Leading Causes of Death

04:42 Sat 16 Dec 2006
[, ]

My friend Brian, after reading Fear and Personal Radiation Detectors, read up on leading causes of death in the US and concluded that wasn’t really worth it to worry about radiation poisoning.

He has a point. The leading cause of death is heart disease, followed by cancer (and I don’t think that one can really claim that any significant amount of this cancer is caused by radiation detectable by NukAlert, or by radiation due to the kinds of accidents under discussion on Thursday). Accidents of all kinds place a distant fifth, with 108,694 deaths in the US in 2004. 46,933 of these were transport accidents, and the vast majority of these were accidents involving motor vehicles. “Accidental poisoning and exposure to noxious substances” would seem to cover radiation poisoning (and a lot of other things) and accounts for 19,250 of the deaths is 2004. Not that many, in other words. One in almost 16,000 people. As opposed to around in 460 for heart disease.

Sudden radiation poisoning seems far more horrifying than heart disease, though. It’s almost entirely out of our control, and a split-second can mean catastrophe. Whereas with heart disease, we think that we can control it (to an extent we can) and we think we have plenty of time to do so (to an extent this is true).

These thoughts always bring up a certain superstition in me. A joke I heard in 1997 or so goes some way towards an explanation:

If gluttony is the primary characteristic of a glutton, then the universe is an iron.

Rather than fearing a jealous and vengeful god, or believing in karma (which is “only justice without the satisfaction” according to The Way of the Gun), or in fairies, or that we all get our just desserts in the thereafter, I superstitiously fear the heavy application of irony in massive doses. As in: wouldn’t it be ironic if I had this concern about radiation poisoning, considered doing something about it, decided not to, and then got radiation poisoning? (Answer: yes, it would be ironic, as well as a lot of other things.) Or, wouldn’t it be ironic if I went gung-ho on radiation survival and succumbed to heart disease? And so on. Clearly irrational, definitely superstitious, but that thought pattern remains resilient in my mind. And at root it is a paralyzing pattern, because an omnipotent ironic narrator will doubtless wait until that moment when you think you’re safe to pounce, so as soon as you decide on the best course of action, that’s when it’s time to worry…

2 Responses to “Leading Causes of Death”

  1. NiallM Says:

    I told you that joke, and I believe it’s from Samuel R. Delaney… although which book I’m not sure (Babel 17 maybe?)

  2. Tadhg Says:

    The line reminds me strongly of a night at the Pav in TCD, although I can’t remember if I told it there or was told it there… but yes, it makes sense that you told it to me, even if I can’t remember the actual telling.

    I’m in your environs, by the way, and will call you later.

Leave a Reply