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Coming clean about bacteria


When it comes to health theories, I take the smorgasbord approach, accepting those that appeal to me and rejecting those that don’t.

If research indicates that a nightly glass of red wine or five is good for me, I’ll drink to that. If other researchers recommend eating fish on any day that ends with the letter “y,” I shrug it off and reach for another slice of pizza.

So it was with considerable satisfaction and head-nodding that I read a recent story in this newspaper declaring that we may be becoming too clean for our own good.

“A growing body of evidence suggests that all the antibacterial-wiping, germ-killing cleanliness of the developed world may actually be making us more prone to getting sick,” the story began.

It went on to explain the “hygiene hypothesis,” which holds that the natural germ fighters in our systems need practice coming into contact with bacteria so they’ll know which ones to take seriously.

But they’re not getting much practice lately. Because our world increasingly is filled with containers of hand wipes and pump bottles of antiseptic soaps in the offices where we work, the stores where we shop and the gyms where we exercise.

Hand disinfecting has become a national obsession. Maybe even an international one.

On a Mediterranean cruise I took a took a few years ago, attendants stood at the entrance to the ship’s dining room holding out hand wipes for passengers. Instead of worrying about my hands being clean, I would rather have seen them out on the deck making sure the lifeboats were in order and the captain was sober.

When people aren’t washing their hands, they’re worrying about keeping them from contacting anything that previously may have been touched by any other human being. I have friends who push open restroom doors with their elbows so they don’t have to touch them with their hands. Acquaintances who risk falling down a flight of stairs rather than using the handrail.

Clean hands fanatics are entitled to their fetish. The Black Plague probably could have been averted by an adequate supply of Handi Wipes. And there’s probably no point in mentioning other research that indicates ingredients in some antiseptic soaps are harmful, including one that can cause “cold sweats, circulatory collapse, convulsions, coma and even death.”

Still, when I read about the “hygiene hypothesis,” I threw the paper aside pumped my fist and exclaimed, “Yes!”

“What was that all about?” my wife inquired.

“Just something I read in the paper.”

“That’s nice, dear,” she said. “When you get done reading the paper, don’t forget to disinfect. The sanitizer’s on the coffee table.”


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