5 Zombie Apocalypse
Until 2012, it's doubtful most Americans were aware of a legally distributed drug commonly referred to as "bath salts"—until the media became obsessed with a story about a man in Miami who reportedly ate someone's face off while on the drug. As it turns out, he hadn't taken bath salts at all. But the proverbial cat was already out of the bag, and it was a cannibalistic zombie cat. All of a sudden, everybody was talking about bath salts—and makers of luxury bath products were none too amused. Suddenly, any bizarre crime was attributed to usage of methylenedioxypyrovalerone (say that three times fast), leading the DEA to use its emergency powers to ban the drug, citing its imminent hazard to the public.
4 Don't Let the Bed Bugs Bite
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We've been living with bed bugs for hundreds of years, and no one's suffered any ill effects. The numerous studies on the parasites have yet to reveal a shred of evidence that they carry diseases or otherwise infect you with anything other than a little red mark where they bit you. No evidence that something is harmful doesn't stop the media from launching an all-out war on it, however, and in 2011 major news organizations were hysterical over the apparently out-of-control bed bug infestation. It doesn't matter if they don't actually harm you—people think bugs are gross. Especially bugs that bite you, and most especially bugs that feast on your flesh while you're sleeping. At least pest control companies didn't have to worry about the recession.
3 Mad Cow
What's more frightening than a disease for which there's no known cure that can kill you within a year of showing symptoms? The same disease, only it lies dormant for years so you don't even know whether you have it. Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease doesn't have much sound-bite potential though, so the media christened it "mad cow disease" and went, well, mad. The news prompted many importers to boycott U.S. beef. Never mind that you're only exposed to the disease if you eat infected brain or spinal cord material—parts of the cow that don't enter the U.S. food supply.
2 H1N1 Influenza in 2009
Sometimes the best way to cause a panic is to tell people not to panic—and that's exactly what happened when a new strain of H1N1 influenza surfaced in 2009. As early reports told it, if you contracted this new hybrid of swine, avian and human flu, you could die. Fears didn't abate when the World Health Organization declared an H1N1 pandemic. Millions of doses of vaccines were administered, but when the dust settled, the strain hadn't killed any more people than other flu strains do. Turns out it was only slightly more contagious than your usual flu virus, and maybe even less deadly.
1 Anthrax in the Mail
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the media made the already-paranoid public aware of a new threat: anthrax-laced mail. The 2001 anthrax attacks killed five people, and major news organizations latched on to the possibility other U.S. mail could be cross-contaminated with deadly anthrax spores. People all over the country were avoiding their mailboxes and opening letters outside pointed away from them for fear of inhaling the spores. The FBI closed the file on the 2001 attack in 2010, having determined that biologist Bruce Ivins, who later committed suicide, was the lone perpetrator. Despite that fact, mail rooms and offices are still shut down whenever an envelope reveals "suspicious" white powder.
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