The things that will kill us

Cigarettes, mercury, and radium are just three examples of deadly things we once thought were healthy and even medicinal. What are the things we do today that will kill us?

Sci-fi futurists have often imagined an iteration of the future wherein a machine can predict the way you will die, Ryan North and co. have pondered this question recently with the Machine of Death. While he and the Twilight Zone focus on the somewhat absurd, machines in movies like Gattaca focus on the more mundane probabilities, like heart disease. (I’ve always suspected that someone will accidentally lean on the keyboard of such machine, thus spelling my name, and learning my life story)

The big scientific breakthroughs always seem to come as a shock, so I don’t think it’s anything people suspect, TV, cell phones, microwaves, gmo corn, gluten, coffee or sugar. My guess is that sitting and staring at screens all day is a very unhealthy thing that most everyone does; but this is common knowledge. What everyday thing do you think will prove to be a silent killer?

…the Britannica has systematically, relentlessly, eroded my faith in doctors. That’s what will happen when you read page after page of bloody and bloody ridiculous medical history. I knew about leeches and bodily humors but that’s just the start. I’m still unsettled by trepanning—the primitive practice of drilling a 2-inch hole in the skull to let out the evil spirit. I’m sure during the heyday of trepanning the chief resident for trepanning at the Lascaux Grotto Hospital was very authoritative and assured his patients in a condescending tone not to worry about a thing. We’re professionals here, he said, as he smashed their skull with a rock.

Okay so that’s too easy. But medicine here in the postscientific age isn’t much more heartening. Here’s a quote that took me aback: “I believe more patients have died from the use of [surgical] gloves than have been saved by their use.” That’s one of the leading medical experts of the 20th century weighing in on the surgical glove controversy—a controversy I didn’t even know existed. In my encyclopedia, I wrote a little note in ballpoint pen next to that quotation: “Doctors don’t know shit.”

That was an overreaction of course. They do know a little shit.

A. J. Jacobs, The Know-it-All