Q: I read that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wants to get involved in studying gun violence. Guns aren't a disease. Why would the CDC get involved? -- Fred B., Evanston, Illinois
A: Guns may not be a disease, but the damage they cause is a plague. Just think about the recent rash of school shootings and the fact that gun-related suicides account for the greatest number of gun-related deaths. But we digress. Your question must be referring to a bill in Congress that calls for $10 million a year to be allocated to the CDC for six years to study the effects of guns in America. The CDC currently spends more than 10 times that ($105 million) on the effects of tobacco, but nothing on firearms. You have the right to smoke cigarettes, but where you can smoke is legally mandated and who can legally buy cigarettes is also restricted. Firearms present a comparable situation.
Guns are involved in more than 32,000 deaths in the U.S. per year (roughly 11,000 homicides and 19,000 suicides), about the same number as auto fatalities. We think anything that kills around 88 Americans per day and injures more than twice that many is a pretty obvious public health issue. (Interestingly, lobbying efforts have made sure the Consumer Product Safety Commission is banned from evaluating firearm safety!)
We applaud the new bill and hope that doctors will do more than they were able to accomplish at the recent America Medical Association meeting, where the issue was raised but not acted on. While the doctors were meeting in Chicago, a total of 30 people were shot and four were killed not far from the conference.
Doctors aggressively advise patients not to smoke; and until the government embraces gun-safety measures (polls show that 79 percent of the population favors universal background checks for gun buyers), it's every doctor's responsibility to their patients and YOUR responsibility to yourself and your family to reduce gun violence. The NRA has a gun-safety program; maybe everyone should be required to take that before they purchase a gun.
Q: I have a new job that's got me flying at least twice a week, and I'm concerned that I'll be exposed to excess radiation while in the air. How can I limit my overall exposure? -- Sally V., Washington, D.C.
A: You ask a tricky question, since no one -- including the government -- knows what a safe level of exposure to ionizing radiation (from radon, X-rays, the sun, gamma rays) is for any one individual. But there are some pretty reassuring facts: It would take more than 250 trips through a radiation-emitting airport scanner to come close to one-fourth of the radiation from a chest X-ray. And an airline flight exposes you to around 0.5 mrems of radiation an hour, a bit more or less depending on how close to the equator or how high up you are and what the sun's been up to. You can figure your in-flight exposure at www.faa.gov; search for CARI-6.
Generally you want to limit a year's total exposure to radiation (beyond regular background radiation) to about 100 mrems or less; that's about 200 or fewer air travel hours. On average, most folks receive around 300 mrems of background radiation annually. Most North Americans are hit with around 320 mrems total, including background radiation. FYI: Background radiation is from outer space, food and drink (Brazil nuts and fish are natural suppliers) and radon in the ground, buildings and rocks. Other environmental sources include medical X-rays; radiation from 1960s weapons testing, Chernobyl and coal plants.