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5 Ordinary Things That Save Your Life Every Day Without You Knowing It

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By Therese Oneill

1. Tap water

Water is problematic. You need it to live, but it's practically aching to kill you. Naturally occurring water, even when not soiled by human contact, can be swimming with an untold number of murderous micro-organisms.

Now, tap water, which is decidedly non-fatal, has gotten a bad rap in recent years. We believe it's just not as pure as our favored bottled water, which (we're subconsciously convinced) sprang straight from the heart of an ice-blue glacier.

Treated tap water may not be nearly as palatable as Evian, but it's ubiquitous, affordable, and you can drink it without getting sick or dying. For most of history, that simply wasn't true.

Tap water is brilliant. It is the result of a complex system of collection, storage, purification, and transportation. Common waterborne illnesses have been laying waste to humanity all over the world for all of time: diseases like botulism, cholera, E.coli, Legionnaires' disease, Hepatitis A, SARS, and all the sicknesses that killed your family when you played Oregon Trail. ("Yoda has died of typhoid.") These diseases still ravage the Third World. But where there is regulated tap water, they are rare. Tap water is often safer than the stuff that comes from random, untested "natural" springs, which can be contaminated with everything from sewage run-off to dangerously excessive fluoride dissolved out of granite.

There are endless controversies regarding the methods used to make tap water potable. Depending on the needs of the water source, a cocktail of chemicals might be added to make the water drinkable. And even if the amounts used have been proven safe, people don't like thinking that they're giving their sun-flushed children a tall icy glass of teeth-strengthening disinfectant to cool off. But thousands of dead bodies buried along the real Oregon Trail, most of whom died from water-related illnesses ("don't poop where you drink" is a disturbingly new concept) call out that there are worse alternatives to the plastic aftertaste of chlorinated water.

2. Refrigerators

Fresh meat rots. Unless you completely change its constitution by dehydrating, smoking, salting, or canning meat, microscopic organisms will began devouring it, leaving putrid waste behind. They live in the animal when it is still alive, and more come into contact with the meat in every stage of its preparation. Basically, when it comes to eating a good fresh steak, it's you against the bacteria.

Rotting is bad because your body hates all the bacteria and fungi that are consuming that meat. Your digestive tract hates them so much it will turn itself into a sluice-run for however long it takes to get all that gross stuff out of you. And your guts really don't care if you die of dehydration on the way to that goal. It's not just animal products, either. Even fresh greens are halfway to moldy slush once cut from their roots.

Your refrigerator slows all those bacteria down. Makes them sleepy and sluggish, giving you more time to eat safe, fresh food. It makes the constant chess game your body plays against foreign pathogens slightly more in your favor. It also allows for the transportation of food, which is why you get to eat fresh fruits and vegetables in January, when your great grandparents were force-fed canned spinach with spongy potatoes.

3. Road markings

The U.S uses many road markings to communicate with drivers, some of which, let's admit, are utterly baffling. But the purest one, the right-hand-side white line, might be the most useful. Its function? To assure you. To keep a driver calm and aware. When all other sources of orientation are obscured, by fog, darkness, rain or falling snow, that white line on the side of the road is most likely to still be visible. If your night vision is poor, or if the high beams of the oncoming highway traffic make you nervous, there remains the quiet white line to steady your focus. The line reflects the beam of your headlights and allows you to be sure of your place on the road, that you're neither drifting into traffic, or off a cliff. A recent study done in England compared accidents before and after white line road markings were updated. In the area studied, accidents went from 16 to 6. Accidents that occurred on wet nights disappeared altogether, as did serious accidents.

4. Bug spray

"Pesticides" and "herbicides" are such ugly words, aren't they? Spraying poisonous chemicals over our environment and food just to keep the occasional mosquito and ladybug away. Of course, an even uglier word is "malaria." "Starvation" isn't pretty, either.

Eating local and organic is great if you can afford it, and if you live in a region that can provide enough local food for all its residents. But that isn't always possible. Ireland in the mid-19th century is an example of what happens when the creepy-crawlies are more terrifying than the chemicals used to kill them. Ireland's main food crop, potatoes, became blighted with disease. Nearly 1 million people starved to death because a microscopic infection spoiled their food. Herbicides prevent that from happening now, allow for mass food production, and keep food bountiful and affordable.

