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KJ…Read it and Weep…

November 30, 2007

From Salon:

The filthy, stinking truth

The messy history of cleanliness, and why our obsession with dirt may be making us sick.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

From the article:

From teeth-whitening strips to hand sanitizer, why are Americans so obsessed with cleanliness today?

I think it’s a continuation of something that started with the Civil War, when the Americans had surprising success with this thing called the Sanitation Commission, which was headed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect of Central Park. It achieved an enormous success in limiting deaths just by washing the patients, their linen, the walls of their rooms. It drastically cut into the deaths by disease and infection.

Before the war Americans had been just as dirty as Europeans, and they came out of the war thinking cleanliness is democratic because it doesn’t cost much money. It’s progressive. It’s forward-looking. It has wonderful results. They quickly thought this is yet another way in which life in the New World is so much better than life in the Old World. The invention of modern sophisticated advertising, which began in America at the end of the 19th century, achieved an enormous success, often by advertising things like toilet soap and deodorant.

Advertisers want to find more parts of our bodies that we can clean and sanitize, and we’ve gotten less and less comfortable with ever smelling like a human body or having maybe ivory-colored teeth, or even cream-colored teeth — normal teeth colors. Our teeth were not meant to be paper white at all, as any dentist will tell you, but we’re kind of constantly upping the ante. We’ve gotten so far away from naturalness that it’s really over the top now.

But didn’t at least one doctor you interviewed argue that the most important thing for preventing disease in terms of cleanliness — hand washing — is actually one that many Americans do inadequately?

Yes. That’s a very good point. This was Dr. Germ, or Dr. Gerba, which is his real name. He has sent his researchers into public washrooms and found that only about 15 percent of people there actually wash long enough and with soap.

So much of our current interest in cleanliness is really about appearance and not ever smelling like a human being. If we smell like mangoes or vanilla and our face looks clean and our teeth are paper white, that’s good enough. But really the one seriously disease-preventing practice of hand washing is not done enough.

Does our obsession with cleanliness actually make us healthier?

No. Not at all. I think it’s making us sicker in the case of the hygiene hypothesis. It’s increasingly believed by a large number of doctors and scientists, who say that the fact that we’re not giving one of our immune systems enough dirt and germs to kind of flex its muscles on and get strong is allowing the other immune system, the one that gets allergies and asthma, to [take over].

It’s kind of like a teeter-totter: The one that works on dirt and bacteria has nothing to do, and so it becomes really unexercised, and it’s sort of on the ground of the teeter-totter. The other one is way in the air. Scientists couldn’t understand why we had these skyrocketing rates of asthma and allergies. Now the hypothesis is that we are oversanitized to the point of making our children sick.

Is there any health benefit to bathing every day, or is it more of a social convention?

It’s totally a social convention, according to the doctors I spoke with. They said it’s very important to wash below our wrists [i.e., hands], and the worst thing that could happen to you, if you suddenly became a 17th century person and never washed beyond your wrists, would be some skin conditions or fungal things. It’s no doubt comfortable to be clean. But there is no health benefit to washing above the wrists [i.e., the body] other than possibly preventing some fungal things.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 30, 2007 10:13 pm

    Americans’ obsession with “cleanliness” has probably killed most of he helpful bacteria in our systems. The “cleanest” people I know are also the sickest. Which came first?

  2. Nina permalink
    December 3, 2007 12:19 am

    Joy! At last my sloppy housekeeping is a virtue! I was raised in a spotless house where no pet ever set foot, and had asthma and multiple allergies. I now live with a number of dogs and cats and have fewer allergy problems (though the asthma won’t go away).

    I do think, though, that the rise in asthma may have more to do with the amount of pollution we are putting into the air.

  3. December 3, 2007 10:05 am

    Nina..I have to say, the same exact thought crossed my mind! LOL

    Twins that we are in this way…

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