Felled by an endless broadside of studies


IN WORLD WAR II, I served on a bomber crew. Life was on the precarious side, but it resolved into three possibilities: You came back in one piece, you came back damaged or you didn't come back at all.

Now, with the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor almost upon us, life again seems loaded with risk -- this time not so simplistically. It comes not from flak bursts, but from the endless broadside of studies.

For instance, coffee studies. One such, by a Dr. Schuman in the 1980s, determined coffee is bad for you. A subsequent study said it is not so bad after all. A third said it can be good and bad. All three agreed on one point, though -- that more studies are needed to confirm the foregoing results.

Another threat comes from asbestos studies. Having the stuff around is hazardous to your health, say all of them. So rip it out? No so fast. A new study tells us that letting this sleeping pit bull lie is safer than filling the air with the debris of asbestos removal. When it's loose in the air like that, it's called "friable." Oh?

Next, consider water studies. We are being dosed with all sorts of evil substances in our tap water. Use bottled water. Then comes benzine in Perrier, heaven forfend! New studies show that bottled water may not be all it's crocked up to be.

Then there is the gut-burning issue of preservatives. They're everywhere, and studies show . . . Well, my aging mother had an answer for those. "Preservatives are what have kept me going," she said when she reached 88.

How about the Great Oat Bran Debate? That's remarkable in itself, since bran is no more than the hull of the grain kernel. We have a national frenzy underway over husks. Studies a year or so ago told us that the husk of the oat was second only to the fountain of youth in prolonging life.

Subsequent studies showed that oat wrappings may have been as overrated a health factor as sun lamps. But wait, new studies claim there may be something to oat coats, after all -- if you're not overly influenced by yet another study that claims wheat husks are just as efficacious. Whatever the final answer may be, if there ever is one, all these studies have been sold a mountain of chaff.

Aside from the currently fascinating issue of how seriously cow burps are enhancing the greenhouse effect, no study has worried me much. I need no one to tell me that tobacco smoke is a deleterious inhalation. Lips that touch liquor have never been mine. Even the current study imbroglio over the effect of mercury in "silver" dental fillings doesn't shake me. I've had these fillings a long time, and so far they haven't been fatal.

Yet two recent studies have just jolted my complacency. One, a finding based on a vast sampling of, I believe, 34 subjects, tells us that left-handers die nine years earlier than right-handers. It seems to be a matter of inescapable klutziness in lefties that leads them into the paths of oncoming vehicles and, perhaps because they are undecided which is the best foot to put forward, sends southpaws plummeting down stairs.

Another recent study has notified us that for every inch of height over 5 feet 7, a year of life is forfeited.

Since I'm a 6-foot lefty, I now realize that had I attempted to heed the findings of the coffee, asbestos, preservatives, oat bran and all the other health-associated studies, it would have meant nothing. I've been doomed all along. In fact, at my last physical the doctor discovered I had grown a quarter of an inch. There went another three months.

So I've decided to . . .

Wait a minute! Here are two 1991 studies that have some bearing here. One tells us that 67 percent of college students cheat (87 percent of business majors) -- which seems to be appropriate preparation for real life, since the other study reveals that 91 percent of Americans are consistent liars.

For the study-stricken, that may be perversely refreshing news. But if I were a researcher using public input, I'd be wondering if my latest study was eligible for a fiction prize.

William F. Hallstead, a former Baltimorean, writes from Sanibel, E Fla.

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