Tuesday, September 4, 2012

When A Few Isolated Deaths Should Be Important News

As we have recently discussed here and here, we're not big fans of the "One Person Dead Somewhere From Something Weird, Be Scared Shitless" news stories that frequently populate the health sections of various news organizations. But we think the story of these two deaths associated with the use of Neti Pots bears some careful attention.

Why is that, you ask? Isn't that a complete contradiction from what you've been writing--in recent entries, no less? Plus haven't you already castigated the media for covering deaths associated with this very organism (Nagleria fowleri)?

I don't think it's a contradiction, but a quick explanation of Neti Pots is required. The Neti Pot is used mainly for people with sinus congestion: the goal is to flush the sinuses via the nose with a salt-water solution and clear the mucus away. Having had major sinus problems over the past year for the first time ever, I've become a fan (though reluctantly, for sure--it's no fun cramming 200 ccs of salt water in your nose!).

There is one simple catch to the use of a Neti Pot: you have to use sterile water. Boiling water in your tea kettle and letting it cool down will work perfectly fine. Why? Because your tap water isn't perfectly sterile. Depending on where you live in the US and the type of water treatment facilities your state government runs, there can be a small number of various types of microbes living in your tap water. Note that I say living and not lurking: these guys are perfectly harmless if they travel down the gullet into the highly acidic environment of the stomach where they go no further. Tap water is one of the great advances of civilization--and one at which the libertarian wing of the Republican party appears to be at odds.

Anyway, while drinking tap water is harmless (unless, of course, if you're living in a place where fracking is commonplace), your nose ain't built to defend itself from these microbial badasses in the same way the stomach is, so flushing one's sinuses with a healthy amount of tap water constitutes a game of Russian roulette. As the NYT piece documents, two people have died from the tap water Neti Pot flush. True that in a country of 300 million it ain't much, but this news piece comes with a simple public service announcement. Boil the water, folks. And diphenhydramine or loratidine and their ilk work too.

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