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Tomato Nazis of the Internet

Hey again. Hope you had a great summer.

I did. Busy, but good.

One of the things I did this summer was can. By that I mean, putting food into them. I’ve done this in the past pretty seriously at times, but then for the past decade or so I was otherwise engaged pushing several children out of my uterus and gradually regaining my sanity afterwards. My youngest is 5 now and this has been the first real chance I’ve had to return to the hobby.

Most canning that people do is safe and straightforward. You put some crap into a glass Mason jar, slap a 2 piece rubber-lined metal lid on it, and stick the sealed container into boiling water for 10 minutes or so until it forms an airtight seal. Unfortunately, in addition to preserving food, this airtight seal creates a great environment for botulism to grow. Scary, right?? And what makes it even scarier is that botulism is invisible and odorless so you don’t even know you’ve eaten it until you get seriously ill. It really is silent but deadly.

While you hear horror stories involving the spectre of botulism lurking on your grandma’s shelves, any food with enough acid in it, either naturally occurring acid or acid added as an ingredient in your concoction – like vinegar or lemon juice – prevents botulism from developing. Fruit has acid that occurs in it naturally so jams and jellies are safe to can in boiling water, and things like pickles and salsa have vinegar or citrus added to them to raise the acidity of the product.

Acid doesn’t prevent every nasty beast that wants to grow in your canned stuff, but it does prevent botulism, and the other stuff is stinky and gross and announces its presence by being totally disgusting. It won’t kill you anyway, only botulism does that.

The stupid thing I did this summer was, despite having a fair amount of experience in canning already, I joined a canning group on Facebook. I thought I could get some recipes, or see some pictures of pretty jelly in jars, maybe. And I committed this atrocity immediately after canning a big beautiful batch of tomatoes.

Now, tomatoes are a weird gray area with canning. They’re technically fruits, and acidic, but they just don’t have quite enough acid to reliably prevent the growth of botulism. Rarely, very rarely, people have gotten botulism from homecanned tomatoes http://www.tomatocasual.com/2008/02/22/botulism-real-threat-in-canning-tomatoes/. So in tomatoes photoorder to prevent that possibility, you are supposed to add either lemon juice or citric acid to your tomatoes. Which I did. Then, you’re supposed to put the sealed tomatoes into boiling water (aka “waterbath”) for 45 minutes. I did that too. But I found out to my chagrin after roughly 10 minutes in the canning group that I had failed miserably and would surely kill my entire family and probably several passersby when the jars exploded into a funnel cloud of ketchupy botulism.  All because I did not then, additionally, add a thin layer of boiling water on top of the tomatoes. My tomatoes were super juicy and so I just sort of gave them a hearty squoosh and screwed on the lids and put them in the water.

My canning book said this was ok. Crushed tomatoes in their own juice are waterbathed for 45 minutes. It was right there in black and white.  But apparently in the 10 years between the last time I canned and now, they’ve revamped the guidelines and if you can tomatoes in their own juice without adding water, you now have to boil them in water for 85 minutes. That’s…kind of a long time. And I had kind of a lot of tomatoes. Seriously, with the propane I would have to purchase (I have a propane stove, country living) and then consume to waterbath my tomatoes for over an hour I could have driven to the store and bought a pallet of canned tomatoes or probably two.

But, of course, I would have absolutely done an 85 minute waterbath had I only known that my entire family would die if I didn’t. But I didn’t know and I had already done the tomatoes. These ladies suggested that I either rip off all the lids and redo the entire thing which wasn’t going to happen because by that point I had used up all my lids and all my patience, or that I immediately put them into the fridge because botulism can’t grow in fridges, apparently.  As one of the women said “Tomatoes are daunting!!!  DAUNTING!”  And she was correct because by that point after spending hours of work and a fair bit of money on something that was apparently poison garbage, I certainly felt daunted.

Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and an actual canning expert came online to clarify that nah, as long as I had put the citric acid into my tomatoes, that would prevent botulism. It was revealed that the newly extended boiling time had never been about the botulism, the reason why the experts had extended that boiling time had been to prevent mold and fermentation, which on rare (RARE!) occasions hadn’t been completely eliminated by a 45 minute waterbath.

But I still left the jars of tomatoes in the fridge. That’s the weird thing.

