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GERMOPHOBIA!

Americans have become paranoid about germs. We buy billions of dollars of alcohol wipes, hand sanitizers, and antibacterial soaps (even though triclosan has been proven to be both ineffective and a bioaccumulative pollutant…)

Aiello, A.E., Larson, E.L. & Levy, S.B. (2007) Consumer antibacterial soaps: Effective or just risky? Clinical Infectious Diseases, 45:S137-S147.
(Or, a popularized version with more references.)

Here is a typically scary article about “The Germiest Places In America.”
AAAAAA! GERMS EVERYWHERE! AAAAAAAAAAA!

Grim, isn’t it? The first world is apparently one giant, festering reservoir of filth and disease. (One hopes the authors of this article never travel to, say, India…or even the average day-care center.) Now let’s see what our daily life would be like if we used all the suggestions from this article…

  • When you enter a hotel room, clean the remote control, phone, clock radio, door handles, and light switches with germicidal wipes.
  • Once a week, apply a disinfecting cleaner to the tub and dry the tub with a clean towel.
  • Wipe down machines with antibacterial wipes before working out.
  • When visiting a park, carry alcohol wipes or hand-sanitizing gel in your purse, and clean everybody’s hands a couple of times during a park visit, especially before snacking. Pick warm sunny days for outdoor play: “The sun’s ultraviolet light is actually a very effective disinfectant.”
  • Women: wipe your [purse] down every few days with a mild soap or disinfectant, then let it air dry.
  • Carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with you and rub it on your hands after a visit to the ATM. Also, be sure to do it after you handle money. “Paper money actually carries quite a few germs, too.”
  • Always use a disinfectant wipe on your shopping cart handle… or “Carry along a cart cover, like the Grip-Guard or Healthy Handle, a dishwasher-safe polypropylene cover that fits over any size cart handle.”

Are you starting to feel like Howard Hughes, or like you’ve developed OCD? How many bottles of hand sanitizer can you carry with you at once? You’ll need several just to get through a single day on this program.

  • Don’t let your child use the drinking fountain: “Send your child to school with plenty of their own beverages. Teach them to wash their hands, especially before and after lunch, going to the bathroom, or using the computer. Send hand sanitizer to every school teacher and give extras to your child. And when it’s your turn to squeeze into that little desk for Open House? Swab it off with an antibacterial wipe, Gerba says.”

We all know someone like this, don’t we? We try to stay far away from them, and we feel sorry for their kids. Isn’t this sort of paranoid syndrome in DSM-IV?

  • Run your washer and dryer at 150ºF, and wash whites with bleach (not the color-safe type; it doesn’t pack the same punch), which kills 99% of bugs. Transfer wet laundry to the dryer quickly so germs don’t multiply, wash underwear separately (there’s about a gram of feces — a quarter the size of a small peanut — in every pair of dirty underwear), and dry for at least 45 minutes. Wash your hands after laundering, and run a cycle of bleach and water between loads to eliminate any lingering bugs.

Suddenly a simple task like “doing laundry” has become an all-afternoon project…not to mention your clothes will be shredded into rags after a few months of this treatment.

Also, “1/4 a small peanut”? Seriously? Whose underwear was in this survey? Laxative addicts? Olestra fiends? I haven’t found a dingleberry in my drawers since I got out of college and could afford to buy toilet paper I couldn’t see through.

  • In airplane bathrooms, “After using the toilet, wash and dry your hands thoroughly, and use a paper towel to handle the toilet seat, lid, tap, and doorknob. Put the lid down before you flush. If there’s no lid, turn your back to the toilet while flushing.”

You’re in a tiny airplane cabin with hundreds of other people and a very small reservoir of recirculated air. Whatever they’ve got, you’re already breathing it, including the bathroom air — so calm the heck down, OK?

  • Clean your kitchen counters and sink with an antibacterial product after preparing or rinsing food, especially raw fruits and vegetables, which carry lots of potential pathogens like salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli. … Sanitize sponges by running them through the dishwasher’s drying cycle. As for the sink, clean it twice a week with a solution of one tablespoon of chlorine bleach and one quart of water. Scrub the basin, and then pour the solution down the drain.

We’ve already established that antibacterial soap is useless and ineffective, not to mention bioaccumulative and possibly toxic…wait, clean everything after *rinsing* food? People, if you knew what happened in those restaurant kitchens whose food you blithely eat in nearly every day, you’d crap a brick. Then you’d realize you’re being needlessly paranoid, because none of us are regularly getting sick from restaurant food.

———

Phew! What with all this wiping and cleaning and scrubbing and avoiding, I’m starting to feel a bit exhausted. What was I doing…? That’s right, I was going to grab the alcohol wipes before I touched my computer keyboard and mouse (they’re covered with germs!) but I left them in a drawer and there are germs all over the drawer pull and on the package of wipes…AAAAAAAAA!

