I once published a newsletter about the many uses of common hydrogen peroxide and people began telling me about the possible dangers from using this long-available product. The mere chance of a problem seems to have triggered some of my readers to issue dire warnings – even suggesting I retract the article, which I didn’t do.

The criticism, most likely offered in good faith, illustrates an important topic – the inclination to warn others about harms that could happen, but probably won’t, even to the point of instilling fear of simple 3% hydrogen peroxide. The warnings, however, speak to what could be an underlying concern; fear of the probability for harm even when the possibility for it is infinitesimally small.

It seems a growing number of us are living in perpetual fear of things “out there” and conjure up plans to avoid every conceivable risk – which is impossible. Prudence is one thing, expecting danger around every corner isn’t healthy, and it might actually be an abnormal obsession in itself. Deep levels of caution and fear can quench a person’s ability to enjoy living. Nothing will ever be 100% safe and every effort to achieve perfect safety will always fail.

A young biologist worked in a government-sponsored health agency and was often asked how to keep children safe from diseases. With a glint in his eye, he would often jest, “let them eat dirt”.

The most common response was laughter and followed by a discussion about the idea. Some parents, however, were appalled by the answer and complained. The young professional was correct, but he still lost his job when his superiors took the complaints badly.

An essential element of good health is a robust immune system. Akin to strengthening muscles, strong immunity is built with regular exercise against the wide array of potentially invasive beasts – bacteria, viruses, molds, and so on. The miraculous human body is capable of meeting invaders and destroying them while simultaneously strengthening its own immune power. Yes, it’s good to offer new babies a sterile nipple on a bottle, but it’s probably better overall to allow them to contact with some everyday bacteria because it is fully impossible to avoid them.

Clean hands are better than dirty, but that doesn’t require repeated application of sanitizing alcohol gels. In fact, most of those topical chemicals will damage skin, leaving open paths for even more invaders.

When unchecked, excessive avoidance of “bad bugs” is unreasonable, which can elevate the quest for safety to an absurd level.

Another example focuses on the burgeoning use of cell phones. There are reports (stories) that using them increases the risk of brain tumors by 40%. Sounds deadly, but is it?

There has historically been a lifetime risk of approximately 15 cases of a brain tumor for every 100,000 people –  0.015%. The chance of NOT getting a brain tumor is a whopping 99.985%. Increasing 0.015% by 40% (the reported increase in brain tumors) brings it to 0.021% – a difference of 0.006% or six more out of every 100,000 users.

The odds a person will NOT be struck by lightning in their lifetime is 99.67% (33 in 100,000), which is more than twice the risk of a brain tumor – with or without cell phone use.

15 cases of brain tumor is a real fact, but is it relevant? Would increasing the number from 15 in 100,000 to 21 be a reason for alarm, fear, and panic? Presenting facts in a most dramatic way can make cell phone use seem to be a very risky act. It isn’t. Neither is everyday contact with other humans where fear of shaking hands is referred to as germophobia (a common obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD).

Risks are real. Humans want to mitigate them, but they cannot be eliminated. Direct sunlight might cause skin cancer. Yet, survival depends on exposure to sunshine. Anyone can drown in a small pool, but should that slim possibility keep everyone away from watersports – or bathing? We are in a world where the discussion of risk – and the resulting fears about routine living – has reached absurd proportions.

In cooperation with healthcare providers, family, and friends, an informed patient evaluates lifestyles and potential treatments for their health problems, all of which involve risks. They select treatments to meet their own rational conclusions. Fear exists, of course, but it is unwise to allow that emotion to control the final decisions.

Living well demands respect for risk, not irrational fear.

A wise person investigates potentials and makes appropriate decisions not generated by emotions alone. Fear is an emotion that can be controlled. It takes a bit of conscious effort, but the results are likely to be a happier life.