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News That’s Hard To Swallow

December 5, 2009

Quick. What was the biggest news story of last week?

I don’t know about where you are, but down here there was some background noise on Afghanistan and the economy and something called Copenhagen. But mostly we got the lowdown on Tiger Woods’s driving (and juggling) skills. Also, Susan Boyle’s album set an all time sales record and a media firestorm was unleashed when a local commentator opined that she looked “retarded.”

But there was another story that emerged and had unusual persistence. You know how sometimes you hear or read something and for the next few days, every time you turn around, there it is? That happened to me this week in the form of the BIG news that children are still swallowing the pull tabs from aluminium cans, in spite of the cans having been redesigned to solve this very problem.


It was on the radio. On TV. It was on the after the news program that talks about burning issues of the day.

So I decided that someone was trying to tell me something and I did some research on the matter.

You may recall that in the really old days, you needed a can opener to open cans. Because so many fishing trips were ruined because fishermen forgot their openers and couldn’t open their beer cans, manufacturers invented the pull tab.

Saving the thirsty fishermen had several unintended consequences.

Although it hurt the can opener business, it spawned untold community drives to collect pull tabs to pay for medical care for sick children.

It doubled the amount (but not volume) of litter as both the tabs and the cans were thrown out.

And most importantly, it created a health hazard in the form of ingested tabs. Yum yum! I remember seeing cool people open a can and then dispose of the tab by dropping it into the can. People tended to forget what they’d done, hence ingestion.

In order to combat the litter and ingestion problems, can manufacturers invented the undetachable tab with which we are all familiar.

Problem solved.

Apparently not, because according to the news story, between 1993 and now, 19 kids in the Cincinnati area have ingested can tabs. That’s 1.3 per year, give or take. There were no deaths and “few” of the cases required surgery. Clearly this is news of global import.

Each of the articles and reports I saw and heard included the suggestion that perhaps it was time for can manufacturers to revisit the whole can tab issue to eliminate this grave danger to our youth.

Well, who am I to say whether that’s a good idea or not. But I thought I’d do a little math so I could determine how passionate I should be about the whole issue.

The math was interesting and fun because first I had to extrapolate the Cincinnati experience and find out how many aluminium cans are used a year and all that. I had to use a spreadsheet because I didn’t have a calculator that calculated to the number of decimal places I needed.

The bottom line is that the odds of ingesting a can tab are 723,472,022.12 to 1. Call it 700 million to one. And you don’t even die. And probably don’t need surgery.

Before we run out and redesign the can (and we all know who will pay for that), it’s not a bad idea to see how this risk compares to other stuff we have to worry about. It turns out that you have a 6,600 to 1 chance of hurting yourself while shaving and a 2,000 to 1 chance of fatally slipping in the bath or shower. Even the odds of getting struck by lightning are a whopping 576,000 to 1 compared to can tab danger.

Not only that, there is a 1 in 5,000 chance that an asteroid will have a catastrophic collision with the Earth in the next 100 years. And you have a 1 in 370,000 chance of choking on food and a 1 in 700,000 chance of a fatal dog bite.

And get this. You’ve got an 18,000 in 1 chance of getting murdered and a 20 to 1 chance of being a crime victim. I don’t know about you but I’m getting less worried about can tabs by the minute.

The headline that we got:

“Aluminium Can Tabs Still Pose Health Risks”

was designed to get our attention. And it did. It may even be true, but equally true would be a headline that read:

“People Are 39,000 Times More Dangerous Than a Beer Can.”

And maybe we should be focusing on fixing that problem first.

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