Seriously…in order to follow this program, each of us would be using entire bottles of hand sanitizer every day—and we wouldn’t have time to leave our houses anyway, because we would constantly be towel-drying our showers and running empty loads of bleach water through the washing machine. Yet somehow, humans lived, survived, evolved, covered the planet with billions of other humans, and WENT TO THE MOON without ever doing a single one of these things. Somehow, we have all survived to adulthood without being Crazy OCD Hand-Washing Guy or Obsessive Lysol Lady.

Why is that?

Because germs are everywhere. Literally. They’re in the air, on our skin, in our bodies, and on everything we touch unless we are in a sterile operating theater. The reason we don’t all die is because we have this wonderful thing called an immune system—and if we eat well and get enough sleep, our immune system can fight off almost any germ the world can throw at us…

…because for uncounted millions of years, starting long before humans were human, anyone whose immune system lost to the germs DIED.

We are the descendants of millions of generations of creatures who survived bacilli, cocci, spirochetes, viruses, prions, nematodes, flukes and worms. We survived countless infections, infestations, and epidemics. And the more stressed we get about the sources of germs all around us, the more susceptible we are to sickness and disease—because cortisol (our stress hormone) is immunosuppressive, as is losing sleep over something that’s everywhere anyway.

Yes, we should wash our hands after using the toilet. No, we shouldn’t cough or sneeze on other people, nor on their food. Yes, sterile medical practice is the biggest lifesaver in the history of the medical profession (even more so than vaccination), and we should all give Ignaz Semmelweiss* a posthumous nod of thanks…

But don’t be one of Those People…because that fortress of alcohol wipes isn’t what is keeping you healthy. Your immune system is what’s keeping you healthy, and you’ll live a longer and happier life if you spend your time eating well, exercising daily, and getting enough sleep instead of worrying about who touched the shopping cart handle before you.

Live in freedom, live in beauty.

JS

(* Semmelweiss was hounded into insanity by the medical profession’s refusal to believe that doctors should wash their hands between dissecting corpses and birthing children or performing surgery. His lifesaving sterile practices were only widely accepted well after his death.)

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25 comments

Permalink: GERMOPHOBIA!
  • Rapid-weight-loss &q

    [...] Sleep aid Meatshare! A frittata where eggs play a minor role / Sage oven-roasted veggies w/sausage Germophobia! Why bacon is a gateway to meat for [...]

  • Andrés

    Thanks for your blog!

    I write just to point out that the link to this page from the Favorite Posts of the Moment is messed up: http://www.gnolls.org/156/germophobia/%3Cbr%20/%3E instead of http://www.gnolls.org/156/germophobia.

    Take care!

  • Andres:

    The “Physical Fitness: Who Cares?” link was broken too, for the same reason. I've fixed them. Thanks for pointing that out!

    I wish I understood enough Spanish to comprehend technical articles on bomb calorimetry…your site looks quite interesting (http://guia-de-energia.blogspot.com)

    JS

  • Courtney West

    Americans have been brainwashed to believe that external microbes cause disease rather than a polluted bloodstream, weakened immune system, degenerating eliminatory organs (e.g. liver, kidney), and other adverse consequences of a high-sugar diet.
    Humans have evolved with microbes for millions of years without developing the pervasive allergies and chronic illnesses commonly found among bacteriaphobic Westerners. The following weblink briefly describes this phenomenon.
    http://www.naturopathicresources.com/images/FalseFoundation.pdf

  • Courtney:

    Bacteria and viruses are indeed omnipresent, and in most cases, sickness is indeed a factor of reduced health and immunity, not of simple exposure.

    However, the article claims that this invalidates the germ theory of disease, which is hyperbole.  Obviously if germs successfully invaded everyone, then we would either be sick all the time or dead!  And there are some germs which are deadly regardless of our immunity: smallpox, for instance, killed tens of millions of very healthy Native Americans.

    JS

  • Sara C.

    The omnipresence of alcohol wipes and sanitizers is only serving to create more resistant bacteria. Humans evolved to be immune to the majority of these bacteria, and the bacteria evolve to overcome the immunity. They also evolve to overcome our efforts to eradicate them. We are not eliminating germs on the face of the planet. We are making them stronger. I rarely sanitize (except upon leaving the bathroom… ) and I also rarely get sick. People are afraid of dying, but you can sanitize everything you touch every twenty minutes, and ultimately get hit by a bus.

  • Sara C:

    That's a good point…it's much like the overuse of antibiotics (primarily via feeding them to cattle) creates antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  Continual selection for resistance to common antibacterial sanitizers seems like it would ensure that they won't work when we really need them to (e.g. in hospitals and during sickness/injury).

    JS

  • Shadowzz4

    I work as a trainer at a gym and occasionally I’ll walk near the front counter and someone will ask me to hand them a bottle of water. One day I grab a bottle of water around the neck of the bottle and hand it over. The says “from the middle please”. Confused I go back to the cooler and reach for a bottle in the middle of the shelf. She says “no, from the middle of the bottle”. It all became clear. She didnt want my hand near the top of the bottle she was about to drink out of. She apparently does this to everyone.

