Are we sanitizing ourselves too much?

By Paul Rowney on 18th Jun 2020

Many years ago, I ran a children’s entertainment center, with a special area for youngsters and toddlers. One day I received a phone call from an irate mother claiming her child had ‘caught an infection’ after playing there. When I asked how she knew the infection was from my play center she answered: “Because it’s the first time my child has been outside of the house to play?” When I asked how old he was, she replied “Four years”. Yep, four years old and he’d never played outside his home. My immediate thought was that maybe if the child had been outside, got dirty, mixed with other kids, then maybe he wouldn’t be so susceptible to catching an infection.

Fast forward to 2020 and the COVID crisis. Here we all are walking around with masks and gloves on, and sanitizing ourselves after each excursion outside the house. In the future, we’re told, hotels, offices, public places will be cleaned and made coronavirus (or any germ) free constantly.

But is all this such a good idea? Because, I have to ask: as a result of living in this ‘germ-free’ environment, just like the child who came to the play center, are we setting ourselves up to be extremely vulnerable to every kind of other viruses out there? Potentially the very immunity our bodies build every day to combat these germs is becoming redundant.

Let’s see what some experts have to say…

“Our immune system needs a job,” Dr. Meg Lemon a dermatologist in Denver who treats people with allergies and autoimmune disorders said in an article published in the New York Times. She adds. “We evolved over millions of years to have our immune systems under constant assault. Now they don’t have anything to do.” So should you use antibacterial soap or hand sanitizers? No. Are we taking too many antibiotics? Yes. (Well, that was the opinion pre-COVID). She adds: “I tell people, when they drop food on the floor, please pick it up and eat it, get rid of the antibacterial soap. Immunize! If a new vaccine comes out, run, and get it. I immunized the living hell out of my children. And it’s O.K. if they eat dirt.”

She isn’t alone. Leading physicians and immunologists are reconsidering the antiseptic, at times hysterical, ways in which we interact with our environment.

The New York Times article goes on to say: “We have minimized the regular interaction not just with ‘bad’ parasites but even with friendly bacteria and parasites that helped to teach and hone the immune system — that “trained” it. It doesn’t encounter as many bugs when we are babies. This is not just because our homes are cleaner, but also because our families are smaller (fewer older children are bringing home the germs), our foods and water cleaner, our milk sterilized.”

According to an article published by the BBC: “Studies show the benefits. Children who grew up in an environment that was not obsessively clean have lower rates of allergy and asthma. And certain bacteria also actively protect us from bowel disease and even some types of anxiety and depression.” So what does the immune system do when it’s not properly trained or has ‘nothing to do’? It can overreact. It becomes aggrieved by things like dust mites or pollen. It develops what’s called allergies, chronic immune system attacks — inflammation — in a way that is counterproductive, irritating, even dangerous.

As a result, the percentage of children in the United States with a food allergy rose 50 percent between 1997–1999 and 2009–2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The jump in skin allergies was 69 percent during that period, leaving 12.5 percent of American children with eczema and other irritations. By 2019 in the USA the percentage of adults who have allergies in the U.S.was 30% and Children: 40%. Part of the cause: not just the obsessively clean environment some of us live in but vastly overprescribed antibiotics. These may be a huge boon to an immune system faced with an otherwise deadly infection. But when used without good reason, the drugs can wipe out healthy microbes in our gut and cause bacteria to develop defenses that make them even more lethal.

The BBC article goes on to say:
“Around the house, the solution for fighting the wrong kind of bacteria is not excessive cleaning, but timely cleaning. Good hygiene is not a once-a-week, deep-down clean, it needs to be ”an ongoing part of our daily lives, where hygiene measures are targeted where and when necessary,” says Sally Bloomfield, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and chair of the International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene.

Bloomfield highlights some danger areas around the home:
“Warm damp cloths are a particular haven for nasty bugs. That’s why clothes in both the kitchen and bathroom should ideally be discarded and washed after every use. And laundry of towels and linen should be done at 60C (140F) to beat the bugs, or with “oxygen-based bleaching agents” in the washing powder if it’s done at lower temperatures”. “When it comes to bathrooms, it doesn’t help, of course, that all-too-few people close the toilet lid when flushing. If you can’t be bothered, remember that an open lid is a gateway for all the bacteria inside to spread and multiply”.

Ilkka Hanski, a biologist at the University of Helsinki in Finland, says, it’s important to get out of the house and spend time in woodlands and forests. “Let your children play in places where they have contact with soil and vegetation, which are rich in beneficial microbes,”. A healthier life, it seems, can be boosted by exposure to farm animals and harmless but vital microorganisms in the dirt, food, and water. Owning a dog is said to be an excellent way to develop an effective immune system.
On the plus side you can take heart in knowing that every time you get a little sick, you get a little stronger. “The message is not one that most people want to hear: they want the quick pharmaceutical fix for the slightest bit of discomfort. But every time you take the quick fix, you make your body a little weaker.”

For the full article, click here.

Anyone who has sent their child to kindergarten or preschool knows they will come back with a host of ailments caught from other children. They survive and thrive. It’s just a way of building up immunity early on in life. It’s all a careful balancing act as we don’t want to infect people with COVID or any other nasty disease, but if we continue to live in a sanitized, germ-free world, what happens when we go somewhere that isn’t so clean … we are leaving our bodies open to catch all kinds of infections which to a healthy body would cause few problems, but to a body that has not developed a good immune system if could be very bad news indeed.

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