Lighten Up in the Fight Against Germs
In addition to hundreds of brands of disinfectant soaps and detergents, we now have disinfectant room foggers and air fresheners; hand sanitizers to take everywhere; wipes for grocery cart handles; toothbrush sanitizers, hand-held, germ-killing lights and germ-resistant shoe liners; food storage containers and even washing machines. Coming soon: nano-thin germ-fighting layers to add to clothing.
Last week, I received a press release about a product that will strap a tippy cup to the high chair so that it won’t keep “falling” on the floor. One of the reasons for such a product makes sense — it keeps mom from having to repeatedly pick up a thrown-down cup (although this does teach a toddler about cause and effect — “I fwo dis down, mama get it”). The other reason for the product: to keep the cup from ever hitting the floor where, God forbid, some germs could get on it.
I asked the publicist if she’d heard of the hygiene hypothesis. She hadn’t. (I don’t imagine she’d heard of the five-second rule either.)
I came across the hygiene hypothesis several years ago when I was doing a story on dramatic increases in children’s asthma. Researchers found — much to their surprise — that children who grow up on farms or in homes with pets have a lower incidence of asthma than do those from more sanitary environments. Children with lots of siblings or who go to day care at a young age are also less likely to come down with asthma and allergies.
The term hygiene hypothesis was coined by Dr. Erika von Mutius, a health researcher in the late 1990s who compared the rates of allergy and asthma in East and West Germany. She expected that children growing up in the poorer, dirtier and generally less healthful cities of East Germany would suffer more from allergy and asthma than children in West Germany, with its cleaner and more modern environment. The opposite was true.
Children in East Germany generally came from larger families, and day care for young children was more prevalent. Mutius hypothesized that children who are around other children or animals early in life are exposed to more microbes and their immune systems develop more tolerance for the irritants that cause asthma.
The hypothesis is by no means universally accepted, but it is one explanation for soaring rates of allergies and asthma in the developed world. Scientists and doctors studying the hypothesis over the last decade have concluded that our immune systems need to work and build strength by attacking germs, harmful bacteria and irritants. The immune system can grow stronger only if it gets exercise, either through fighting infections or encountering harmless microbes. If it doesn’t get that workout, it “turns on itself” with autoimmune diseases and allergic reactions.
The conclusion is that our overly paranoid fight against germs is getting out of hand.
WHAT’S THE HARM?
Beyond the fact that our phobia against germs may be preventing children from exercising their immune systems, products we use to fight germs may be causing our kids actual harm.
When antibacterial soaps and detergents first came out, my friend who is a nurse told me emphatically not to use them. The main reason for this is that these soaps kill the weakest germs, but that stronger germs survive and build up a resistance. The fear is that more germs will evolve that will be resistant to traditional antibiotics. Additionally, these products kill off beneficial bacteria as well as harmful ones.
Health officials have found that washing with antibacterial products is no more effective than washing with soap and water, and that the harsher, antibacterial soaps and alcohol wipes may cause more eczema and skin problems. Beyond that, triclosan, the “anti-microbial” ingredient in most germ-killing products, is considered a pesticide by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and may have carcinogenic properties. The Soap and Detergent Association vehemently challenges these claims, but is it worth taking the risk?
Most air fresheners just mask odors, although some claim to kill bacteria in the air. These products consist of a chemical soup that can cause respiratory irritation in many adults and children.
The newest technology in the war against germs has produced consumer items made with “nanoparticles” of silver. The EPA has decided to begin regulating these products because they may pose unanticipated environmental risks when washed down the drain.
Of course no one believes we should return to the bad old days of poor sanitation and epidemics of dangerous infectious diseases. All health officials continue to recommend frequent hand-washing — with plain soap and water — to wash away harmful germs and prevent the spread of infection.
There are two areas where extra vigilance is necessary.
One is in thoroughly cleaning surfaces in the kitchen where food is prepared, especially when dealing with raw meat or poultry. While we don’t need to be using antibacterial products, we should be using soap and hot water, and maybe even bleach, to prevent cross-contamination from meat juices. Thorough washing of fruits and vegetables and thorough cooking of meats and poultry can help prevent the dangerous — and even fatal — spread of foodborne illness caused by E. coli, salmonella or other dangerous bacteria.
The second is in limiting exposure to outside dirt by having children wash their hands after playing in it, taking off outdoor shoes when coming inside, and vacuuming rugs and sweeping floors regularly. The danger in dirt is not so much microbes and germs as it is the chemical elements it may contain, such as arsenic and lead, especially if you live in the Pierce County and south King County areas that may have been contaminated by the old ASARCO smelter in Ruston. The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s Dirt Alert division has practical information on this subject; call 253-798-6492 or visit www.tpchd.org.
But there is evidence that a little dirt and a few germs won’t hurt kids and that there’s no need for paranoid hyper-vigilance against them. The five-second rule (if you pick something up off the floor within five seconds it’s fine to eat) is probably OK to follow in most circumstances. And trying to protect your child from all colds and flu will backfire — they’re going to have to catch and fight them sometime.
Think of it as exercise for their immune systems.
©2007 Caliope Publishing Company
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