    Wow.

    There was a great National Geographic that discussed a study done on Russian children I believe it was. They found those that lived on farms had virtually no allergies. This article discusses the same idea.

    http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/health-and-human-body/human-body/allergy-misery-article.html

  • Shadowzz4:

    There are a lot of people like that.

    The article draws an important distinction, which is that it's not about being dirty: it's about being exposed to animals and other “natural” dirt.  It's during the breastfeeding period that our immune systems develop — and I suspect that exposure to animals, plants, soil, and the associated bacteria during that time programs the immune system to recognize these things as natural.  In contrast, living in a city doesn't expose you to life…it just exposes you to grime.

    Thanks for linking the NG article!  Do stick around.

    JS

  • Martin @ Leaky Gut R

    We evolved to resist bacilli, cocci, spirochetes …, however we may not have the defense mechanisms against the chemicals in the antibacterial wipes. Consequently they may be more dangerous than the bacteria itself.

  • Martin:

    That is also a concern.

    JS

  • Randal

    I think the article is dead on for most Americans. Through the overuse of antibiotics (including what they get through factory raised meat and milk), lousy diet, avoidence of sunlight and other factors, most Americans likely have no immunity system left. They likely have to become OCD in order to survive.

    As for me, I avoid doctors and medications like the plague (pun intended), eat right and get plenty of sunshine.

    I have an immunity system that could kill small animals by itself.

    Avoiding medications and eating healthy as opposed to being OCD about germs, works for me.

  • Randal:

    In addition to not developing a robust immune response to genuine challenges, it seems that by trying to maintain an antiseptic environment, we become sensitized to perfectly natural antigens as well.

    JS

  • Jen W

    Hence why allergies to things like dust, pollen, and other outdoor “pathogens” exist.  Plus, I save money by not worrying about it (no hand soap, etc.).

  • I started working ambulances in 1975 and continued on through as a paramedic until the mid-1990s working both the “streets” and offshore. My work in the oil and gas industry has taken me to 14 different countries with a lot of my work being in Africa.

    While a paramedic I have been exposed to everything from active TB to HIV to Hep (all of them).

    I have, for the most part, shunned any vacinations, I don't take any medication (over the counter or otherwise) and I can, and will, eat damn near anything.

    And, I don't get sick!

    Like George Carlin said, how does my body develop an immunity to germs when it is never exposed to them? And (are you sitting down?) I don't wash my hands everytime I go to the bathroom. As George said, “only time I wash my hands after using the bathroom is when I shit on my hands and that happens tops, tops! Once, maybe twice a week”.

    I very much subscribe to the hygiene hypothesis concept.

    And regarding the overuse of antibiotics, my theory is that the overuse of antibiotics has done two things. Damaged the “good” bacteria in the bodies of most Americans and, put their own immunity system in neutral. Being bombarded with antibiotics has given a signal to the immunity systems of most Americans that it does not have to work, the calvary is here.

    I think this has all lead to the increase of not only autoimmune diseases but also cancers.

  • Randal:

    I suspect you're correct in large part.

    JS

  • Jen W

    I only “wash” my hands with water most of the time, hardly ever use soap.  This is also true of washing any dishes, I rarely use dish soap.

  • gina

    I would rather live on a farm or virgin islands than nasty America. We spit out our gum or vomit when we are drunk. That’s why Americans are germophobic since we are disgusting. 50 Years ago; we would not have treated the outside like a garabage can. Or a toilet! Germs of today are not the ones of yesterday!

  • Jen W

    I think it has more to do with antibiotic use and the poor gut health of most Americans than anything, gina.  Read Michael Pollen's New York Times article called “Some of My Best Friends are Gems”, it's all about how having healthy good microbes in our digestive track are vital to one's health. 

  • Gina:

    If American trash and hygiene makes you sick, I recommend not traveling to other countries! 

    And America is far cleaner than it was 50 years ago, when beer and soda still had pull tabs, no one recycled anything, the Clean Air Act didn't exist, and littering didn't carry a meaningful fine.

    Jen W:

    While I believe the current fashionability of the influence of gut flora is somewhat overstated (especially since we know almost nothing about what constitutes “good” flora vs. “bad” flora, or whether the relationships are causal or just associative), I agree that overuse of antibiotics, C-sections, baby formula vs. breastfeeding, and lack of exposure to natural soil bacteria are not good for our health.

    JS

  • Richard

    I wonder, how do those kinds of people have sex? Hilarious :)

  • Richard:

    My impression: under great duress and only when they really, really want children.  But I've avoided having any of them in my life long enough to find that out!

    JS

  • Skgr

    This is the first article I actually agree with :P

  • Skgr:

    If everyone in the world agreed on everything, it would be a boring place!

    JS

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