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Five Threats More Terrifying Than Ebola Arriving in the U.S.

By Tom Randall
August 05, 2014 12:37 PM EDT 133 Comments
An illustration of a large impactor striking earth.
Source: Don Davis/NASA
An illustration of a large impactor striking earth.

Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York is testing a patient for Ebola. He recently returned from a trip to West Africa, where Ebola has killed some 900 people. In a lazy summer news cycle when people are dreaming about weekend margaritas and beach trips, Ebola has become the biggest news story since balloon boy. It shouldn’t be. Ebola is spread through body fluids: blood and mucous and feces. It’s a big deal in Africa right now, largely because of lax quarantines and traditional funeral rites that include washing of the dead. If you live in a country with decent public-health infrastructure and haven’t been handling bodies or paying sick visits to patients with Ebola, you’re probably going to be just fine.

If you’re looking for a story to scare you out of your late-summer malaise, try one of these instead. In addition to being credible threats, they also have the benefit of being within your control to do something about:

Electromagnetic Pulses From Outer Space: Yup, it’s a thing. There’s maybe a five percent chance that in the next decade, a massive sunburst will wipe out electric grids all over the planet. Five percent is far higher than your chance of contracting Ebola, even if you happen to work in the infectious-disease wing of Mt. Sinai. With a sunburst as big as the one that hit in 1859, tens of millions of Americans could be without power for two years. You think Ebola is bad? Try fighting Ebola without electricity. Climate Change: Just 500 years ago, many humans still thought you could sail a ship too far and fall off the planet. Everything seemed so magnificent and untouchable. Now, it turns out, we can just drive around playing Candy Crush and totally trash the planet without lifting a finger off the touch screen. Once-verdant land is drying up while coastal cities are at risk of getting washed away. Coral reefs? Don’t even get me started. Water Crisis: The world is facing a shortage of freshwater. I know what you’re thinking: Who needs water, right? Saudi Arabia is draining its underground aquifers so quickly the precious water source will be empty in 50 years. Enough water has been siphoned from the Colorado River Basin, which feeds California and six other states, to submerge New York City beneath 344 feet of water.

Congressional Implosion: The U.S. government can no longer tie its own shoes. This is the least productive of all unproductive Congresses in records dating back to 1947. That’s a terrifying prospect, considering the collective action required to deal with problems like climate change, water crises and electromagnetic pulses from outer space.

Antibiotic Resistance: It may not cause bleeding from the eyes, but antibiotic resistance is a horrifying reality. After a century of gains in the war against infectious disease, common bacteria are developing widespread immunity to our best weapons. There have been no major new antibiotic types in 30 years. Imagine a world where a staph infection could mean death by a paper cut.

We haven't even touched the scary stories of the moment: war without end in the Middle East, the Cold War remix, the child migration crisis at the U.S. border. In India, 600,000 people die from diarrhea every year because they still aren’t using toilets. That’s a terrible story. And so is Ebola: It is a personal tragedy affecting thousands of families in Africa right now. But it’s not a real threat in most countries, and there are much bigger worries to get collectively worked up over.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the Ebola death toll in the first paragraph.

More from Tom Randall:

Follow @tsrandall on Twitter for more threats to humanity.

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