Even after the explanation, even after I completely understood the reasoning behind the longer processing times, even though I knew that at the rate my family consumes tomatoes they would never last long enough to mold or ferment anyway, even though I knew because I used citric acid that my family couldn’t possibly get botulism from them, even though everyone used to process crushed tomatoes for only 45 minutes and many people still do, and even though I’d used the shorter times in the past without even a second thought about it, just the very thought that I’d done something wrong still made me so paranoid that I left them in the fridge. They’re there right now, taking up space we desperately need for beer.

Safety culture is a funny thing. It messes with your head even when you’re a fairly rational person, even when you’re pretty well informed about the risks of something. Something in us humans thinks “well, maybe just in case” even when it’s really not warranted.

The odds of anyone dying from botulism even with unsafe canning practices are slim. There are less than 200 cases a year in the US and most of them are not even food borne – about 70 cases a year come from home canned foods and it’s virtually always the very low acid foods such as asparagus or green beans, not tomatoes.  More people get botulism from tattoos than from home canned foods. And besides, the odds that my tomatoes, with citric acid added and waterbathed for 45 minutes, contain botulism is practically nil. Rationally, I know that. I know that I am in way, way more danger driving to the store to buy tomatoes in a can than from eating my own tomatoes, but still, the tomatoes are still in the fridge. I feel silly about it but, well, maybe just in case.

All this has gotten me wondering about the kind of people who seem to take delight in scaring the bejeezus out of people. I mean, those women who just HAD to chime in even though they honestly did not even know what they were talking about. I mean, I understand seeing someone doing something actively harmful and wanting to give them a heads up. I’ve done that. But the level of overreaction out of these chicks was beyond the pale (daunting!!! DAUNTING!!!) and it made no sense really. I mean they were freaking convinced I was about to kill my whole family even though I’d done everything but pour a little boiling water in the top of my jars. Why did they care SO much about something that was very likely safe, that millions have done safely in the past?

People take big risks with their health every day. They smoke. Drink too much (guilty). Drive fast. Sunbathe (guilty again). Take drugs. Forget to take their vitamins or take too many vitamins. Sleep around (no comment). Eat too much of the wrong things. Any one of these things is by far more likely to kill a human person than improperly canned tomatoes (srsly, I added the citric acid!!!) But none of those women came after me for doing the big ticket items. They weren’t chastising strangers for smoking or drinking. They unleashed their outrage over something that in the grand scheme was very unlikely to kill anyone, and what’s worse, they didn’t even have their facts straight.

Makes me wonder how often that is the case. Busybodies who are safety warriors based on a fundamental misinterpretation of the facts, or gross exaggeration of the facts, or even just bad facts all together. And yet we listen to them, and keep the tomatoes in the fridge, because just in case, even while we do things that are actually, actively harmful. Why do we even listen?

Well, I’ve decided not to listen any more. Sometimes living life means you gotta be that guy in Vegas who looked up at a lunatic shooting into the crowd and without even spilling a drop of beer, flipped him off. That guy is my hero. I want to be like him.  We all gonna die, it’s a fact, no one here gets out alive. Life is a terminal condition and at some point, you accept that and pick your poison. So if I want to commit a mass Jonestownesque suicide by feeding myself and my family botulism-laden tomatoes, screw you, Tomato Nazis.

Looks like pasta is back on the menu.

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Kristin is huge geek, a libertarian, and a mother of 4 sons and a daughter. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor.

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74 thoughts on “Tomato Nazis of the Internet

  1. More people get botulism from tattoos than from home canned foods.

    That’s it. I’ll try to stay away from people with tattoos from now on. (/joke!)

    Seriously, I liked this post a lot. I sometimes get concerned about so-called “safety” issues while disregarding the larger threats to my safety/health I engage in everyday.


  2. Testify, sister! My wife and I have a running argument about whether our kids will be allowed to walk places like the library when they are in middle school. That is less than a mile away from the house, with sidewalks and two intersections with traffic lights, including pedestrian signals. My wife is horrified at the idea, because something bad might happen. It is unclear to me at what age they would be old enough to walk down the street. In the meantime, I am absolutely certain that raising kids to be unable to walk down the street is itself a very bad thing, and a far more likely negative outcome than whatever inchoate bogeyman it is my wife is afraid of. My older daughter is in fourth grade, and quite enthusiastic about being able to walk down the street, so we are working on Mom together, and have a couple of years yet. I fondly remember how when I was that age I would take the city bus alone to then rather seedy downtown San Diego to go to the main library. “But things were different then” I am told. And this is true. It was vastly more dangerous back then.

    As for tomatoes, some years I carefully tend and pamper my tomato plants. This year I stuck the plants from the garden center into the ground and then ignored them. This year’s crop is much larger than usual.

