Fearful Frenzy in a World of Unlikely Doom

These days, death lurks behind gas pumps, inside water bottles, and under throw pillows.


Life is hard. And now it's just a little harder for some Oregonians who, for the first time ever, are pumping their own gas. Yes, people in 48 states have filled their tanks while giving their windshields a dirty-water bath for years, but this option just arrived for residents of certain counties in the Beaver State. (New Jersey remains the sole holdout.)

Hilarity ensued when TV station KTVL polled its followers on Facebook about the newly relaxed law. The comments instantly filled with warnings of attacks on motorists by passing transients, predictions of fiery demise, and recollections of near-death experiences on those apparently rare occasions when Oregonians had ventured across a state line.

But are the rest of us really that different when it comes to groundless fears of new or restored freedoms?

A few days before Oregonians lost their minds over the dangers of self-serve gas stations, social media went equally nuts over a New York Times story about wealthy dilettantes spending small fortunes on unfiltered, untreated, and unsterilized "raw" spring water.

I'll never cease to be amazed at the creative ways people find to separate themselves from their money. Even still, the reactions were over the top. The words giardia, typhoid, and dysentery appeared with regular frequency, cited as inevitable fates awaiting these foolish consumers.

"Almost everything conceivable that can make you sick can be found in water," Bill Marler, who bills himself as a "food-poisoning attorney," told Business Insider.

Sure, it can be—unless the source is pretty reliable, like my well and those of over 15 million American households, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Lots of people drink "unfiltered, untreated, unsterilized" water without ill effect (and without miraculous effect either, for that matter).

The source has to be clean, of course, and that's not always the case, which is why water treatment became a thing. But those peddling "raw water" to moneyed customers can probably afford to find something as drinkable as my well water.

Also plumbing the well of unlikely perils was last year's criminal conviction of California resident Mike Tang for violating a state law that bans placing a child "in a situation where his or her person or health may be endangered." He had his 8-year-old kid walk home a mile along a familiar route.

Speaking as a former latchkey kid, I "may" have been "endangered" any of the times I walked home from school along a busy street, cut through a construction site on the way, decided whether to buy Pixy Stix with the money my father had given me for a haircut, met up with friends for innocent mischief, and then returned home to an empty apartment to do homework. "May be endangered" is so broad as to cover most daily activities.

Speaking of hypothetical perils, we're all apparently poised to meet our makers if we waver from requiring government permission slips for people tasked with beautifying the world around us. Without occupational licensing, "any person without any formal education would be able to practice cosmetology, putting consumers at risk of injuries, burns, infections, and the spread of diseases, such as hepatitis and Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus (MRSA), due to unsanitary practices." At least, so says Bridget Sharpe of the Professional Beauty Association in response to proposals to reform the licensing laws that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says now ensnare one-quarter of American jobs.

But that pales in comparison to the doom forecast by the interior designer who told Florida lawmakers that by considering eliminating occupational licensing for her trade, "what you're basically doing is contributing to 88,000 deaths every year" from infections spread by incompetently chosen fabrics. She must have been persuasive, since a recent report from the Institute for Justice reveals that Florida remains one of only three states, plus D.C., to require a license for such employment.

Those of us in the other 47 states are too hard at work shoveling bodies from the Great Décor Die-Off of 2018 to take notice. But we're running out of fuel for the bulldozers. Is there anybody out there who can safely pump our gas?