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Are we too clean?

I once spent some time in remote areas of South America. There was no electricity or running water and the sanitation system was a hole in the ground. Mosquitoes the size of humming birds were feasting on me through my denim jeans and when I asked for a drink of water I was given a cup and told to walk past the mangy, rabid looking animals and dip it in the Orinoco Delta, (a river I was too scared to put my toe in let alone drink from.) What struck me most were the happy, healthy, naked, mozzie bite-free children running around.

In communities like these the people have adapted to their environments a lot better than we have in the western world. From the moment they are born they are exposed to the multitude of germs that they live with every day. Their immune systems mature very quickly. They have to in order to deal with fighting off serious diseases such as Typhoid, Malaria and a whole range of parasites. There is no sterilizing baby’s bottle here.

So have we become too clean for our own good? The “Hygiene Hypothesis” is a theory which links decreased exposure to germs and infection in childhood with the increase in asthma, allergies and immune system disorders in developed nations. Have you noticed that is usually the kids with older siblings who are healthier and more robust? Studies have shown that kids from larger families, kids who grow up on farms, kids who have lots of pets, or kids who attend large childcare centres in the first 6mths of life are less likely to develop hay fever, eczema or asthma. Their immune systems learn not to overreact to everyday stuff like pollens and dust mites. This is because like in third world countries they are exposed from infancy to all the germs that naturally occur in their environment, allowing their immune system to do what it is supposed to do, build up immunity. Heavy use of antibacterial cleaning products, antibiotics in the first year of life and even caesarean sections, (because they are more sterile than vaginal births) have all been associated with higher rates of allergies and asthma.

These days there are so many anti bacterial products available our homes are like hospitals. And it’s being marketed like it’s a good thing – ‘Kills 99.9% of bacteria’ or ‘Kills bacteria for up to 8 hours’ This makes us associate bacteria with germs, infection and disease. But the fact is there are 10 times more bacteria in our bodies than cells. Most bacteria are harmless and most of it is good for us like our healthy gut bacteria for example.

It is now known that overuse of antibiotics leads to superbugs. Many microbiologists believe the same thing will happen with overuse of antibacterials. Triclosan is a nasty chemical used in many antibacterial products from mouth wash to kids toys, plastics, carpets, deodorants, detergents, even sportswear etc. It is a carcinogen and hormone disruptor amongst other things. Companies that use products with Triclosan in it claim it is safe but in the US the EPA has registered it as a pesticide. What’s worrying is this is now showing up in Plasma, Breast milk and children’s urine. The concern is that bacteria will mutate and we will have Triclosan resistant bacteria.

Overuse of antibacterials kills off the good and weak bacteria leaving the strongest, most resistant bacteria to thrive. Newer antibacterials leave a residue which continues to kill bacteria long after it has been used so the good bacteria can’t re-establish itself. So what should we be cleaning with? Good old Bi-carb soda, vinegar and soap and water can clean just about everything without poisoning your kids. If you love chemicals, chlorine bleach, hydrogen peroxide and alcohol are antibacterials but they don’t hang around once you have finished using them therefore the good bacteria can reform.

When I was a child and a neighbour came down with chicken pox or measles we were rushed over to her house to bathe with her and have her cough all over us so that we too would catch it. These days there is a vaccination for just about everything, antibiotics for every cough or ear infection and antibacterials in all sorts of products. Of course to some degree these things are useful and necessary in our society but we need to be clued in to what we are using and why. This doesn’t mean we never have to clean the bathroom again, we can throw away our hoovers and, sneeze all over our friends. Be sensible wash your hands properly with soap and water keep your house clean but don’t freak out when your toddler eats a handful of dirt or another kid sucks his dummy. And unless you live in a hospital throw out those antibacterials.

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