    I think these two paragraphs have the same moral.


    • Several years ago, a newspaper in the United Kingdom had a good article on how kids lost their freedom to roam. It tracked several generations in one family from the 1920s to the aughts and showed how the amount of space kids could explore on their own decreased for the space of several decades. Pretty fascinating stuff.


    • . It is unclear to me at what age they would be old enough to walk down the street.

      What do you mean what age, you disgusting parent?!!!???!!’

      Don’t you know you have to walk or drive your children at least until your grandchildren are old enough to drive or walk them places?


    • It just postpones the inevitable. I overprotected my older two but then they left home and had to deal with HUGE things and had fewer coping skills than I’d have liked. I feel really guilty not letting them learn those lessons sooner.

      Letting kids handle small situations is a great preparation for adult life, when you have to handle big situations.


  3. “Well, I’ve decided not to listen any more. ”


    Kristin, you’ve hit a nerve. Few things bring the bile and rage up than safety nannies. Every month I read in Consumer Reports some new crisis where 20 people died and we NEED NEW FEDERAL LAW to prevent this. I’m more likely to die on my way to work than anything else. A guy broke his nose, another cracked a rib, and a third twisted his ankle in jujitsu class within the last month. Shit’s gonna happen.

    My family canned from the late 70s to the mid 80s. As of 1990, I was still eating the stuff they canned:
    fruit (apricot, peaches, plums, tomatoes, cherries) venison, fish (tuna and shad (smoked–god that was good). All kinds of stuff. And it was all harvested, except the tuna, by us. Zomg! No quality control, no pesticides, etc. We could have died!!!!

    Screw them. I’m going to die of something. At least I’m going out living a full live and not living in fear of everything that could kill me. Now, pass me some canned tomatoes, some foie gras, and pour 3 ounces of bourbon while I drive 30 miles over the speed limit on my non hands free cell phone in a car that has no lane departure warning, no auto stop or collision avoidance.


    • I sometimes wonder if at least some people die because of the safety stuff, not in spite of it. People have this sense that “someone else is looking out for me” and proceed into situations where common sense indicates they should probably stay away from.


  4. It’s so true. There is nothing more dangerous/annoying than a Safety Patrol armed with incomplete knowledge.

    Of course, some of it’s about controlling your risk – I’ll think nothing of getting on a horse, careening around a field at high speed and throwing us at fences. Which could totally kill me. But not getting on a motorcycle, nope. I know just as many people who’ve been seriously injured from riding accidents as motorcycle accidents…but one I really love, so it’s worth it, the other I don’t, so I won’t.

    And I’ve got a background in food safety, so there are a lot of risks I’m not going to take — that potentially dangerous food’s been at 80 degrees for more than four hours? I’ll choose wasting food over spending two days in the bathroom or longer in the hospital. The risk of that is still relatively small, but I’m not taking it. I have friends that leave pizza out overnight, unrefrigerated, and then eat it the next morning. And they’ve never gotten sick. But all it takes is one pizza worker to not wash their hands properly…my partner used to scoff at me, until he finally ran into that one pizza. And now he puts it in the fridge.

    What I can’t believe is that no one told you that as long as you hard simmer those tomatoes at 176-185 degrees or higher for ten minutes, you’ll kill any botulin present. (I know, a lot of guidelines say it can’t be cooked out, or only by extremely high temperatures…they’re wrong in the first case, and leaving out that you can go a high temp for just a minute.) So, yes, by all means, free up that space for beer!


    • I agree totally about food left out overnight – why not take sensible precautions? There’s a difference between taking ridiculous precautions and sensible ones, for sure.

      I have been boiling them as I use them up just as a sensible precaution (and since everything I make involving tomatoes is cooked for a while anyway), making it even more nonsensical that I left them in the fridge.

      I once worked in a deli with a woman who was convinced that if you heat mayonnaise up – even if eating it right away – it turned into poison. No amount of explanation about microbial growth over time could sway her. It’s just weird how the brain works sometimes.


      • I once worked in a deli with a woman who was convinced that if you heat mayonnaise up – even if eating it right away – it turned into poison. No amount of explanation about microbial growth over time could sway her.

        To be fair, mayonnaise is a very, very strange thing.


