Warning: may prove harmful or fatal…

We put warning labels on all sorts of things. Sometimes people ignore them.

The only prescription allergy medicine that ever really eliminated my hay fever symptoms carried a warning about fatal heart problems that could happen if you took it at the same time you were taking certain antibiotics. A few years later, the warning list expanded to include additional prescription drugs. And then it had to be expanded, again, to include several over-the-counter medications and other substances.

Enough people ignored the warnings and had heart attacks, sometimes fatal, to cause the FDA to re-evaluate the drug. Their research indicated that most people would not heed the warnings about the over-the-counter drugs particularly. You know how some people are, “It’s not a real drug! It’s like aspirin!” So it was disapproved for sale in the U.S.

I didn’t want to have a heart attack, of course, but I really liked being free of the allergy symptoms. Several new drugs had been approved about the time that this one was removed that were supposed to do the same thing. Studies show that, for most people, the new drugs did at least as well as the old one, and a lot of people found one of them much better. Also, there hasn’t been much in the way of harmful side effects for the others.

Unfortunately, I’m not one of the people for whom any of the alternatives work as well. Sometimes I wish that I could go to the FDA and sign a waiver that neither I nor my heirs can ever sue over any problems with the drug, and keep taking it. The misery of really bad hay fever days makes the risk seem inconsequential.

During those days, I really resent the sorts of people who don’t pay attention to warning labels. Almost as if they are intentionally making life less pleasant for some of us.

At the other end of the spectrum are people who are overly-wary of warning labels. They know that some medications carry a long list of warnings, and they just don’t want to risk any of them. Part of the problem is that it is difficult to communicate risk on a small label, particularly to Americans, where mathematical education in public schools has long been inadequate. I remember one time trying to explain to someone that the odds of most of the harmful side effects of medications approved for sale in the U.S. are significantly lower than the chances of dying in an elevator accident. “Well, at least with an elevator, you have a chance to try to jump before the fall!”

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at the number of ways that retort was wrong.

Of course, risk assessment isn’t a simple matter. For instance, a lot of people like to point out that statistically stairs are hundreds of times riskier than elevators. That’s only true if by riskier you mean the number of injuries and deaths that occur in a given year, rather than the number that occur per use. One reason more accidents happen on stairs than in elevators is because people use stairs more often than they use elevators.

Things become even more murky when you find out that half of the fatalities associated with elevators are maintenance and construction workers doing some sort of repairs near an elevator shaft. Even more surprising, almost one quarter of the fatalities associated with elevators fall into the category of people leaning against closed elevator doors while waiting for an elevator, or people not looking and simply stepping into the shaft when the doors open.

Leaning against an elevator door? Really?

I understand why someone such as myself is willing to risk some possible side effects in order to escape the misery of weeks of sinus headaches, itchy eyes, and scratchy throats. But why on earth would someone lean on an elevator door?

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