Myth or Maxim?

gator-toilet_300 Always a sucker for whatever I read or overhear, I decided to check out some common household “rules.”

Here are a few of my favorites along with the verdict on how true they might be.

Rule: Alligators Live in Sewers and Can Come Up Into Your ToiletYikes!

False. This urban legend originated in New York City

(something about a batch of imported baby alligators flushed down a toilet…), but according to Ian Michaels, spokesman for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees water and sewer systems, “there are no alligators in the sewers.”

Alligators are cold-blooded, he adds, and the temperature in the sewers in winter would be too cold for them to tolerate.

Even where one might more reasonably worry about gators―say, in Florida―a call to Frank Calderon, information officer for Miami-Dade County’s Water and Sewer Department, yielded a dry “No, no alligators in the sewers” before the question was even asked (“You have no idea how many times people ask us that”).

He says that the methane and hydrogen sulfide gases that accumulate in sewers make for an “inhospitable environment.” They displace oxygen, so there’s none for alligators to breathe; nor is there anything for them to eat.

And even if an alligator donned a gas mask and brought its own rations, it would have to be a contortionist to work its way into your bathroom via the toilet. Most sewer-line pipes coming into homes are only four or six inches wide, and the internal trap in toilets makes the opening a mere two to three inches. So you can confidently flush this myth once and for all.  (Personally I worry more about rodents because I witnessed that once at Carolyn Mitchell’s camphouse.)

microwave Rule: Standing in Front of a Microwave Oven While It’s Operating Can Give You Cancer

False…probably. Despite a few studies suggesting possible cause for concern, according to a Food and Drug Administration spokesperson, “there are no established adverse health effects, including cancer, from using or standing in front of a standard microwave oven.”

The non-ionizing radiation that ovens use to change the chemical structure of food is different from the ionizing radiation that causes cells in the body to mutate.

Research is ongoing, though, so to be safe, the FDA advises, don’t stand directly in front of a microwave “for long periods of time” while it’s working. If you’re standing there watching last night’s Kung Foo chicken reheat, you’re much more likely to die of boredom.

Rule: Cleaning the Lint Trap Before Using the Clothes Dryer Is Necessary

True. “The lint filter covers an exhaust port,” says Litchfield. “If it’s blocked with a layer of fuzz―and all it takes is a load of towels to make one―the moist air can’t get out.

It’s a tremendous waste of energy, because it takes longer for clothes to dry, and there’s a remote possibility of fire.” Also, residue from dryer sheets and detergent can decrease performance by forming an invisible layer on the trap, says Jill Notini of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. She suggests taking a nylon brush and hot, soapy water to the screen regularly.

phone Rule: Using the Phone During a Lightning Storm Can Be Dangerous

True—for phones with cords. Both the Electrical Safety Foundation International and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) advise against handling corded phones during thunderstorms: Lightning could send a charge from the pole outside through the wire feeding into the phone and “right into your head,” says John Jensenius, a lightning expert at NOAA.

(Cordless phones out of the cradle and unplugged cell phones aren’t a problem, he says, “since there’s no physical connection with outside wiring.”)

However, “the probability is low,” says Richard Berg, a physics professor at the University of Maryland, in College Park. For one thing, he says, phone lines aren’t designed to carry a current as strong as a lightning bolt, so they’d probably melt before it got into your home.

Jensenius agrees the chances are “relatively low” but adds, “if you are struck, you could be injured or killed. It happens every year” (an average of 8.7 times a year, according to NOAA data). So, granted, you’re probably going to get away with it, but unless there’s an emergency, why tempt fate?

Scare crows with an owl?


Rule: Putting Out a Fake Owl Will Keep Away Birds

False. Some one told me this just this week to keep birds away from my tomatoes – assuming my garden is successful. Whether it’s inflatable, hard plastic, or wood, a fake owl won’t permanently deter birds.

“They quickly realize those owls aren’t real,” says Roger Lederer, professor emeritus of biological sciences at California State University, in Chico, and owner of A fake owl could discourage birds from trying to kamikaze through the glass, but that’s only because the owl is covering it, Lederer says: “An Elvis doll would probably be just as effective.”


4 thoughts on “Myth or Maxim?

  1. Emily, we had a telephone melt when I was a teenager because the pole was hit by lightening! Mama never again would talk on the phone during a storm and she stayed away from all electrical appliances just to be safe.

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