  5. Busybodies is the constant. You can get busybodies who are in every flavor: racial busybodies, safety busybodies, childrearing busybodies, anarchist busybodies, MRA busybodies, feminist busybodies, prepper busybodies, right-left-centrist, the constant is the busybodies. The internet; providing as it does optional anonymity, an audience and low effort abilities to signal; acts like a perfect growth culture for busybodyness and the busybodies have accordingly thrived and proliferated like some special kind of mold growth. I expect that it’s only going to end in the course of a generation or so when standard busybody behavior becomes viewed as lame and the cost/benefit ratio to busybodieness shifts.
    Either that or the busybodies will proliferate to the point where we all welcome the death by fire when it rains down. Either way the busybodies will stop, eventually.


  6. Compare life expectancy today to X years ago (and not just the one that does the average… do the one that starts at age 5, and the one that starts at age 15, and age 25, 35, and so on).

    We’ve never been safer.

    Which gives us the freedom to worry about tomatoes.

    A strange luxury.


    • It is, it really is.

      The thing that occured to me is that in a world where you had to worry more about starvation than botulism, you’d probably be willing to take a lot more chances in the food poisoning department simply because you’d be better off chancing bad food vs. NO food.

      We are not very far removed from that world, not at all.


  7. I remember reading an article years back from a person who had worked at the Department of Health and Human Services, compiling statistics on causes of death. He said that he was basically insane during his year there. It was like the movie Final Destination was playing in his head all the time. Everything he looked at, he knew how many people it had killed.


  8. We sure do make some funny decisions about risk. Don’t get me started on bike helmets…

    How do you use the tomatoes you can? Would it help knowing that the botulinum toxin is destroyed by cooking? (Probably not, is the point of the essay I guess).

    We made tomato sauce out of most of our crop this year. It’s little enough that we have room for it in the deep freeze. Probably won’t even be enough tomatoes left to dehydrate any, and I forgot to pickle any when they were green.

    Oh and – a friend showed me this great example of risk thinking recently


    • Me either. Bike helmets are my personal pet peeve.

      You can boil the toxin out, which makes it all the more nonsensical that I kept them in the fridge. Since I wrote this I made chicken-vegetable soup and beef stew both containing the tomatoes and we haven’t died yet.


      • Since I wrote this I made chicken-vegetable soup and beef stew both containing the tomatoes and we haven’t dief tam kv lk;m;…


        (admittedly, it’s kinda hard to make typing look like someone is collapsing from severe food poisoning, but it was a missed opportunity, so I had to try)


      • #derailedthread

        Why on earth are you “peeved” about helmets. They prevent certain serious injuries at astonishingly little cost. To the extent it’s about helmet laws, society has a legitimate issue because society will ultimately bear much of the cost of providing emergency care to helmetless bikers/motorcyclists/etc who cannot afford to pay themselves.


              • I can see the issue for bike-share systems, but I suspect that’s a small percentage of total bike rides.

                Can you see the issue with me being asked to pay for the ER trip from someone who took a spill with no helmet, but having no input in the behavior change? I have a (formerly) close friend, for example, who took a huge spill because she didn’t see a pothole in a road. Helmet likely saved her life since the front tire stopped–at speed–and she went over the front.


            • And yet that is exactly what cycling helmet laws do. Not so much because obtaining a helmet is a cost barrier for most people who have money for a bicycle.

              More because it communicates that cycling is a dangerous thing – so dangerous you need a helmet, like ice hockey, football, rock climbing, lacrosse, construction work. And I don’t want to do those things, nor would I let my children do those things. If it’s dangerous enough you need a helmet, it’s too dangerous full stop.


            • Society gets to have a say in safety,

              That’s not true, as stated. Let’s take seat belts as an example. Back when a law mandating seatbelts was proposed in Colorado it was opposed by a wide majority. Even when the bill passed into law it was opposed by a wide majority of folks. So society, if defined as “the will of the people”, opposed the law, even tho on your view passing the bill into law was correct because “society” has a say in safety. Two different meanings of the word here, yes?

              So what’s the meaning of the word as you use it? It’s not a collection of people, seems to me, but the appeal to a principle: that legislation mitigating the socialization of preventable costs is in the collective interest of everyone. And descriptively that’s true. Externalities and whatnot are, by definition, social (ie., not individual) problems. So when you say “society gets to have a say in safety” it seems to me you don’t mean a collection of people get to have a say, but that an appeal to a principle of collective cost-sharing can be legitimately invoked to to advocate for a specific policy.

              Nothing wrong with invoking that principle, of course. But invoking the principle isn’t an example of “society getting a say in safety” but rather an individual using the socialization of costs to have a say in safety. I think that’s an important difference, myself.

