People all across the country feel less safe this month because the federal government cannot protect our coastline from a ruptured oil well. When we are afraid we personalize the risk whether we live in the area affected and are in direct contact with the sweet smelling crude oil vapor or not. We are afraid for our health, afraid for our psyche; we feel vulnerable.
Many who live in the Gulf coast region are very depressed and anxious, and those of us who attach voyeuristically to the news worry too. We worry about our safety, and more than that, we worry about our children's future.
American parents also had a feeling of fear and vulnerability last month when we learned that McNeil, a Division of Johnson and Johnson, had such poor practices of quality control in their plant in Pennsylvania that raw materials contained bacteria dust on the equipment, debris everywhere, and there were complaints of inactive particles mixed with a variation in active ingredients. The FDA report showed a complete lack of "test procedures designed to assure that components and drug products conform to appropriate standards of identity, strength, quality, and purity."
As with the oil spill, once again the federal government was doing an inadequate job of protecting us -- in this case the FDA -- 43 products of commonly used children's products including Tylenol, Motrin, Zyrtec, and Benadryl were withdrawn before they harmed anyone, but there was a nagging concern that the real problem was more pervasive than just one factory.
The FDA went on to try to police Johnson & Johnson for a pseudo recall the year before, when the company allegedly contracted workers to remove the tainted product from the shelves. Unbelievably, the FDA wasn't even able to persuade J & J to pony up the paperwork that might have implicated them in a crime.
One of the most important roles of the government is public safety. But our federal agencies have not succeeded in convincing us that they can protect us from threats, either real or imagined. The less protected we feel, the more we may exaggerate the actual risks.
As fake bomb threats continued to surface in New York City, meanwhile, across Michigan, Ohio, and here in New York State there were at least nineteen reported cases of people getting sick from Romaine lettuce contaminated with a rare (but increasing) strain of the bacteria E. Coli 0145 which inhabits cow intestines, contaminates meat, and makes its way from manure (organic fertilizer) to the crops we would eat.
There have been dozens of these contaminated products over the years, and though the CDC and the FDA have become more successful at decreasing the numbers of outbreaks of the dangerous E. Coli 0157 whose "shiga" toxin can severely damage kidneys 5 to 10 percent of the time, other similar strains including 0145 are rising up to take its place.
Invisible to the naked eye, this bacteria is quite a terrorist -- it grows inside the intestines of cows that are fed grain instead of grass, and makes its way (invisibly) to meat, manure, and onto crops.
Like all terrorists, it is very difficult to eradicate, and if we eat it we can get really sick with diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, dehydration, and even kidney failure. Of the 19 reported cases, at least 12 had to be hospitalized, and three developed the dreaded "hemolytic uremic syndrome," which can destroy the kidneys.
As with all forms of terrorism, the fear outweighs the statistical risk. There are very few of these cases of E. Coli 0145 compared to our perception of the risk every time we bite into a piece of Romaine lettuce. As with all terrorists we would feel safer if we had more effective means of protection. The USDA is responsible for inspecting animals and plants, and the FDA foods, but a problem can occur just as a plant or animal is developing into a food.
Unfortunately, just as homicidal bombers can fall in the cracks between the police department and the FBI, so too can a nasty bacteria fall in between the jurisdiction of the FDA, USDA, and the CDC.
A microscopic bacteria can be just as threatening to us in its own way as can a bomb or a creeping oil slick.
We would feel a whole lot safer if we could trust our government to step up to the plate in a timely manner. The longer a governmental response is delayed or the more ineffective it is, the more we feel susceptible to the threat, no matter how large, small, or far away from us it is.
Marc Siegel, M.D. is the author of "False Alarm; the Truth about the Epidemic of Fear." He is a Fox News medical contributor.
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