April 30, 2009 The Pump Handle 4Comment

by Kas

Joe Biden was on NBC earlier saying, “I would tell members of my family — and I have — I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now.” As examples of confined places, he mentions planes and subways.

Mr. Vice President, would you ride the train to Delaware tonight?  Say it ain’t so, Joe.  We know that you live in D.C. now and that your daily commute in that “confined place” has been eliminated for the time being.  But, what about the rest of us?  Who uses the “confined places” of public transportation the most?  Who is inside those “confined places” classrooms?  And how do these people perceive risks associated with “germs”?

I have a feeling they might feel like the young man on the street interviewed on the 10:00 PM news the other night.  He felt that he was prepared for the flu because he had stocked up on his face masks and antibiotics. Evidently, we still have a long way to go in getting across the messages that antibiotics won’t help viral illnesses, and that using them unnecessarily contributes to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 

Maybe they don’t understand what it means when they hear the terms H1N1 virus or N95 filtering facepiece.

Maybe they were flipping through the television stations the other day and, like me, happened to stop on the Christian Broadcasting Network right in time to hear Pat Robertson on the 700 Club state (I’m paraphrasing) that to improve fuel efficiency, airplanes maximize recirculation of air, thus decreasing the indoor air quality on planes (resulting in everyone breathing in each other’s air.) Here’s a YouTube clip – it starts at 3:15.

Shame on you Joe.  Shame on you Pat.  You know that your names and your faces are more widely-recognized than any public health official’s name or face.  You know that you bear the responsibility to get it right not just because you’ve both gotten it wrong before, but because there are a lot of people out there who still like you and may be inclined to believe at face value what you’re saying.

The public health community has the knowledge, skills, and abilities to assess and characterize risks.  If you think that the air inside these “confined places” is unsafe, then let’s do something about it.  Please promote and preserve human health and safety by getting the facts from a public health subject matter expert and referring or deferring to that source.

Kas is an industrial hygienist studying public health in the DC metro area.

4 thoughts on “Risk Perceptions

  1. Kas,
    Thanks for bluntly pointing out that opinionmakers, like VP Biden and Rev. Robertson, would serve the public (and public health) better by informing themselves with facts before opening their mouths. Those of us in public health should arm ourselves with facts, too, so that we can chime in and speak up when we hear misinformation in our own circles. This includes the following sensible practices (courtesy of CDC)

    *STAY home if you are sick (or as we like to say in our office—I’m keeping my germs at home today.)
    *Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
    *Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze.
    *Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread that way.

  2. One tiny wrinkle here. Yes, antibiotics are for bacteria and not viruses. But don’t forget secondary infections, like bacterial pneumonia. That’s a very common scenario with flu and does respond to antibiotics.

  3. Being in a confined area with others is an excellent way to get infected.

    Washing hands has been proven to be the best way to reduce the incidence of infections, since hand to eye/nose/mouth is the most common way to become infected.

    That being said, inhalation/eye contact with aerosolized (sneeze/cough) oral/nasal fluids is also a comon way to become infected.
    Kas states that we need to take action; here are some suggestions:

    Since we don’t have any other way to get to work, we need to insure that there is an adequate air exchange rate in the areas of the bus/train. Demand to see (via local, state, or federal Freedom Of Information – FOI) the records of each and every bus/train car’s ventillation system. Demand that each bus/train car contains at least one notice of how to complain. Demand to see the complaints and the resolution of the complaints. ASHRAE publishes a suggested Cubic Foot per Min (CFM) Air Exchange Rate for different human situations. Perhaps the CDC or State and local Health Depts do as well.

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