              Obviously those two conceptions of society are in political tension. Hence, liberals, libertarians and conservatives and so on.


              • Well… we have a representative republic, so what I meant is that society (as it speaks through that process) can legitimately pass laws on the subject.

                That a law polls badly when passed doesn’t mean society hasn’t spoken. I just means that a pure direct-democracy would have expressed itself differently.


            • Okay, that seems reasonable. Now that we’ve accepted the principle that it’s okay to restrict personal freedom in order to limit taxpayer exposure to financial consequences of personal choices, are we also going to mandate contraceptive use for people whose financial situation is such that they can’t afford to support children without government assistance?


              • Of course not, don’t be silly, that would offend the ever living out of the SoCons.

                We’ll do the sensible thing and issue reproductive permits. If you don’t have a permit because your SES is too low to support children, you are legally prohibited from having sex. And if you do have a reproductive permit, you are not allowed to have sex with a person who does not.

                Much easier to do, and no Moral Majority feelings are hurt.


              • No, but I’d have no objection to helping such people raise their kids (which is both much more important to society, and so different in financial scale from a $15 bike helmet as to be a category error).


        • Can’t speak for Kristin, obviously, but for me it’s not the helmets exactly that bug me. It’s the mentality that if you choose to ride a bike without one, you’re obviously being irresponsible – regardless of surrounding circumstances.

          Sure, wearing a helmet while cycling can reduce by some percentage my risk of head injury (studies differ, I’ve seen figures mostly between 70 and 85%) Let’s call it 80. But 80% of what? What is the risk of head injury inherent in cycling, that we are trying to reduce by 80%, and that it would presumptively be irresponsible not to do so.

          There are risks we undertake all the time without attempting to mitigate them, because they’re low enough to accept. Like walking outside – we generally forego helmets when we walk outside, unless we’re visiting a construction site or mine or artillery range or something. And we’d look at someone funny for suggesting we were irresponsible for walking to the library without a helmet (which, after all, would reduce by 80% our risk of head injury while walking to the library. Eighty! Percent!).

          Studies I’ve been able to find suggest the inherent risk of head injury while cycling is about the same as that while walking (not racing, not mountain biking, not BMX stunts – those are not “cycling” in the same way that mountaineering, parkour, and 400 m hurdles are not “walking”). Significantly less risk per kilometre travelled, slightly more risk per hour – but really, about the same. Certainly much much lower than the risk from western style horseback riding, ice skating (never mind figure skating – just going in lazy ovals around the rink and chatting with a friend), basketball, soccer, showering, and many other things we do bareheaded without a second thought.

          So, it’s not the existence of helmets that bugs me – they’re useful for people learning to ride, for racers and mountain bikers and people who like doing backflips off a halfpipe on their BMX. It’s the weird focus on the necessity of helmets for an activity that’s already so very safe.


          • I’d be interested in a citation. My first reaction is that walking is… well… slower, so head injuries are likely to be less severe.

            How about motorcycling? Am I also wrong to think they should wear helmets?


            • Motorcycling is getting into extreme sport territory. I’d never motorcycle without a helmet, and probably not with one either.

              Most head injuries while walking and cycling are not from just falling over, they’re from being hit by a car – so the car accounts for most of the speed in both situations.

              The studies I’ve been able to find that compared inherent risk of modes of transport.
              British Columbia, 2005-2007, a context of common but not universal helmet use – http://journal.cpha.ca/index.php/cjph/article/view/3621
              Deaths per million trips (head injuries not specifically examined)
              cyclist 0.14
              pedestrian 0.15
              motor vehicle occupant 0.10

              Australia 1980s, a context where almost nobody wore helmets to cycle (not sure about motorcycling – those deaths may already be the post-mitigation numbers of motorcycling helmets were common at the time)
              Abstract http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0001457596000164
              Full paper http://home.mysoul.com.au/dande1/bks/AAP1996_Robinson_HI_hel_laws.pdf
              Fatalities per million hours
              cyclist 0.41 (46% from Head Injury = 0.18)
              pedestrian 0.80 (43% from HI = 0.34)
              motor vehicle occupant 0.46 (36% from HI = 0.17)
              motor cyclist 7.66 (83% from HI = 2.9)

              Assuming walking happens at 5 km/hr, cycling at a sedate 15, substantially all driving is in cities at about 50, and motorcyclists speed so call it 60, that gives:

              fatalities per million km (note that this is my own extrapolation, was not in the paper)
              cyclist 0.027 (0.012 HI)
              pedestrian 0.16 (0.068 HI)
              motor vehicle occupant 0.0092 (0.0034 HI)
              motor cyclist 0.128 (0.048 HI)


              • I thought the point, though wasn’t what you’d ever do.

