Safety is Always an Illusion

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Copyright 2014 Tangient LLC

The usual mantra voiced by any generation older than our own is that “things were better back in the day.” Yet, realistically, in so many ways, life wasn’t always better. It was often shorter, more toxic, and simply more dangerous. We drove cars with anti-knock additives that were slowly poisoning us (thanks, Cosmos, for telling this story!). We painted our houses with lead-based paints. We died from diseases that can now be cured or prevented.

A case in point is the area of consumer safety. Although, we as a society still have a long way to go to make our lives safer; many advances in consumer safety have happened in our sixty-plus years. We are both old enough to remember “back when” we thought we were safe, when we felt safe—but we really weren’t.

Even with the current furor about sticking Toyota accelerators and faulty GM ignitions, cars are demonstrably much safer today. Back when Joan and Greg were children, in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, cars weren’t equipped with seat belts. Joan has a very fond childhood memory of sitting contentedly on her grandmother’s lap, on an evening ride home from some favorite restaurant in Gary, Indiana. With her grandmother’s arms wrapped tightly around her, Joan felt safe and loved. But, as we know today, a child on someone’s lap, especially in the front seat of a car, is a child in danger.

It wasn’t until we were seventeen years old in 1968 that seat belts were mandated in cars, and even then we weren’t required to use them. Culture, especially in the form of the habits of everyday life, is often slow to change. People are resistant to changes in well-worn patterns. And so, predictably, many resisted using the newly-required seat belts. People claimed to find them uncomfortable, restricting, or simply annoying. Joan’s grandparents didn’t use their seat belts and disabled the warning sound that went off when the front belts weren’t buckled. Most of us know folks today who still don’t use them—although these hardy souls must weather the ever more insistent beeping reminders of our automotive nannies to buckle up. Slowly, in the years that followed, states began to pass seat belt laws; it actually took seventeen years for the first state, New York, to pass a law making seat belt use compulsory.

We also remember life before safety packaging. Over-the-counter drugs and other ingestible products were not tamper-proof until we were in our early thirties. The weekend that changed the nature of the way we package OTC drugs and other consumable products occurred in Chicago in 1982—the so-called, still unsolved, Tylenol murders.

During the fall of that year, some poor unsuspecting consumers in the Chicago area purchased acetaminophen capsules that had been tampered with. The first victim to die was a twelve year old girl, Mary Kellerman. She was followed in death by a twenty-seven year old named Adam Janus.  In a horrific chain of events, Adam’s brother and his sister-in-law, stressed out from his sudden, unexplained death, took capsules from the same bottle. Then, in the span of three days, seven people had died.  The authorities traced the source of the poisonings to Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules that had been laced with potassium cyanide, all purchased in the Chicago area.

Greg and Joan had been in Chicago that memorable September, a little over three weeks before the news of the deaths was made public. Greg had delivered a paper at the 40th World Science Fiction Convention there. We had bought acetaminophen in a Walgreens in Chicago while we were there and had already taken a couple of pills.  During a nightly news broadcast late in September 1982, we learned that Walgreens was one of the stores where the poisoned Tylenol had been purchased. We immediately checked our medicine cabinet to see whether we had purchased Tylenol or some other less lethal brand. Ever frugal, it seems we had purchased a store brand—so we, unlike the seven others, were safe. However, the episode was a grim reminder that you never know when you will be in the very wrong place at quite the wrong time, swallowing, eating, or drinking exactly the wrong thing.

Like Joan sitting on her grandmother’s lap in the front seat of grandpa’s car on that ride home so long ago, safety is always an illusion. While it is given that seat belts and tamper-proof packaging have saved lives, even these precautions can never totally protect us from harm. We can try to be careful; we can watch for signs of imminent danger. But, above all, most of us survive by playing the odds. We trust that the statistics are in our favor. Most of us won’t die in a plane crash, or from poisoned Tylenol, or from lead poisoning. But, as Joan has always said, someone has to be the random statistic, the poor soul hit by lightning or a jet engine falling out of the sky. In life there are no guarantees. And Joan and Greg are still alive to testify to this, at least at the time this post was written…

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