which includes the resort-happy city of Orlando, inspected 7,000 hotels and motels and found 27,000 health and safety violations.
Hotel drinking glasses! Thirsty? Don't drink out of the glasses supplied in your hotel room! You may be swapping germs with everyone else who has stayed there before. An investigative report from Fox 5 in Atlanta found hotel glasses that had never seen the inside of a dishwasher — they were simply wiped down by housekeeping and placed back.
Bed bugs! These little buggers can't be easily evicted because they have developed resistance to chemicals that have historically been used to eliminate them. They hide in the seams of a mattress and bite you while you sleep. Bed bugs carry 27 agents of disease for humans, according to a 2006 study by the Entomology Department at Purdue University.
And they want to go with you when you leave the hotel.
"The problem comes from an increase in international travel," says Missy Henriksen, spokesperson for the National Pest Management Association in Fairfax, Va. "Bed bugs are hitchhikers. They want to jump in your suitcase and travel the world with you. They may find they like your bed more than someone else's and want to stick around."
An unusual case of bed bug savagery hit a Canadian man who visited a doctor complaining of severe fatigue. Apparently, the bed bugs in the man's apartment were feeding on him every night, causing anemia. After his apartment was bombed with insecticides and all the furniture removed, his anemia never returned.
In fact, the bed bug problem has been so prevalent lately in the United States that the Environmental Protection Agency hosted a National Bed Bug Summit in April 2009 to develop strategies for bed-bug termination. We wonder what hotel they stayed at.
If you want to go places, you have to touch them. But the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that the humble doorknob is a prime means of transmitting colds, flu viruses, pink eye and staphylococcus aureus bacteria (staph germs) — in addition to the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can lead to genital warts and cervical cancer, among other problems.
The influenza bug can linger on a doorknob for two hours or longer, according to Nikki Kay, spokesperson for the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention at the CDC.
Showerheads! A showerhead should be clean because water runs through it, right?
Wrong-o! A University of Colorado study discovered that slimy showerheads harbor a shocking array of bacteria that cause lung disease, closely related to one that causes tuberculosis. The bacteria surf on waves of aerosol droplets ? spraying in your face as you inhale them. Those with weak immune systems are especially vulnerable.
And these offenders thrive in chlorine. It may be better to take a bath.
Having fun yet?
Hot tubs & saunas! As rejuvenating as hot tubs and saunas may be, the combination of heat and moisture can breed infections and disease. For instance, three cases of Legionnaire's disease (an often-deadly pneumonia caused by inhalation of water aerosols containing bacteria called legionella) were linked to a Hampton Inn hot tub in 2008 in McHenry County, Ill. Two more cases were reported at a Wingate Inn hot tub in Oxford, Ala.
Legionnaire's disease can be contracted from whirlpools, humidifiers, ice-making machines, large central air conditioning systems and showerheads ? among other things.
Legionnaire's disease could be only the beginning of your problems after a night in the hot tub: Sexually transmitted diseases can survive up to 45 minutes on toilet seats, wash cloths, clothing and in hot tub and bath water, although they are mainly contracted through direct human contact, says Nikki Kay of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Don't consider escaping to the sauna for protection: You can get the HPV virus by sitting on a contaminated sauna bench, according to Sexually Transmitted Diseases: A Practical Guide to Primary Care, by Anita L. Nelson and JoAnn Woodward.
Daylight savings time?!
You wouldn't think that changing the clocks could kill you, but think again.
Setting your clocks forward in the spring increases hazards at work, according to the September 2009 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology. Its study tracked the number of injuries and lost work hours reported to the Mine Safety and Health Administration between 1983 and 2006. It found that injuries increased by an average of 3.6 percent on the Monday following daylight savings time. In addition, 2,649 workdays were lost due to injury on the Monday following the switch.
By contrast, there were no increases in workplace injuries on Mondays following the switch back to standard time, when workers pick up an extra hour of sleep.
Warm swimming pools! A swimming pool is a breeding ground for deadly bacteria, parasites, protozoa and viral pathogens. You could find yourself stricken with gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurological and wound infections.
But "if the pool is well-maintained, no infections or outbreaks will occur," says Michelle Hlavsa, a nurse and epidemiologist with the CDC's Healthy Swimming Program.
Certain types of bacteria, such as cryptosporidium parvum (a.k.a. crypto), are a big concern to the CDC because they can survive in chlorine. It's spread when someone with diarrhea decides to go for a swim.
"It can stay in a pool for up to 10 days and it's hard to eliminate," Hlavsa says.
Trampolines! A trampoline may look like jolly-good fun, but children are better off finding other summer fun. Trampolines can cause broken necks and bones, chipped teeth, sprains, spinal cord injuries, head trauma, disability and even death. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates there were more than 104,000 injuries in 2008 due trampoline accidents.