                Do you or do you not support a law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets? If so, where/how do you draw the line? I find the motorcycling=extreme sports analogy entirely inapt, as the former is a routinely-practiced activity subject to broad licensing regimes, while the latter is a niche activity practiced by relatively few people that has only been around a couple decades in any meaningfully-formal status.

                After all, it looks from your math (which I’m assuming is correct) that motorcycling is ALSO safer than walking (because we are charging walking with injuries caused when pedestrians and cars collide, thus making walking the most dangerous activity). Do you support a law requiring seatbelts in cars, given how safe they are compared to walking?

                I also think you’re over-reliant on this:

                Most head injuries while walking and cycling are not from just falling over, they’re from being hit by a car – so the car accounts for most of the speed in both situations.

                Bicycles go significantly faster than pedestrians. That’s a big part of why we use them. Although it’s true that they go slower than cars, the faster you are going (in any activity) the more risk you are under from a sudden deceleration. That’s why toddlers fall all the time and are ok–they’re short, so barely accelerate on the way down. Falling off a bike can happen for many reasons, including many outside the biker’s complete control. They can fail to notice damage to the road. They can get doored. They can come around a bend to see an unexpected obstruction. And if those things happen at speed, there’s a pretty good chance of serious injury along with a pretty good chance society is going to be footing the bill.

                By contrast, if a pedestrian gets hit by a car, the driver will have insurance (or will be breaking the law) so society has a lot less at risk. If a pedestrian trips over something and falls, they are far less likely to seriously injure themselves than a biker.

                At some level, it isn’t about the aggregated injury-incidence stats you cite (especially because the best way to make biking safer and more pleasant at that scale would be to build bike-friendly infrastructure like dedicated paths). It’s about the downside risk of the activity, society’s interest in preventing that downside, the cost of preventing that downside, and society’s responsibility for the downside when it happens.


                • First I’ll answer beside your point: I you think any of your points there do not apply to walking helmets, why not?

                  Yeah, I didn’t mean to say motorcycling is like extreme sports in all ways. Just that the risk level is quite high.

                  As far as car seatbelt laws and motorcycle helmet laws – those laws presumably have some combination of effects, just like bike helmet laws – discouraging the respective activities by some amount, and reducing the rate of injuries by some amount.

                  To the extent they discourage the activity, we get:
                  more transportation by means other than driving -> more people getting healthy exercise
                  less air pollution
                  less noise pollution
                  less injury and death of non-participant humans and animals struck by motor vehicles

                  To the extent they make the activity safer for the participant, we get:
                  less injury and death of participants involved in crashes

                  Both the intended effects and the side-effects are beneficial.

                  To the extent cycling helmet laws discourage the activity, we get:
                  more transportation by driving -> fewer people getting health exercise
                  more air pollution
                  more noise pollution
                  more injury and death of non-participant humans and animals struck by motor vehicles

                  To the extent they make the activity safer for the participant, we get:
                  less injury and death of participants involved in crashes.

                  The side-effects are harmful, only the intended effects are beneficial.

                  Re I also think you’re over-reliant on this: (etc.)

                  I’ll just say, I’m not relying on it at all. I’m relying on the findings in the studies of the actual in-practice safety of walking and cycling. I may make some guesses as to why the findings are what they are – but those are idle speculation compared to understanding, and making decisions based on, the findings that are what they are.


                  • Heck, if my extrapolation of the Australian study to per-km approximations is near right, walking a fixed distance would be even more dangerous than motorcycling it – of all the people who should be wearing a helmet to travel across town, the one going on foot is at taking the greatest risk of death by head injury.

                    Whatever your risk appetite is, there’d be no consistent basis to walk across town without a helmet and then wear a helmet to bicycle, motorcycle, or drive back.


                  • I didn’t mean to say motorcycling is like extreme sports in all ways. Just that the risk level is quite high.

                    Yeah… nearly as dangerous as walking. And if we disadvantage motorcycles more people will get in cars which, as you say, is a bad thing.

                    I you think any of your points there do not apply to walking helmets, why not?

                    I think it’s pretty clear from my analysis. Read the paragraph starting with “By contrast.” If you disagree I’m happy to engage on that part of my point, but you don’t seem to address it at all.

