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Take Your Medicine 3 min read
New York Times

Take Your Medicine

A recent New York Times report on ibuprofen reminded me of one of my favorite pieces of audio journalism ever—This American Life's look at acetaminophen.

By Cary Littlejohn

My wrist is aching again, and it's only fitting that I'm looking for some ibuprofen when my email pings with a story from the New York Times about how much ibuprofen is too much ibuprofen.

I'd already seen the story when it published a few days ago, but apparently the Times was worried I had missed out on this vital information. It wasn't really filled with stuff that didn't seem pretty predictable, although it was interesting to hear that sometimes doctors prescribe up to 3,200 milligrams a day to maximize the drug's anti-inflammatory effect. This kind of dosage is usually after injuries or surgeries.

And it's more than 2,000 milligrams above the recommended daily dosage. The article talks about how the discrepancy makes it difficult to know how much is too much.

This reminded me of one of the greatest podcast episodes ever. It's an oldie from This American Life where they spent the entire hour of the program on a single story—the dangers associated with acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, which kills on average more than 150 people each year due to accidental overdoses.

Use Only as Directed - This American Life
More than 150 Americans die each year on average after accidentally taking too much acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol.

The episode came out in 2013, and I was still relatively new to podcasts at that time. I'd only been turned onto them a few years earlier while in law school.

I remember going back to revisit this episode numerous times when I was living in Mississippi, generally unhappy as a lawyer, and getting lost in podcasts and audio journalism on long walks with my dog, wondering if maybe I could do something like that.

It was gripping from the opening segment, and the story just gets more interesting and eye-opening as it goes along. The simple hook sidesteps the fact that, as Ira Glass concedes, many Americans know that acetaminophen can harm or even kill, but it's the fact of just how small an amount above the recommendation that can tip the dosage into the danger zone that makes the report so compelling. That, and the degree to which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has acted (or not) in response to the known dangers.

Just take a listen. It's all pretty shocking.

The story was also a collaboration with ProPublica, which drove home just how audio can elevate a standard reported story.