Death by headphones

January 18, 2012

Researchers from University of Maryland School of Medicine and The University of Maryland Medical Center find that as use of mobile devices increase, so does the risk of injury from distraction and blocking out other sounds.

The research team studied case reports from databases, such as the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, for pedestrian injuries or fatalities from crashes involving trains or motor vehicles between 2004 and 2011. From there, cases involving headphone use were summarized.

From 2004 to 2011, 116 accident cases were reviewed in which pedestrians were reported to be wearing headphones. The analysis found that 70 percent of the 116 accidents resulted in death to the pedestrian. Science Daily reports that more than two thirds of the victims were male (68%) and under 30 years old (67%).

55 percent of the vehicles involved were trains and almost 29 percent of the vehicles reported sounding a warning horn prior to the crash. The researchers noted that distraction and sensory deprivation are the two phenomena likely to be associated with these incidents.

WebMD reports that the number of injuries corresponds to the rising popularity of iPods and other MP3 devices. Between 2004 and 2005, 16 injuries had been reported, and by 2010 to 2011, the number had jumped to 47.

Dr. Richard Lichenstein, lead study author and director of pediatric emergency medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center, says:

“Everybody is aware of the risk of cell phones and texting in automobiles, but I see more and more teens distracted with the latest devices and headphones in their ears…Unfortunately as we make more and more enticing devices, the risk of injury from distraction and blocking out other sounds increases.”

The study is published in the journal Injury Prevention.

Has Washington State gone overboard?

June 24, 2011

You can’t make this stuff up. As ridiculous as it may seem, King County in Washington State has made it illegal to swim without a lifejacket on or in a major river – at least until October 31. As Toronto’s National Post columnist Chris Selley points out,“the Founding Fathers might take serious issue with mandatory life jacket laws for swimmers.” However, he also says, tongue in cheek (we think), that the argument to ban “free” swimming is, in terms of numbers, quite persuasive:

“By the Lifesaving Society’s count, an average of around 200 people drown every year in Canada while swimming, wading or otherwise being in water but not in a boat. (That’s not including the 10% of total drownings that occur in bath tubs, because wearing a life jacket in the tub would be silly. Uh … right?)

Those drowning victims add up to roughly four times as many people as are killed in an average year while cycling and about 50 times as many as are killed in an average year on the slopes of Canadian ski resorts.”

The numbers show that we’re more at risk from activities that we take for granted than from many of the things we worry about – or are encouraged to worry about. The logic of precaution seems inexorable: As Selley concludes, “Nobody needs to swim, after all, with or without a life jacket. Nobody swims to work. It’s pure, decadent recreation. And it’s killing us by the hundreds. For how much longer can we turn a blind eye?”

What do you think? Has Washington gone overboard or should we continue to swim blind to the risks?

Keep your mind on the road and your hand upon the wheel

January 7, 2011

A new study out of Newcastle University in the UK finds that boredom behind the wheel may be associated with an increased risk of car accidents.

The research team, led by Dr. Joan Harvey of the University’s School of Psychology, analyzed 1,563 drivers and placed each participant into one of four groups.

31 percent of drivers fell into the category of “easily bored, nervous and dangerous”, the majority of which were female and younger drivers.  These drivers were more likely to seek excitement by taking risks, making them one and a half times more likely to be involved in a car accident, TIME reports.

Dr. Harvey explains:

“When people who are highly likely to get bored feel understimulated, they do things in response to that, even behind the wheel…Their mind wanders, they daydream, and they lose concentration.”

According to the Daily Mail, 35 percent of the participants fell into the “enthusiastic” category. These group members found driving to be challenging and interesting and ultimately were less likely to be involved in an accident.

21 percent were categorized as “drive slowly and dislike driving”. These participants drive the least and were also the least likely to receive a speeding ticket. The final 13 percent fell into “safe and slow”. Interestingly, the researchers found these drivers had the most positive outlook on life, reports CarAdvice.

What does Dr. Harvey suggest as a solution for those bored drivers?

“Contrary to what you might expect when driving, hazards can actually increase our attention to the road so this may well be the way forward for planners.”

Is hypertexting a health problem?

November 17, 2010

By Cindy Merrick

A recent survey of high schoolers indicated some attention-grabbing relationships between high-risk behavior such as alcohol and drug abuse and frequent sexual activity, with activities known as “hypertexting” (texting at least 120 messages per school day) and “hypernetworking” (spending at least 3 hours per school day on social networking sites).