                    I do, however, agree that society should be concerned about encouraging people not to drive. I’m sure helmet-laws play some role in that. But I’m equally sure that in an urban environment, some of those would-be-bikers take mass transit (or walk). I also suspect that some people use helmet laws an a excuse but would not actually bike if given the opportunity to do so helmetless.


                    • I live in a first world country other than the USA. Head injury victims are treated on the public dime in all cases..

                      Good point re motorcycles – matters in very much what the denominator is.

                      This summarizes how small the side effects of helmet laws need to be for them to be a good idea.

                      Actually that analysis is over generous to helmet laws – it assumes everyone obeys the law, either by riding with a helmet or by ceasing to ride – it should include another term in ‘e’ – the effectiveness of a helmet law at preventing head injuries is law’s effectiveness at getting helmets on heads times helmets’ effectiveness at preventing injury. It also assumes the safety in numbers effect doesn’t exist -that whatever effect it has of discouraging cycling harms only those who cycle less, and doesn’t reduce the safety of those still cycling. If safety in numbers is real, then the left hand side of the equation should have something subtracted from it, a product of μ and a term for the effect.


                      • Honest question from ignorance: if a private vehicle hits a pedestrian in your country, does the driver’s insurance not defray medical expenses? I honestly have never thought about how that works in countries with sane medical cost regimes?

                        As for that article, it seems pretty obvious that it is putting multiple heavy thumbs on the scale.

                        First, why on earth would we measure “health benefits” in terms of a numerator that measures all benefits from cycling against a denominator that measures only years lost to death? Injuries short of death matter.

                        Second, it completely ignores my point above regarding what the cycling use is lost to. If people walk instead, this equation would treat that as a bad outcome. It wouldn’t be, from a health-of-activity perspective.

                        Third, the equation is designed to only allow one number to be greater than 1. Then–shockingly–concludes that number is the most important. That’s argument-by-definition, not substance. Applying this to construction work, for example, would almost certainly conclude that OSHA is stupid because construction work is healthy too.


                        • if a private vehicle hits a pedestrian in your country, does the driver’s insurance not defray medical expenses?

                          As with most things, it’s a bit complicated.

                          In no case (to my knowledge) does the health care authority present an itemized bill for an individual patient’s care to the automobile insurance company of the driver deemed at fault in their injury.

                          Six provinces, of the fourteen health jurisdictions in Canada (ten provinces, three territories, and the fed (the fed largely shirking their treaty obligation to provide proper healthcare to aboriginal people since 1876)) do come up with an estimate of how much they’ve paid that year in healthcare to people injured by cars, and then impose a tax on the province’s entire auto insurance industry to recover some of that money.

                          So, if a driver from Quebec injures someone in Quebec, the victim’s healthcare is provided entirely out of the Quebec government’s general revenues. If the same driver injures someone in Ontario, some of the cost of the victim’s healthcare is born by the Ontario auto insurance industry as a whole – not the Quebec driver’s insurance…


          • …they’re useful for people learning to ride, for racers and mountain bikers and people who like doing backflips off a halfpipe on their BMX. It’s the weird focus on the necessity of helmets for an activity that’s already so very safe.

            As a long-time regular cyclist, I would add anyone who has to mix with automobile traffic on roads posted 35 mph or above, without barriers separating the two kinds of vehicles. One careless driver drifting across that painted line and it’s broken bones. Broken arms and ribs and stuff heal — bouncing your skull off the pavement, not so much. And there are some roads that I won’t go out on, helmet or not, laws mandating that the cars give me a minimum three-foot buffer or not.

            ‘Course some of that is being an old guy. I was a hell of a lot braver when I was a 25-year-old cyclist.


          • With regard to cycling and cars, there are 2 factors at play:

            1) How fast are you riding?
            2) How fast are the cars going where you are riding?

            If I’m out riding hard trying to get some serious cardio, I’m wearing a helmet. I’m moving too fast and a crash, even by myself, can be dangerous. If I’m out riding in places where bike lanes are limited, or where they cross high speed roads, I’m wearing a helmet. Too easy to get into a car versus bike, and that never ends well for the bike.

            If I’m tooling around my 25 mph neighborhood, with nice wide bike lanes and lots of riding paths, I might pack my helmet[1][2], but chances are I won’t bother.

            ETA: tl;dr the utility of helmets depends heavily upon the potential relative speeds of impact. Motorcyclists should wear them because the likelihood of a collision at a relative impact velocity of over 35MPH is very high. Casual biking, not so much.