Pesticides also prevent disease transmitted by insects. Malaria, Lyme disease, dengue, ehrlichiosis, Rift Valley fever, and West Nile virus have killed thousands in the past, especially in hot and damp climates. Malaria was so prevalent during the building of the Panama Canal that an enormous, chemical mosquito-killing campaign had to be instigated before the project could be completed. Pesticides are not perfect, but their risk-to-reward ratio is satisfactory to most consumers.

5. Toilets

Continuing on the theme of deadly things that go in and out of your body, your toilet is the magnum opus of civilization. The outhouse was the primary predecessor to the toilet in the western world, and they weren't so great. A hole in the ground was a fairly decent place to store excrement, except when the sewage seeped into water tables. Not to mention there wasn't enough room for everyone to have a proper, sanitary(ish) outhouse in high-population areas. Urban citizens found outhouses impractical. They usually preferred pooping in pots. If you were rich, the contents of the pot were collected by servants and disposed of in a latrine, or river, or wherever. If you weren't rich, you threw it out the window.

Basically, feces was everywhere. Especially in cities. And feces kills people. It's called the Fecal-Oral Route of Disease Transmission and it is just as horrible as it sounds. Toilets changed all of that. Your toilet is connected to beautiful pipes, pipes that end in water-tight reinforced septic tanks, or a city sewage treatment plant. Your toilet is one of the reasons you are not likely to be part of the 3.4 million people who die of waterborne illness each year.

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Thinking of Disinfecting Your Sponge? It’ll Do More Harm Than Good
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Common house-cleaning wisdom advises you to clean your sponges periodically. Some experts advise running them through the dishwasher, while others suggest microwaving a wet sponge. But a new study says that both of those techniques will do more harm than good, as The New York Times reports.

A trio of microbiologists came to this conclusion after collecting used sponges from households in Villingen-Schwenningen, Germany, a city near Zurich. As the researchers write in Nature Scientific Reports, they asked the 14 houses that gave them sponges to describe how they were used—how many people in the house handled them, how often they used them, how often they replaced them, and if they ever tried to clean them.

Analyzing DNA and RNA found on those sponges, they found a total of 362 different bacterial species living on them. The sheer number of the bacterial colonies was staggering—some 82 billion total bacteria were living in a cubic inch of sponge. (As co-author Markus Egert told the Times, that’s similar to what you’d find in your poop.)

As the researchers discovered by analyzing the bacteria found on sponges whose users said they regularly cleaned them, disinfecting a sponge using a microwave, vinegar, or a dishwasher is worse than useless. It seems that when you attempt to clean a sponge, you kill off some bacteria, but in doing so, you provide an environment for the worst species of bacteria to thrive. Sponges that were regularly cleaned had higher concentrations of bacteria like Moraxella osloensis, which can cause infections in humans. (Though it’s unclear how likely you are to get infected by your sponge.) It’s also the reason dirty laundry smells. By microwaving your sponge, you’re probably just making it smellier.

Sadly, there’s not much you can do about your dirty sponge except throw it away. You can recycle it to use as part of your cleaning routine in the bathroom or somewhere else where it’s far away from your food, but the best way to get a clean sponge, it seems, is to just buy a new one. May we suggest the Scrub Daddy?

[h/t The New York Times]

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How the Global Bird-Poop Trade Created a Traveling Mummy Craze
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Mummy of Christopher Delano; image from the 1864 French translation of the 1854 A Descriptive Narrative of the Wonderful Petrifaction of a Man into Stone. Image Credit: Courtesy of Garrett Scott

 
Bird poop has been a favored fertilizer for centuries—and, it turns out, is an excellent preserver of human flesh. These two factors came together in the 19th century as the global trade in guano, the excrement of seabirds (or bats), took off, leading to some unexpected travelers coming along for the ride—and raking in the cash.

Guano contains essential nutrients for plant growth and naturally accumulates near nesting areas. Its Miracle-Gro properties were prized and regulated by the Incas (the word wanu is Quechua in origin), but it wasn’t until 1802 that the European world learned of this resource through the writings of Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled extensively along the west coast of South America.

By the 1840s, Europe and the U.S. were importing guano for fertilizer. When it was discovered the poop could also make gunpowder, a veritable guano mania began. Guano was soon going for about $76 per ton, and the U.S. imported over 100,000 tons of it in 1861 [PDF]. That's about $250 million in today’s dollars.

In the race to control the world’s guano deposits and secure bird poo futures for its people, the U.S. created the Guano Islands Act in 1856, allowing any U.S. citizen to claim guano-covered islands. Control over guano resources became part of the justification for the Chincha Islands War (1864–1866) between Spain and Peru and Chile, as well as for the War of the Pacific (1879–1883), in which Chile stole Peru’s guano.

