There are numerous misconceptions and popular myths most people have when unexpectedly facing hazardous situations. Is it safe to eat snow? Drink cactus water? Drink alcohol to keep warm? Suck out a snake’s venom? Below are ten examples of the most common emergency actions and reactions in potential life-threatening situations.
Eating snow in or near a major metropolitan area is not a good idea. Remote locations are much safer for obvious reasons:
“If it is cold enough for snow to be present, then it is cold enough for hypothermia. Since any volume of snow is mostly air, this means you'd need to eat about ten quarts of snow to yield one quart of water in your belly. Forget about brain freeze—this is core freeze! If you're dehydrated in cold conditions with snow, find a way to liquefy the snow outside your body. Melt it with fire. Place it in a black container in the sun to absorb solar heat. Do anything other than eating it to melt it.”
“A timely warning to residents of Mid-Atlantic cities about to get dumped with potentially record-breaking quantities of the white stuff was published in the latest issue of Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts. Snow in urban areas soaks up toxic pollutants in the air, including cancer-causing chemicals like benzene.
“‘As a mother who is an atmospheric physical chemist, I definitely do not suggest my young kids to eat snow in urban areas in general,’ Parisa Ariya, professor of chemistry and atmospheric sciences at Canada’s McGill University who led the research, told the Huffington Post.
“Ariya’s research wasn’t primarily focused on snow as a gastronomic delicacy. Instead, she and her colleagues were looking at how snow and cold interact with particles in gasoline exhaust. They found that the snow acted like a sponge, efficiently removing chemicals like benzene, toulene, xylenes and others from the air.
“Of course, all of those chemicals then end up in the snow, where they make for a very unsavory snack. Benzene, which is present in gasoline, crude oil and cigarette smoke, interferes with cell functions and can cause anemia, leukemia and other problems, according to the World Health Organization. The Environmental Protection Agency says that toulene, a gasoline additive, can damage the central nervous system, while xylenes are associated with neurological problems, breathing difficulties and kidney failure, among other concerns.
“‘These findings demonstrate that the interaction of gasoline internal combustion exhaust with snow and the effect of cold temperature have a potential to influence human health and environmental effects associated with exposure to exhaust-derived air pollution,’ the study said.”
Lost in the desert? Drinking cactus water will do more harm than good:
“You may have heard that you can get water from a cactus if you are ever lost and dehydrated in a desert. Sounds like a nice survival tip to store away, but is it really that easy? Turns out, a cactus is not actually a spine-covered basin of fresh water. Such a plant would not last long in an arid habitat filled with thirsty animals. Water is truly a precious resource in a desert, so, in addition to their intimidating spines, most cactus species further protect their spongy flesh with acids and potent alkaloids. These chemicals are usually too acrid for most humans to tolerate and are taxing on the kidneys if ingested.
“The flesh of some cactus species can also cause vomiting, diarrhea, or temporary paralysis—none of which is conducive to your survival in an emergency situation. The notable exceptions to this rule are the prickly pear and one species of barrel cactus, the fishhook barrel. While both of these plants are fairly unpleasant to eat raw, they have less-concentrated levels of the detrimental chemicals and could give you a bit of hydration in a pinch. Cactus fruits are a better bet, though many are also unpalatable if eaten raw.”
In an extreme emergency, drinking your own urine won’t save you:
“Your body is home to many different colonies of healthy bacteria. Your urinary tract contains different types of bacteria. These are harmless unless they start growing out of control. When urine passes through the urinary tract, it becomes contaminated with bacteria. Drinking urine, whether your own or someone else’s, introduces bacteria into your system that can cause gastrointestinal problems or other infections.
“Urine contains waste products that have been filtered out of your bloodstream. Although they’re called toxins, these waste products aren’t exactly toxic. They are, however, highly concentrated. And your body is trying to get rid of these, because if they stay in the body, they do harm. Drinking urine reintroduces concentrated waste products into your system. This forces the kidneys to filter them out again, causing unnecessary strain……
“Drinking urine isn’t usually good for you. But what if you’re stranded on a desert island? Can drinking your own urine save you from dying of dehydration?
“Although it makes for a dramatic movie scene, this is just a myth. Drinking urine when you’re dying of dehydration would be about the same as drinking seawater — only yuckier. Urine contains concentrated salts and minerals. To process salt, your kidneys require a certain amount of water. To compensate for increased salt intake, you’d have to pee out more water than you take in from urine. This would actually accelerate the dehydration process.”
Drinking alcohol in freezing weather will not warm you up:
“Alcohol is a vasodilator. It causes your blood vessels to dilate, particularly the capillaries just under the surface of your skin. When you have a drink, the volume of blood brought to the skin’s surface increases, making you feel warm. (That dilation is why slightly or exceedingly intoxicated people look flushed.) This overrides one of your body’s defenses against cold temperatures: Constricting your blood vessels, thereby minimizing blood flow to your skin in order to keep your core body temperature up.
“Someone enjoying a drink in the cold may feel warmer from the extra blood warming his skin, but that blood will rapidly cool thanks to the chill in the air. Plus, the warmth caused by blood rushing to the skin will also make him sweat, decreasing his core temperature even further. The rapid drop often occurs without the drinker realizing it, because his skin will still feel fairly warm, which makes it doubly dangerous to drink alcohol in extremely cold weather. (You might want to put down the coffee, too; caffeine has a similar effect.)”
If bitten by a snake, should I immediately suck out the poison?