            [1] Especially once these are on the market.
            [2] Or these


        • Ah, yes, that was a bit cryptic, wasn’t it? Apologies.

          A lot of brain injuries especially at high speeds are caused not by your skull hitting pavement, but by your brain hitting the inside of your skull, and they haven’t found a helmet that can prevent those yet. So the idea that helmets can prevent all head injuries isn’t true. And some evidence indicates that they may worsen some other potentially fatal injuries to the neck by changing the way your body reacts to an accident.

          Now, science indicates they help prevent some injuries, particularly for children in low-speed accidents, and I accept that science. But there’s another factor that comes into play that they can’t test for – which is that a child who rarely rides a bike because the helmet is annoying may actually have more accidents and a child who is fighting a helmet constantly also may have more accidents than a child who’s logged in lots of hours riding and crashing and jumping off quickly to avoid crashing and figuring it all out.

          I saw this all the time in my old neighborhood – the poor kid wobbling down the road with one hand steadying their bike helmet and the other shakily on the handlebars only to fall over and hit their head and everyone says “Thank God for the bike helmet” but the kid probably wouldn’t have crashed as bad as they did if not for the fricking helmet.

          So I just have this vibe that the protection offered by helmets may be less than the protection offered by having a set of skills acquired by enjoying biking enough to toodle around the neighborhood with a good amount of bike control obtained because the child enjoys biking-sans-helmet and has logged in enough hours to be good at it.

          And since we can’t really know how many accidents are caused by helmets (if any) it’s not really a provable hypothesis, just my own personal vibe.


  9. Great post Kristin. I just happened to check a forum this morning because I overseeded my front yard last week and wanted to know if our prolific morning dew this week would be sufficient water for the seedlings or if I still needed to water with the hose. It took me reading through 10 comments before people were name-calling about who knew more about the subject. And don’t get me started on the meat smoking or wood working forums. Yikes!

    I think there have always been people trying to tell other people the right way to do something, but I always wonder if the safety stuff is more new. Like, was my grandmother telling other women in the PTA they were doing the wrong things when introducing their babies to solid foods back in the 1940s?


    • Those pregnancy and baby forums are horrible! Full of people scaring the bejeezus out of parents. I found that people would make choices about their lives and then felt like they had to justify those choices by damning any other choice. Many people seem to lack the ability to say, “I like my choices. They are what work best for me, but there are other equally valid choices that can be made.” We live in a society with little to no grasp of nuance.


    • Mike, I have this 3 page long list that some woman gave my mother at the time of my birth almost 50 years ago and she goes over all these things that my mother should do or not do.

      And one of the saddest things I ever heard was when my grandmother said “When my first baby was born, everyone said not to pick her up because she’d be spoiled. And then my next babies were twins and I was working and I couldn’t pick them up much. You’re lucky to be able to hold your baby so much.” So yeah I think it’s always been that way, but there are just so many more things to worry about/feel superior over than there used to be.


      • Absolutely. Breastfeeding is another example (scorned in the 50s when formula was new/scientific; revered now). So is sleeping position (side in the 80s, back now).

        It’s all of a kind with the many things that society bounces around on. Eggs have been both healthy and near-poison during my life. We are all pretending dark chocolate is healthy now. Etc. Etc. Etc.


    • In case I haven’t mentioned this elsewhere, I have to thank you for mentioning the UMAi Dry bags for drying meat. Ever since trying them, I’ve been making cured meat products obsessively. They’re fantastic.


  10. I’ll engage the broader (deeper) point at length when not on mobile BUT…

    Why is it called “canning” when it uses jars?
    How does the (boiling) waterbath create an airtight seal inside the jar?


    • Can’t really answer the canning question, but the sealing question…

      The lid has a flexible inside surface. When the heated contents cool off, the fluids inside the jar/can contract and create a bit of a vacuum. That vacuum pulls the lid down until the soft surface seals against the glass. Viola’ Airtight seal.


    • Because putting stuff in cannisters (where can comes from) was originally more popular than putting stuff in jars (back when Napoleon was in charge of Europe…) and it’s basically the same method.


    • People used to call it “jarring” or “bottling” and I have some old cookbooks that refer to it that way. I’m not sure why the terminology fell out of favor, exactly?

      Thanks Oscar for a better explanation than I could give.


  11. I’ve made lacto fermented fish. You add whey or yogurt “juice” to start the process. For some reason the end-result doesn’t kill people, but we abandoned it because the fermentation process continues at a slow pace, but one that could eventually cause jars to explode or cans to swell.


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