'Meteorite' Crash Breeds Mass Hysteria

On what started as a normal Saturday night two weekends ago, residents of a small, remote Peruvian town saw a bright light streak across the sky, heard a resounding bang and suddenly found themselves at the center of a media frenzy.

Initial suspicions of an airplane crash quickly spiraled into widespread reports that a meteorite had plummeted to Earth and left a smoking, boiling crater whose supposedly noxious fumes were reported to have sickened curious locals who went to peer at the hole.

Geologists doubted that the crater was actually caused by a meteorite, and firm explanations were offered that a meteorite would not even emit fumes and that the "sickness" was likely a case of mass hysteria.

Nevertheless, onlookers far and wide were fascinated by the idea that this event could be a real-life "Andromeda Strain," after the 1969 novel by Michael Crichton in which a mysterious rock from outer space carries a lethal microbe that kills nearly everyone infected by it.

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So what is it about things falling from the sky that fills us with such fear that we make ourselves sick with panic?

Mass hysteria

Media reports of the number of locals afflicted by a "mysterious disease" — with symptoms such as nausea, headaches and sore throats — after visiting the crater figured in every news article about the Aug. 15 event, with some reporting that as many as 600 people had fallen ill.

But doctors who visited the site told the Associated Press they found no evidence that the crater had actually sickened such a large number of people.

If noxious fumes did emanate from the crater, they were most likely the result of a hydrothermal explosion that could have actually formed the crater, or were released from the ground if and when the meteorite struck, according to many geologists.

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Arsenic is found in the subsoil in that area of Peru and often contaminates the drinking water there, according to Peruvian geologists quoted on Sept. 21 by National Geographic News.

Arsenic fumes released from the crater could have sickened locals who went to look, said one geologist who examined the site.

Some health officials suggest instead that the symptoms described by the locals, the large number of people reporting those symptoms and the apparently rapid spread have all the hallmarks of a case of mass hysteria.

"Those who say they are affected are the product of a collective psychosis," Jorge Lopez Tejada, health department chief in Puno, the nearest large city, told the Los Angeles Times.

This psychosis could have begun as a result of fear of the meteorite and the mysterious "disease" on the part of the residents and spread as official and media reports seemed to confirm it and give it credence.

"The Peruvian event seems to be a rare case where we may be witnessing collective anxiety that is approaching near hysteria," said Benny Peiser, a social anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University in England. "The major[ity] of the affected Peruvian town hinted that some of the mass anxiety is due to fear of imminent impacts and psychological stress, which is not surprising given the premature speculation and media hype."

Fear of outer space

Fear of a meteorite impact is nothing new — humans have long looked to the heavens with a wary eye.

"The fear of cosmic disaster, in particular cometary impacts, has existed in all cultures for millennia," Peiser told SPACE.com

But the space age revealed just how many dangers, including comets, meteors, asteroids and cosmic rays, await us in the final frontier.

"Only since the late 20th century, humankind has become aware of the risk posed by asteroids and comets," Peiser said. "Unfortunately, this risk has been wildly exaggerated by popular culture."

Our curiosity and fear of impact events has increased their coverage by the world media, Peiser says, which in turn has increased the number of meteorite impact reports, even when the evidence doesn't point that way.

"In recent years, there have been numerous cases where alleged meteorite falls were linked to mysterious explosions on the ground — only to be proven wrong," Peiser said. "One of the main reasons for the significant increase of such claims is almost certainly due to the growing media interest in the cosmic impact risk. It is part of human nature — and extremely tempting for the news media — to hype any event that initially looks mysterious."

While this fear is normal and understandable, it's been blown out of proportion so that the public thinks that impact risks are higher than they are, Peiser argues.

"Most people are simply not aware that we are making enormous progress in finding and identifying the population of Near Earth Objects and that the impact risk is thus diminishing year by year," Peiser said.

When meteorites have struck, they have never carried any hint of some mysterious space disease.

"I don't know of any known record of a meteorite landing that emitted odors so noxious that people got sick from it," said geologist Larry Grossman of the University of Chicago.

So much for the Andromeda Strain.

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