Culture Science & Nature U.S. of A.

Oh, my God, we’re pussies

The New York Times (sigh) has posted a much-blogged, much-read article about something called — don’t laugh — thirdhand smoke.

In short, smokers who aren’t actually smoking at the moment carry molecules of nasty toxins like hydrogen cyanide and arsenic. Oh, my god, arsenic, it’s so famously poisonous, don’t you know? These molecules can transfer to elevator buttons or couches or anything else these horrid lepers touch — including their babies!

The article points out the worst sort of science — pop science. The “reporter,” if she can be called such, cites one study (one, because there have been no others), which is lamentable in and of itself. Where the irrelevance of this article becomes clear is in its astonishing inability to correlate toxicity with quantity.

Any high school student (not necessarily American ones) can tell you that a molecule of this or that means nothing in the context of human health. You encounter more toxins walking down a street with moderate automobile traffic than you will ever encounter from a smoker who isn’t even smoking a cigarette when you meet him. We are well equipped by evolution to resist or efficiently process trace amounts of toxins. Not all of them, but so many of them that I’m shocked we’re even having this conversation.

Scrubbed your toilet with bleach lately? Way toxic every time you breathed. Stood around the garage while your mechanic rang you up? Perhaps you should evaluate all the molecules that float in the air, cling to his walls, adhere to the pen you use to sign your credit card slip. And don’t get me started on that log fire you stoked in the fireplace of your living room, where you’ve got couches. And babies!

Which leads me to those ridiculous wipes you now see at certain supermarkets. You know the ones. They’re like baby-butt wipes in a cylinder near the carts and hand baskets. God knows that decades of cart-pushing by hundreds of millions of humans has plagued us with catastrophic disease and…oh, wait. We’re all fine when we don’t, like pussies, wipe our hands before pushing a cart around? Are you sure about that? I know there’s a study somewhere that shows statistically significant decreases in the chance that I will get a cold if only I wipe my hands with a baby-butt wipe at the grocery store. And before I handle dollar bills to pay for the food that was touched by potentially dozens of people before I pulled it off the shelf. Or, if out of cash, handled the digital pen in that annoying PIN device at checkout.

The world is full of toxins, so stop holding your breath. But whatever you do, don’t touch a smoker or let him touch your babies!

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