“According to the World Health Organization, approximately 5.4 million people are bitten by snakes each year worldwide, about 81,000 to 138,000 of which are fatal. That’s a lot of deaths that could have been prevented if the remedy were really that simple.
“Unfortunately the ‘cut and suck’ method was discredited a few decades ago, when research proved it to be counterproductive. Venom spreads through the victim’s system so quickly, there’s no hope of sucking out a sufficient volume to make any difference. Cutting and sucking the wound only serves to increase the risk of infection and can cause further tissue damage. A tourniquet is also dangerous, as it cuts off the blood flow and leaves the venom concentrated in one area of the body. In worst-case scenarios, it could cost someone a limb.”
This common jellyfish sting treatment has long since been debunked:
“So you've been stung by a jellyfish. The good news: there's no need to get your friend to pee on you. The bad news: all the other solutions you've heard of will probably only make it worse.
“A jellyfish sting is like a thousand tiny spears injecting you with poison all at once—literally. Their tentacles have millions of tiny lances embedded inside nematocysts, which launch the little stingers out and into your skin upon contact. They latch on, like those little burrs that get in your dog's fur, and let loose a stream of venom. If the jellyfish that gets you happens to be, say, a box jellyfish, you could be dead in minutes.
“If you're a character from a hit '90s television series, you're probably thinking, ‘yeah, but you can just pee on it, right? Everyone knows that the ammonia or whatever counteracts the sting.’ But that's where you're wrong. Know what else doesn't work? Almost everything that Google suggests. Two researchers from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa recently reviewed those purported solutions and found that of all the home-style remedies, only one was really a good idea: vinegar. They published their findings on Wednesday in the journal Toxins………….
“If you know your chemistry, you might be wondering why pee is poo-poo'ed as a remedy when urea—one of its components—shows up in the most effective jellyfish sting treatment. But here's the deal: while urea does indeed help unstick tentacles from stung skin, human urine is generally too dilute to accomplish this. And while your well-meaning buddy's pee almost certainly won't have enough urea to help you out, it may contain enough salt to trigger nematocysts to fire more venom into you.”
Never rely on cotton to avoid hypothermia:
“Cotton kills—or, at least, could lead to hypothermia if you rely on it as your primary base layer in cold weather. It’s a great fabric to wear around the house, and it has great applications in hot, dry climates. But once cotton gets wet, it loses its insulating properties. Before you even break a sweat, normal skin moisture will soak into the cotton fibers and start to cool your body through conduction. These fibers can hold up to 27 times their weight in water and then store that moisture up to eight times longer than synthetics or wool. This doesn’t just leave you feeling clammy—it steals vital heat from your core. If it’s cold enough for long johns, then it’s too cold for cotton.”
Eating raw meat and raw seafood is safe:
“Not really. We’ve all seen the survival show with a charismatic host scarfing down some poor live animal. This may be safe once in a while, but it’s hardly a technique to emulate. Raw animal flesh can contain pathogens that may attack the human body, resulting in an extended-onset condition that’s difficult to diagnose. What about sushi, you say? Plenty of folks eat raw fish and don’t seem to get sick. Some raw seafood that comes from saltwater is safe for human consumption, but it’s only because their pathogens aren’t very compatible with the human body. The worms in sushi and the bacteria in oysters aren’t usually the right species to take up residence in a human host. Play it safe: Kill it and cook it before you eat it.”
Bear attack – fight or flight:
“If you're attacked or pursued, react according to the species of bear. ‘Typically if you're in a place where there's just black bears, you would be bold and aggressive to a bear that approaches you,’ says Garshelis (bear research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources). Throwing things, standing tall, and yelling will drive away most black bears—although that strategy isn't foolproof. ‘I've seen pretty scary videos where black bears have actually attacked people when they're doing everything right,’ he says. ‘Nothing's 100 percent.’
“If you run into a grizzly, your approach should be the opposite: Backing away slowly and getting away from the situation without provoking the animal, he says. That's especially true with female grizzly bears with cubs, which can be particularly dangerous.
“When threatened, female grizzlies will often stand up, slap the ground, and make blowing sounds. However, ‘that means it's nervous; it's not aggressive,’ he says. In Smith and Herrero's analysis of 675 bear attacks in Alaska, the vast majority of incidents in which bears charged occurred when people and bears confronted each other at close range, within ten yards (nine meters) or less. In more than 50 percent of those situations, the person was not physically hurt. Of the 313 cases in which the bears injured the person, 36 percent of injuries were to legs and feet, 18 percent to the back, 18 percent to arms, and 9 percent to head and neck.
“‘You can't outrun a bear,’ Garshelis says. ‘The best thing to do is walk away slowly from a bear if it already clearly sees you.’ Keep watching the animal as you walk away, and some experts suggest speaking out loud in a calm voice. Know when to play dead. Only play dead after a bear has made contact with you.
“If it's a black bear, try to fight back. If that strategy doesn't work, lay on your stomach (protecting your vital organs), clasp your hands on the back of your neck, and pull up your knees. At this point, the bear may give up and leave. If it's a grizzly, do not try to defend yourself. ‘Once it's on you, and there's nothing else you can do, collapse and play dead,’ Garshelis says.
“Since 1970, Yellowstone National Park has tracked bear encounters and found that those who play dead when attacked by a bear during a surprise encounter only got minor injuries 75 percent of the time. Those who fought back, on the other hand, suffered severe injuries 80 percent of the time. The analysis by Smith and Herrero also revealed that things don't always end well for the bear: In 600 physical run-ins with people, bears died 34 percent of the time from injury incurred during the incident or from subsequent management actions.”
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