Dr. Scott Frank of Case Western Reserve University announced last week the findings of a survey of over 4200 high school students in the Midwest at an annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in Denver in a talk entitled, “Hypertexting and Hypernetworking: A New Health Risk Category for Teens?” In his abstract, Frank says that 19.8 percent of the students fell into the category of hypertexting and 11.5 percent fell into the category of hypernetworking.

This survey associated both behaviors with higher levels of sexual activity, binge drinking, suicidal ideation, and tobacco and marijuana use. Further, participators in hypertexting and hypernetworking tended to be obese or have other eating disorders and get less sleep. Such associations were made after controlling for demographic factors. Frank concludes that “Excessive use of communications technology among teens is related to higher levels of health risk behaviors and poorer health outcomes.”

Specific numbers from the survey look compelling: hypertexters are 43 percent more likely to be binge drinkers and 41 percent more likely to have used illicit drugs; hypernetworkers are 69 percent more likely to be binge drinkers and 84 percent more likely to have used illicit drugs. Less clear is what the link between hypertexting or hypernetworking and risky behavior actually is.

Which means it’s premature to label hypertexting and hypernetworking a “Health Risk Category.” No direct harm is described and, as Frank told the Washington Post, “the study was not intended to show causality.”

Unfortunately, his university’s press release ran with the headline “Hyper-texting and Hyper-Networking Pose New Health Risks for Teens,” and other news organizations followed suit. Frank offered the Post a thin justification: “It does depend on who they’re texting with. Their choice of friends in the single most important thing. The more texting they do, the more potential for exposure to high-tech peer pressure.”

But what are the odds the kids wouldn’t have any friends or be subjected to peer-pressure if they didn’t text? This seems to be a case of mistaking the tool for the cause, and the best that can be said for such a notion is that it begs for more direct study. In fact, it wouldn’t be incorrect to succinctly state Frank’s findings this way: Teens Likely to Try Risky Behavior Also Text a Lot!


Sleigh bumps

August 25, 2010

Many of you may still be in a summer state of mind, but new research already has us thinking about winter fun. A new study from the Center for Injury Research and Policy finds that sledding is responsible for a staggering average of 20,820 injuries per year.

Using data from the National Electronic Surveillance System, researchers determined an average yearly sledding injury rate of 26 per 100,000 children ages nineteen and younger. MedPage Today reports that boys were the most prone to sledding accidents (particularly those between the ages of ten and fourteen), accounting for 60 percent of those injured.

Overall, the head was the most commonly injured area of the body, making up 34 percent of the injuries requiring hospital care. Here is the breakdown of injuries as reported by HealthDay:

  • Fractures – 26 %
  • Cuts and bruises – 25 %
  • Strains/sprains – 16 %
  • Traumatic brain injuries – 9 %

According to WebMD, 4.1 percent of all emergency department visits required hospitalization. Collisions of all types – whether with trees, people, or poles – were the most common cause of sledding injuries, occurring 50.6 percent of the time. Snow tubes were the most likely to lead to brain injuries and children ages four and under, were found to be four times more likely to sustain a head injury, Reuters reports.

The researchers also found that 51.8 percent of injuries occurred at a public sports or recreation area, and 31 percent took place on private property.

This study will be published in the September issue of Pediatrics. For sledding safety tips, click here.

July 23, 2010

First, they came for the scissors; then they took the rocks; how long before they remove the paper? As Forbes columnist Lenore Skenazy reports

“Michael Warring, president of American Educational Products in Fort Collins, Colo., had his shipment all ready: A school’s worth of small bags, each one filled with an igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rock. Then the school canceled its order. Says Warring, “They apparently decided rocks could be harmful to children.”

Drama – the key criterion for assessing volcano ash risk

April 20, 2010

Frank Furedi, the world’s formost sociologist on fear, weighs in on the air travel chaos created by the eruptions from the world’s most unpronouncable volcano — Eyjafjallajokull — on Spiked Online:

“I am not a natural scientist, and I claim no authority to say anything of value about the risks posed by volcanic ash clouds to flying aircraft. However, as a sociologist interested in the process of decision-making, it is evident to me that the reluctance to lift the ban on air traffic in Europe is motivated by worst-case thinking rather than rigorous risk assessment. Risk assessment is based on an attempt to calculate the probability of different outcomes. Worst-case thinking – these days known as ‘precautionary thinking’ – is based on an act of imagination. It imagines the worst-case scenario and then takes action on that basis. In the case of the Icelandic volcano, fears that particles in the ash cloud could cause aeroplane engines to shut down automatically mutated into a conclusion that this would happen. So it seems to me to be the fantasy of the worst-case scenario rather than risk assessment that underpins the current official ban on air traffic.”

