I don’t often get on my soapbox and rant about things, but today I am. It’s about urban legends, specifically the ones that claim to contain information which can save lives, or at least protect you from some kind of harm. It completely floors me why people aren’t wiser to urban legends by now. Some people repeatedly forward every one that comes their way, either by email, or on Facebook or other social networks, and it doesn’t seem to matter how many times you point them to sites like snopes or hoax-slayer, they continue to forward things without checking them out first. Sometimes I think they just enjoy the drama of the story but often I’m sure they genuinely believe they are being helpful by passing them on.
If you take nothing else away from this post, please at least consider these things…
1) Just because it states that the information has been provided by, or endorsed by, the American Heart Association, or a cancer research society, or the police, or the fire department, or any other authoritative body, it doesn’t mean it has.
2) Just because it states that the information has already been verified on snopes or hoax-slayer, it doesn’t mean it has.
3) Just because it states that it is definitely true because it happened to the author’s best friend’s secretary, it doesn’t mean it did.
Often people will say something like “I don’t know if this is true, but I’m forwarding it just in case, it can’t hurt”. Oh yes, it most certainly can hurt! Not only can some of the advice in these messages make things worse, but while people are following those suggestions, they are not doing what they actually should be doing. Here are a few examples of ones that I have seen going around
THE CLAIM – IF YOU HAVE A HEART ATTACK WHEN YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN, YOU CAN INCREASE YOUR CHANCES OF SURVIVAL BY COUGHING VIGOROUSLY AND REPEATEDLY. The information states that coughing will keep the blood circulating and help the heart regain normal rhythm. This is dangerous advice. It is true that there is a certain type of cardiac crisis where coughing, under proper professional medical guidance, can help, but attempting to treat yourself this way when you suspect you are having a heart attack can in fact make things much worse, and of course if people believe this information then they may delay phoning the emergency services, thinking they can stabilise themselves first. Don’t do it. For some real information on heart attacks, see here (a British site) or here (a US site).
THE CLAIM – ONE OF THE MOST EFFECTIVE WAYS TO TREAT A BURN IS TO COVER IT WITH FLOUR. No it isn’t, the most effective way to treat a burn is to cool it down. Most people are aware now that the old wives tale about treating a burn with butter or oil is wrong, but they are willing to believe that flour will do the trick instead. Covering a burn in flour will likely make it worse because it will trap the heat in there, allowing it to continue causing damage. There is another variation which claims that burns can be treated with raw egg white, this too is wrong, and this also carries with it the added slight risk of introducing salmonella to an open wound. For some real information on burns, see here (a British site) or here (a US site).
THE CLAIM – DRINKING FOUR GLASSES OF WATER AT THE BEGINNING OF EACH DAY WILL CURE VARIOUS DISEASES, INCLUDING CANCER. That’s right, not simply prevent, but cure. Seriously? People believe this? Apparently so. I don’t need to spell it out here, the risk is that some people could choose this method over proper treatment.
THE CLAIM – IF SOMEONE HAS A STROKE, YOU SHOULD PRICK ALL THEIR FINGERS WITH A STERILISED NEEDLE AND RELEASE A PEA SIZED AMOUNT OF BLOOD FROM EACH FINGER AS THIS WILL HELP CEREBRAL BLOOD FLOW. No it won’t. The main risk here is that people may delay seeking medical attention in order to do this first, and with a stroke, any slight delay can have huge consequences. For some real information on strokes, see here (a British site) or here (a US site).
THE CLAIM – KEYING YOUR PIN INTO AN ATM / CASHPOINT MACHINE IN REVERSE WILL SUMMON THE POLICE, SO YOU SHOULD DO THIS IF YOU ARE BEING ROBBED AT AN ATM MACHINE. Wrong. There was some technology developed a while ago to enable this function, but it was never taken on by the banks. The risk here is that somebody may try to apprehend a robber to stop them fleeing the scene, in the belief that the police will show up soon. They won’t.
THE CLAIM – DIALING #677 or #77 (OR ANY OTHER VERSIONS) FROM YOUR CELL/MOBILE PHONE FROM ANYWHERE WILL CALL THE POLICE. There is no universal number that will call the police wherever you are in the world. Some of the numbers touted will work in certain countries, or in certain States or provinces, but I repeat, there is NO number that works everywhere. So if you need the emergency services, just use the main emergency number for the country or area you are in. The risk here is obvious.
There are many more. So please, if any of these type of claims pass your way, don’t believe them or forward them on without checking them out first. And if you’re not able to verify whether the information is correct or not, then err on the side of caution and don’t believe it or forward it on; wrong information can do more harm than no information, and THAT my friends is information that can save your life.