Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Notes: read. this. book. The subject of the quote is on "epidemics", not of disease but of behavior.
The best analogy to this kind of epidemic is the outbreak of food poisoning that swept through several public schools in Belgium in the summer of 1999. It started when forty-two children in the Belgian town of Bornem became mysteriously ill after drinking Coca-Cola and had to be hospitalized. Two days later, eight more schoolchildren fell sick in Brugge, followed by thirteen in Harelbeke the next day and forty-two in Lochristi three days after that - and on and on in a widening spiral that, in the end, sent more than one hundred children to the hospital complaining of nausea, dizziness, and headaches, and forced Coca-Cola into the biggest product recall in its 113-history. Upon investigation, an apparent culprit was found. In the Coca-Cola plant in Antwerp, contaminated carbon dioxide had been used to carbonate a batch of the soda's famous syrup. But then the case got tricky: upon examination, the contaminants in the carbon dioxide were found to be sulfur compounds present at between five and seventeen parts per billion. These sulfides can cause illness, however, only at levels about a thousand times greater than that. At seventeen parts per billion, they simply impart a bad smell - like rotten eggs - which means that Belgium should have experienced nothing more than a minor epidemic of nose wrinkling. More puzzling is the fact that, in four of the five schools where the bad Coke allegedly caused illness, half the kids who got sick hadn't actually drunk any Coke that day. Whatever went on in Belgium, in other words, probably wasn't a Coca-Cola poisoning. So what was it? It was a kind of mass hysteria, a phenomenon that is not at all uncommon among school children.