Turkey deep fryers! While trying to supply a succulent family dinner you could easily burn down the house. Deep fryers are one of the leading causes of home fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association. The cooking oil used in deep fryers can spill or bubble over the sides, causing the fryer to catch fire or explode.
Making yourself sicker
Bat guano! When someone says you have bats in the belfry, it may mean you exhibit eccentric behavior. But all madness aside, you may want to check your attic. Feces from bats can spread a deadly fungus, histoplasma capsulatum, and these spores can infect your lungs and occasionally find their way to other organs. The CDC estimates that 80 percent of people living in the central and eastern parts of the United States test positive for histoplasmin from bat and bird droppings. Be particularly careful of bat poop if your immune system is already compromised.
Eating out?! Ever find yourself sick in bed after eating out? There are numerous parasites that want to assist in food preparation at your local eateries. The FDA has identified at least 15 common foodborne illness-causing organisms.
Take, for instance the pitiable pork tapeworm. Known by its scientific name taenia solium, it lives in the poorest conditions imaginable? pork tissue and human intestines. And these tapeworms are looking to set up home in people's brains, a condition known as neurocysticercosis. Cases that have been reported in the United States came from eating food served by people whose feces is tainted with the parasite and who prepared food without proper hand washing.
Tylenol overdose! Tylenol is often considered the cure for whatever ails you. Until recently, consumers have been unaware of its dangers. For example, it's not a good idea to take it if you're trying to cure that hangover from the night before: Acetaminophen combined with alcohol can destroy your liver function.
"The severity of acetaminophen overdose depends on your overall health, your size, weight, if you drink regularly and how malnourished you are," says Dr. Douglas Dieterich, a liver specialist with Mount Sinai Hospital, New York. "My suggestion is to take two aspirins, not two Tylenol, if there is any chance your liver is impaired."
Another concern is keeping track of which medicines in your cabinet contain acetaminophen. It can be found in many pain relievers, including Excedrin and Nyquil. Prescription Vicodin and Percocet also contain acetaminophen.
People who take more than one of these products can overdose on acetaminophen.
"Over half of the overdoses are accidental, and usually the result of blending prescription and nonprescription drugs," says Dieterich.
Acetaminophen appeared twice in the Top 10 list of substances associated with drug-induced fatalities, from the American Association of Poison Control Centers. The drug caused 208 deaths when combined with other substances and 140 deaths when taken alone in 2007. In every case, the fatalities were the result of acute liver failure.
Dieterich says that emergency medical care has to occur within four to six hours after taking an acetaminophen overdose. If you don't get care immediately, the liver can shut down within 48 hours.
Radiation from CT scans! Your medical tests can make matters worse. If your doctor suggests a CT scan, you may want to reevaluate its medical necessity. These scans can deliver monster doses of ionizing radiation, which may cause cancer down the road, according to a 2009 study by the New England Journal of Medicine. People who undergo scans of the abdomen, pelvis and chest are at risk because of the high amounts of radiation used to look at these organs.
Although an epidemiological study is in the works to determine the long-term affects of CT scans and the risk of cancer, an older study (1991 to 1996) found that 0.4 percent of all cancers in the United States may be attributed to radiation from CT scans. Researchers from The Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center, New York, adjusted this estimate for the number of people who have undergone CT scans since the last study (62 million) and place the current estimate at 1.5 to 2 percent.
Water intoxication?? While drinking eight glasses of water per day is a common recommendation, drinking too much water can be fatal.
Water intoxication (hyponatraemia) is caused from a severe electrolyte (sodium) imbalance. In order to become a victim of this hyperhydration, you would have to guzzle 30 to 40 glasses of water in a short period. The kidneys can only excrete 1 liter of fluid per hour. Water intoxication causes brain swelling and heart failure.
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Who would do such a thing? Participants in water-drinking contests, for one. In 2007, a 28-year-old California woman died from water intoxication after taking part in a "Hold Your Wee for Wii" water-drinking contest sponsored by a local radio station.
Also at risk: athletes who play endurance sports, marathon runners, people who work outdoors in hot weather, students in fraternity-pledging rituals and infants (because of their low body mass).
Energy drinks!!! Energy drinks promise a burst of energy with "nutritional value." Yet those who consume too much in a short time can experience harsh side affects, even death.
In 2004, three countries (Denmark, France and Norway) banned the sale of Red Bull after the drink was linked to several deaths. In July 2008, France reluctantly lifted its ban of energy drinks, including Red Bull.
Last year, a 21-year-old woman collapsed on the dance floor at a nightclub in Britain after drinking four cans of Red Bull mixed with vodka. This year, a 28-year-old Australian motorcyclist died of a heart attack after drinking seven cans of energy drinks between races. And a high school student from Arizona collapsed, but lived, after he knocked back eight cans of Red Bull on an empty stomach during a two-hour break at a basketball tournament.