Our nation is obsessed with sterility.
There's a bottle of hand sanitizer in every purse. Stand-alone hand sanitizer stations decorate shopping malls and conference centers. You can visit an airport restroom and not have to touch anything but the door lock; I imagine it's only a matter of time before someone introduces a self-locking stall door. (Wave your hand to the right and the door locks; wave to the left to unlock. Just don't reach for your purse until you're ready to leave.)
Most people don't know how delicious a soft-cooked egg tastes. Public health officials are now encouraging parents to fully cook deli meat before serving. State and federal government agencies are engaged in a media-hyped, all-out war against raw milk.
I can't help but feel that this antimicrobial movement has gone overboard.
In 2010, Ohio State University published the results of a study of pathogen contamination levels in rural Ohio households. The researchers specifically compared homes from livestock farms and rural homes without livestock.
Guess what they found? Households from livestock farms have higher contamination levels than households without livestock.
While I'm still a bit baffled that university funds were used to conduct this research, the real kicker was the comment from Lydia Medeiros, one of the co-investigators, in the press release issued by OSU:
"Farmers working with animals, particularly dairy cattle, need to take precautions not to carry contamination into the household," she said. "Clothing and shoes worn outside need to stay outside. And, since we found contamination on two washing machines, it may be a good idea to have a separate laundry area just for work clothes."
Is it just me, or are these people not in touch with real world agriculture? Because to me, it doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense to prevent contamination of my house. For three reasons: 1. It would be impossible. 2. My kids eat and play in the barn just as much as they eat and play in the house. They've been thoroughly exposed to all of the pathogens on our property. 3. We need to learn to live with germs, not try to isolate ourselves from them or eliminate them.
Let me explain that third point.
There's a growing theory amongst food allergy researchers - called the hygiene hypothesis - which "holds that because children in our culture are exposed to fewer germs than our bodies are used to dealing with, the immune system, deprived of its customary full-time germ-fighting job, misidentifies certain foods as harmful." (FAAN; foodallergy.org) Medical researchers think asthma and other autoimmune disorders are on the rise for the same reason.
I liken these underworked immune systems to underworked Border Collies. If you don't give a Border Collie a meaningful job, he'll resort to herding the free-range chickens or the group of kids playing in the yard. Border Collies aren't supposed to herd chickens or children, but they will if there aren't any cattle or sheep around.
The bottom line is that we're keeping our kids and their environment too clean. Our bodies need regular exposure to nonthreatening bacteria, like those found in soil and mud. (Three cheers for those of us parents who don't get around to sanitizing our kids or our houses as often as society makes us think we should. It's actually better for our kids.)
There's another reason for us to ditch our addiction to antimicrobials: "Some scientists also link antimicrobial products to the rise of so-called superbugs such as MRSA and antibiotic-resistant E. coli. Because drugs often have similar chemical structures, bacteria that evolve a genetic dodge around an antimicrobial product can simultaneously acquire what is called cross-resistance to antibiotics, too." (As explained by Allison Aiello, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor.)
Maybe the activists who are so opposed to antibiotic use in food animals because of the development of superbugs should take a look at the bigger picture. The U.S. hand sanitizer industry is expected to exceed $402 million in business annually by 2015. How much hand sanitizer does that add up to if an 8-oz bottle of Purell sells for $3? Almost 17 million gallons. And that's using name-brand prices. Maybe we should start demanding the judicious use of hand sanitizers and other antimicrobial products.
So how do we learn to live with germs?
Farmers already know how. Farms are one of the last great places where kids - and adults - get to play with germs on a regular basis.
Beyond that, I'd encourage non-farm parents to let their kids play in the dirt. According to the Soil Science Society of America, a handful of soil has more organisms in it than there are people in the world. (I bet a handful of barnyard soil has even more.)
Don't hyperventilate if you find a little grime under your son's fingernails after he's finished eating. Support your children's immune systems with good nutrition, activity and lots of fresh air. Come on out to the farm. But leave your hand sanitizer at home.
Full references available upon request.