In the midst of this fervor for feces, guano miners were hard at work chipping away at the hardened mounds of poo on islands in the Pacific, Caribbean, and Atlantic. Strangely, on some of these islands, among the guano they also found mummified humans.

The most well-known guano mummy is that of Christopher Delano. On the island of Ichaboe, a teeny speck of land off Namibia, a crew of guano miners found a canvas hammock containing a human body under about 6 feet of guano, with a wooden plaque saying “Christopher Delano, 1721.” A cheery pamphlet from 1854 describes his mummified corpse and its travels: “But for the hair and teeth, which were quite perfect, [it] appeared a mass resembling stone, all the natural and component parts, of the body being changed by the process of petrifaction … [and] composed chiefly of lime and ammonia.”

In spite of the quite scientific understanding at the time of both natural and artificial mummification (thanks to early interest in ancient Egypt), even with the knowledge of the formation of adipocere, or “grave wax,” on recently interred corpses, the perception of what guano could do appears to have been wrong. Delano was not “changed into a mass of lime and ammonia.” We know now that in the short term, guano can help seal dead bodies, creating an oxygen-poor and salt-rich environment that is good for preservation. In a warm, arid climate like Namibia, the guano helped dry Delano’s body and shield it from scavengers.

Captain Wethers, who commanded the crew, brought the mummy from Ichaboe to Liverpool, where it traveled to the British Museum. From there, poor Delano went on a tour of Great Britain and Ireland, where he brought in more than $150,000—the equivalent of about $4 million today.

Upon examination of Delano, British and French scientists determined that he was European and not African, and the amount of wear on his teeth suggested he was in his mid to late 30s when he died. His right shoulder is elevated and contracted, and his open mouth revealed “a death of agony” (though it's not unusual to see a gaping jaw on a mummy). His cause of death? Likely a spear wound to his right shoulder.

The writer of the 1854 pamphlet took liberties with the sparse facts available: “About 1721, the Island of Ichaboe had been the resort of nests of Pirates…. In all human probability, the most satisfactory conjecture that can be arrived at is that the unfortunate Christopher Delano was a Spaniard, joined in some piratical enterprises, and leagued with a gang of desperadoes, from one of whom, while visiting the Island of Ichaboe, he most probably received his death wound in some bacchanalism origies [sic] or sudden quarrel.”

With this amazing manufactured backstory, Delano’s body was brought to Philadelphia and exhibited before being shipped to France by the mid-1860s. Although billed as the “only one in the world” and “the solitary known example in the Universe of its kind,” it was only a matter of time—and feverish digging—before more mummies preserved by bird poop materialized. Just a few years after Delano was discovered, the British ship Octavia also docked in Liverpool with a load of guano—and the mummies of a man, woman, and child from Peru [PDF]. Like Delano, they were eventually exhibited at the British Museum in London.

In 1868, British natural historian Francis Buckland noted that he saw yet another guano mummy in a “penny show” in Edinburgh; according to the show's handbill, the body was brought from Possession Island off the west coast of Africa by Captain Dunlop’s ship Echo. The mummy was well preserved, with an oaken board that was carved “Peter Creed, 1790.” Buckland spoke with the owner, who reportedly announced that the mummy “is as good as a pension to me,” earning him today’s equivalent of $2000 in under two weeks. The owner was aware of the Delano corpse, which at that point he claimed had disintegrated due to its travels, but mused “he ain’t no use as a scientific mummy now; the more’s the luck for me as long as my Peter Creed holds together.” (Given England’s humidity, though, it is doubtful that his Mr. Creed survived for very long.)

By the early 20th century, the guano trade had tapered off. Industrialized countries found new sources of fertilizer, and it turns out that guano was not a very good source of saltpeter for gunpowder. Many islands and atolls had been completely stripped, but the legacy remains: Many remain in U.S. possession after being claimed for their guano 150 years ago. Seven of these make up the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, the world’s largest marine reserve. As for the islands that produced Delano and Creed, these today support Cape gannets and endangered African penguins, and wildlife conservationists still often visit to monitor these populations.

While guano mummies are occasionally discovered in these areas, today new finds are largely made by archaeologists excavating prehistoric caves sites in arid locations like Nevada, New Mexico, and Durango, Mexico. Still, with the popularity of bat guano as an organic fertilizer on the rise today, it’s likely more poop-preserved mummies may yet turn up.

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