Furedi’s criticism might seem, on the face of it, careless: The consequences of an aircraft sucking in volcanic ash are, based on previous incidents, potentially fatal. But in light of an admission by European Union officials that many of the grounded flights would have flown under U.S. rules for dealing with volcanic ash, and that the computer models used to predict the ash cloud were flawed give credence to the complaint that “worst-case thinking”  is bypassing rational, probabilistic,  risk assessment.

This is not, Furedi notes, an isolated phenomenon, but rather the result of a  broad societal amplification of fear as a criterion for dealing with and regulating life. It is a radicalized skepticism which places far greater value on what is unknown, what might happen,  than what can be known about what will happen. And this fear of the unknown demands action — government intervention and regulation on the grounds that it is better to be safe than sorry. For more, read the full article.

Superbug spreading

April 12, 2010

New strains of the life-threatening infection MRSA are spreading, creating a health crisis that did not exist several years ago, according to the op-ed “Backing away from the MRSA crisis” published in the LA Times. Johns Hopkins Hospital reported that 61 percent of the patients in the pediatric intensive care unit were carrying unusual strains of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. These children are carrying strains that are more infectious and more difficult to detect, leading to serious bloodstream infections that never would have occurred several years ago.

Maryn McKenna, author of the op-ed, writes that the new strains of MRSA have been spreading the past few years throughout livestock and farm workers in Europe and North America. So when it was reported that six Canadians were infected with these particular strains of MRSA, it was curious that none of them had been in contact with livestock or farming.

What exactly is going on with this deadly infection? McKenna, also author of the book “Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA” explains:

MRSA managed its advance in part because we were not paying attention, and in part because a bacterium that produces a new generation every 20 minutes will always outpace pharmaceutical companies that take a decade, on average, to bring a new drug to market.

But it also escaped our control because we created the conditions that allowed it to. Patients expect prescriptions when they’re ill, and doctors have been too quick to prescribe antibiotics even when they might not be necessary. We’ve crammed prisons beyond their capacities without taking into account that bugs bred in a prison will walk out with inmates when they are released and with correctional officers at the end of every day.

More than anything, the crisis was bred of our craving for cheap protein, which led to industrial-scale farms that consume 70% of the antibiotics used in the U.S. each year. We failed to realize in time that antibiotic-resistant bacteria would leave those farms not only in the animals that received the drugs, but in their manure, in groundwater and in dust on the wind.

According to McKenna, MRSA is the most important healthcare-associated infection. It causes 19,000 deaths a year in the U.S. alone, 370,000 hospitalizations, millions of hospital and doctors’ office visits, and an estimated $8 billion healthcare bill (one projection estimated the healthcare costs to be a staggering $38 billion). There is much more to her interesting analysis of this epidemic. You can read the full op-ed here.

Heading to the slopes

February 3, 2010

The majority of skiers and snowboarders are probably very aware that wearing a helmet is an important safety precaution, but a new study shows just how essential the helmet really is. Research out of the University of Calgary has found that wearing a helmet while skiing or snowboarding was associated with a 35 percent decrease in the risk of head injuries.  Wearing a helmet may also prevent between two and five out of every ten head injuries.

This meta-analysis included twelve studies from Europe, Asia and the United States. MedPage Today reports that in all, the studies included 9,829 participants who were wearing helmets and 36,735 who were not. It has previously been thought that helmets could increase the risk of neck injury; however, this study did not find a link between the two. According to WebMD, this holds true for children as well.

There are some limitations to this study (visit MedPage Today to see the list), perhaps the biggest being that the researchers were not able to examine the quality or fit of the helmets. The researchers say, “Methodologically rigorous research is required to determine which types of helmets provide the best protection”.

Time’s Wellness Blog provides another interesting insight:

“…the researchers emphasized that helmets are not a foolproof way to prevent injury. As they point out, in fact, if wearers develop a false sense of security about their safety, helmets could even prompt more reckless behavior. Previous study has yielded mixed results—some research indicates that helmet-wearers do tend to be more aggressive, and while other investigations found that helmets encouraged more caution.”

