MARR: Food Kills

Every day, the media bombards an increasingly cynical populace with dire warnings about the danger awaiting them within their own pantry. Last year's demonification of cholesterol gives way to this year's free radical radical phobia. In health food stores across the land, "pesticides" and "additives" are equated to arsenic and cyanide, and the CEOs of major food processing corporations discussed in a tone normally reserved for Hitler. Even the dullest consumer is aware that what he eats and drinks may very well kill him.But, lost in this welter of data is the menace that food poses in its virgin, unconsumed state. It is not necessary to subsist entirely on a diet of super-sized fast food meals or cohabitate with a dissatisfied spouse who keeps strychnine in the spice rack. There are many other ways in which food can kill, often on a grand scale.Consider the simple grains like wheat, barley, and corn. Bland and inoffensive, they are essential ingredients of what has been for thousands of years "the staff of life". This innocent facade masks the true nature of the cereal family, a botanical grouping of killers. Their mere dust is one of nature's deadliest little secrets. Let it come in contact with the merest spark under proper conditions and it explodes with more fury than gunpowder. Virtually every year, the Midwest, "America's Breadbasket", pays the piper for its prosperity as thunderous explosions of grain elevators reverberate across the plains. The agriculture industry those who fell at Westwego, Louisiana, (1977, 35 dead) Galveston, Texas, (1977, 18 dead), Council Bluffs, Iowa, (1982, five dead) and others too numerous to mention. Truly, grain is a harvest of the Grim Reaper.No less lethal is one of man's favorite recreational grain products: beer. True, millions have drunk themselves to death. And in their befuddled state, they have taken many an innocent bystander with them to the grave, either by chance or design. But it doesn't take a 12-pack in the stomach of the driver of a muscle car for beer to kill. Consider the London Beer Flood of October 16, 1814. A brewery vat holding 3500 barrels of "strong beer" burst, inundating a crowded London neighborhood with an excess of the lubricant of British social life. When the suds finally cleared, at least eight people were dead: smashed, drowned, or fatally intoxicated. The temperance crusaders had yet another sin to lie at John Barleycorn's doorstep.But the unlikeliest lethal consumable is that delightfully sweet, sticky distillate, molasses. This innocent precursor of such treats as molasses cookies and 151 proof rum showed the dark side of its sweet nature one cloudy January day in Boston in 1919. Looming over the North End was the Purity Distilling Company, with its huge molasses storage tanks. On the fateful day, with a low rumble, an almost full 2.5 million gallon tank suddenly burst. Freed, the heavy, viscous liquid defied folk wisdom. It turns out that molasses isn't that slow in January after all. A brown, 20 foot high wave hurtled through the neighborhood at a speed estimatedat 35 mph. Some buildings were crushed like matchboxes; others, wrenched from their foundations, bobbed like corks in the dense liquid. Chunks of steel were hurled about like shrapnel, severing the supports of a nearby elevated train track. And the local residents were trapped by a liquid far deadlier than water.Some, although hopelessly mired, managed to keep their noses above the syrup for the hours it took rescuers to free them. But many others weren't so fortunate. No less than 21 people died, mostly by drowning and/or suffocation. And the City of Boston found itself faced with what the newspapers accurately described as "the biggest mess since the Augean Stables". It took a week to recover all the bodies, and the harbor was brown for months afterwards. There can be no doubt. Food kills. It may gradually clog your arteries with cholesterol, slowly nurture a lethal cancer, or suddenly crush you like a cockroach. The fuel of life is frequently the stuff of death.

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