Welcome to Florida, where something’s always trying to kill you.
The Sunshine State is the lightning-strike capital and the shark-bite capital. We have hurricanes, tornadoes, stealthy sinkholes, rabid raccoons, abandoned pythons, venomous spiders and, yes, even the sunshine can kill you (think melanoma ).
But danger here is not limited to the visible.
Take, for instance, flesh-eating bacteria. Last month, health officials announced the Vibrio vulnificus microorganism had claimed the life of a Palm Coast man after he’d gone fishing in the Halifax River near Ormond Beach. His was the ninth death and 27th case of the infection among Florida residents this year.
Fresh water is no safer. There you’ll find Naegleria fowleri, the brain-eating amoeba that can lurk in springs and warm-water lakes. Get a splash of amoeba-tainted water up your nose and the organism can hitch a ride to the brain, where it starts feeding. Cases are rare, if that’s consoling, but nearly always fatal. And Florida has more of them than any other state.
Though there is no authoritative title for “most dangerous state,” Dr. Kevin Sherin of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County does acknowledge a vast variety of Floridian dangers — particularly those associated with water, which we have in abundance.
Consider the water moccasin, aka the Florida cottonmouth.
“I’m not an expert on this, but what I’ve heard is that they like to hang out in the lily pads,” Sherin says. “So if you’re water-skiing, and you go off to the edge, that’s where they are — and that’s where the gators are, too. I’m thinking you ought to stay away from the shallow areas where there’s vegetation. And you probably want to wear a nose clip, too, because of the amoeba.”
Great advice — but it won’t help with ciguatera poisoning, which comes with your meal. Ciguatera is found in large, reef-dwelling fish such as snapper and grouper that have high concentrations of a toxin produced by microscopic algae. It is neither killed by cooking nor detectable by odor.
“Ciguatoxic fish do not look or taste bad or appear sick. People who ate a ciguatoxic fish generally said the fish was delicious,” according to the Oceans and Human Health Center at the University of Miami. Unfortunately, there is no definitive test for the toxin, either.
So you vow to stay on dry land and become a vegan.
But land brings its own woes, including a range of venomous snakes such as the Eastern coral — a slender, striped creature whose identifying feature has given rise to the catchy adage “Red touches yellow, kill a fellow.” There are also deadly Southern copperheads, the Eastern diamondback rattler, the timber rattlesnake and the dusky pygmy rattler.
Unfortunately, that’s nothing next to the number of insects that can kill you.
“We have a lot of insects that can sting or bite, like mosquitoes, where their bite isn’t horrible, but they can transmit [fatal] diseases,” says Lyle Buss, manager of the University of Florida Insect Identification Lab. He spends his days studying the mostly — but not always — dead bugs people send him from all over the state.
That includes mosquitoes, which can carry encephalitis and West Nile virus; red imported fire ants, native to South America, whose painful sting has caused at least 80 documented deaths in humans; and deer ticks that can spread Lyme disease. The latter won’t kill you, but it can make you miserable.
Still, all things are relative. Some say the most publicized Florida dangers are exaggerated.
Take the shark bites. It’s true Florida again led the nation last year in shark attacks, with 26, most of them in Brevard and Volusia counties. But let’s keep this in perspective.
“Sharks have a terrible public-relations problem,” says Debbie Salamone, organizer of Survivors for Shark Conservation for The Pew Charitable Trusts.
“Humans kill about 100 million sharks each year, mostly for their fins, which are a soup ingredient in the Asian market. Compare that with the average of 70 people who are attacked by a shark each year — a [half-dozen] of whom are killed,” says Salamone, a former Orlando Sentinel reporter who wrote about her own shark attack. “It’s very clear that sharks have a lot more to fear from us than we do from them.
“You’re much more likely to get killed just driving to the beach.”