This study is published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Treehugger, Huffington Post ask: When will STATS concede that BPA is a threat?

January 14, 2010 – a widely read environmental activist site – says in a comment reposted on the Huffington Post:

“At some point, even the people at are going to have to acknowledge the growing pile of studies from all over the world adding to the case against Bisphenol A (BPA). The latest, From the University of Exeter, looked at the CDC (American Center for Disease Control) data and found that 60 year old men with the highest levels of BPA have about a 45% greater risk of heart disease than those with lower levels.”

The study doesn’t, in fact, say this. It is a cross-sectional analysis that expresses risk in the form of odds ratios, and odds ratios are not the same as percentage changes in risk. More importantly, cross-sectional studies cannot determine causality.  They are snapshots in time of two factors and the relationship between the two may be arbitrary. As the Exeter researchers themselves note in the actual study, “The cross sectional nature of the associations reported need to be treated with caution, as it is theoretically possible, for example, that those with cardiovascular disease change their diets in such a way as to increase BPA exposure.”

In other words, people who eat more fatty food are at greater risk from heart disease – and they may also be more likely to ingest more BPA by virtue of eating more packaged or canned food. This is not a trivial objection to the study – in fact, it’s why an identical, earlier study by the same researchers was rejected by the European Union’s agency responsible for evaluating BPA. The Exeter researchers claim they have replicated their key finding, thus giving their claim for an association more weight, but many of the endpoints they measured lost statistical significance the second time around. In research that mines data for associations, this is called an alarm bell. They also concede that biologically plausible causes for disease based on such minute changes in BPA are speculative.

When the researchers are so open about not finding a causal link to heart disease and the need to interpret their results with caution, why should STATS charge ahead, like Treehugger, and pronounce the link and the risk certain? (To read our review of the Exeter study, click here).

More to the point, whether there is a “growing pile of studies from all over the world” indicating a risk from BPA all depends on what and how you count. So far, not a single risk assessment has pronounced BPA a threat anywhere in the world. Here’s a flavor of the counter evidence:

Since the EU risk assessment in 2006, there has been a review by Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (2007); an examination of claims of neurotoxicity by the Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety (2008); an update to the European Union’s risk assessment (2008); an evaluation by the French Food Safety Agency (2008); a risk assessment by NSF International, a World Health Organization collaborative center (2008); a review of new data by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (2008); a joint regulatory review for manufacturers by the FDA and Health Canada; a survey by Health Canada (2009); a risk assessment by Food Standards Australia/New Zealand (2009); two more surveys by Health Canada, one on canned powdered infant formula, the second on bottled water products (2009); a hazard assessment by California’s Environmental Protection Agency (2009); and a modeling study of BPA in humans by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (2009).

Risk assessments take research, like that of the Exeter study, and see whether it is statistically robust and methodologically rigorous enough to be used for the purposes of risk assessment. Not all peer-reviewed research is equal, and every scientist knows this.  Unfortunately, with BPA, the activist groups and the media recognize no such quality control. (And for those who don’t think quality control in statistics is important, read Richard A. Friedman M.D.’s analysis in the New York Times of a recent study on antidepressants which claimed that they were ineffective.)

For example, the latest study from the EPA failed to prove the low-dose hypothesis (the second from the EPA that failed to replicate the original theory of BPA’s risk to humans). And both went ignored. One of the EPA’s and the world’s leading experts on endocrine disruption dismissed claims made by Consumer Reports about the research as “an ad hominem attack… without scientific merit.” And he was ignored. The lead author of the European Union’s 2006 risk assessement said the Consumer Report’s investigation into BPA in cans was “highly biased” and hard to believe, but who listened to him (except STATS)?

It has become an article of faith in the environmental movement and on the left that BPA is lethal, and the U.S. government irresponsible for not banning it. But even the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has conceded that many of the studies it funded and which claimed a risk from BPA, were insufficiently rigorous for risk assessment. It has now toughened up its criteria for funding BPA research – demanding of its grantees the same experimental methodologies used in those studies which failed to find a risk.

Until risk assessments around the world find evidence of a risk from BPA, STATS is bound to give greater weight to their judgment. This is also why each new study needs to be read critically – and why studies that don’t find a risk need to taken seriously. We apologize for the inconvenience.


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