How Clean Is Too Clean?

December 29, 2007 01:30 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Mounting evidence links the emergence of drug-resistant ‘super-bugs,’ and climbing rates of child allergies, to the hyper-cleanliness of modern environments.

"Germ-Fighting" Cleaners Gain Ground

American consumers spend billions of dollars each year on cleaning products that tout their ability to eradicate germs. Soap, mouthwash, household cleaners and myriad other products containing antibacterial compounds have quickly become staples in homes nationwide.

But “germ-fighters” have been show to make the environment less healthy. The cleaning agents are so prevalent that a growing number of bacterial strains are developing immunity to the antimicrobial chemicals used in cleansers. And the situation is much the same with antibiotic drugs.

The United States now uses 50 million pounds of antibiotics each year—up from 2 million pounds per year in the 1950s.

The use of low-level antibiotics often stops short of eradicating the more resistant bacteria, which subsequently grow and multiply in the absence of competing organisms.

Many scientists also attribute the rising rates of allergic disease to a lack of childhood exposure to once common microbes and bacteria.

According to a popular theory called the hygiene hypothesis, children need exposure to bacteria in order to develop healthy immune systems. The modern desire for household sterility prevents that from happening, and results in more allergies.

Although medical researchers and scientists are working on ways to combat these developments, much of the advice they offer involves a single premise: not all bacteria are bad, as Dr. Kent Sepkowitz wrote in Slate.

It would seem that moderation, even in cleanliness, is the key.

Background: The hygiene hypothesis, allergy treatments, and food-borne illnesses

Allergy treatments

In Sept. 2007, MSNBC published an article suggesting the hygiene hypothesis is a likely explanation for rising allergy rates: “More than 50 percent of Americans ages 6 to 59 years are sensitive to at least one allergen.” The article defines allergies as a “reaction by the body's immune system to foreign, yet generally innocuous, substances, including pollen, mold, animal dander, dust and certain foods that it deems harmful. If your immune system has never or rarely detected even the natural background level of such substances, it can go haywire when contact does occur.”

In 2000, Salon reported that two groups of scientists were researching whether the reintroduction of mycobacteria and certain parasitic worms into the human body could combat asthma and irritable bowel disease. Dr. Graham Rock, an immunologist at University College, London, hypothesizes that the inhalation or injection of mycobacteria—a family of bacteria species that live primarily in soil and fresh water—could prevent asthma attacks. Dr. Joel Weinstock, a parasitologist and director of the Center for Digestive Diseases at the University of Iowa, thinks that reintroducing specific types of formerly common intestinal worms—known as helminths—could help alleviate irritable bowel disease.

Food-borne illnesses

Dr. Kent Sepkowitz, an infection control consultant for St. Clare's Hospital and Health Center in New York, takes the hygiene hypothesis a step further by attributing food-borne illnesses to the sterility of modern environments. In Slate, Sepkowitz writes that “rather than trying to make our food and water even cleaner, we should focus instead on making sure it’s dirty enough to assure our good health ... Our centuries-long program of winnowing out all the muck has turned us into sissies and withered the substantial part of the immune system mediated by our intestinal tract.”

In a 2006 article titled “Don’t Panic Over Spinach,” Reason Magazine refutes the suggestion that food poisoning in the United States is a growing problem resulting from hyper-cleanliness. The article contextualizes the outbreaks of recent history by pointing out that since 1900 the number of food-poisoning-related deaths has decreased from 142.7 deaths per 100,000 people to 1.4 deaths per 100,000 people.

The article refutes the claims that outbreaks of food-borne illnesses are the result of “factory farming” techniques. Instead the decline of small family farms and the resultant rise of regional grocery chains and industrial food processors have improved food safety standards by creating more easily regulated, centralized food production and distribution systems.

Historical Context: The evolution of sanitation

Although some argue that the quest for cleanliness is reaching unhealthy proportions, the adoption of sanitation standards has been an indispensable part of modern development. Although the move towards modern sanitary practices began with the Sanitary Awakening of England in the late 18th century, it was not until the early 20th century that living conditions in urban U.S. areas reached what would be considered “healthy” levels. Modern Drug Discovery—a publication of the American Chemical Society—provides a history of the Sanitary Movement.

Analysis: The war on bacteria

Live Science columnist Christopher Wanjek derides the “war on bacteria,” noting that not only is the public becoming more susceptible to allergens, but that “ridding ourselves of bacteria is a hopeless endeavor. Bacteria outnumber human cells in your body 10 to 1 … The entire digestive tract is lined with bacteria, from top to, uh, bottom. These bacteria work with the body's own chemicals in breaking down food, converting it to useful vitamins and minerals, and making sure the intestinal walls can absorb the nutrients for the bloodstream to circulate.”

Reference Material: When to take antibiotics

Related Topics: The rise of MRSA and the impact of sterility on pets

A deadly infection resistant to common types of antibiotics has recently made its way out of hospital rooms and into the broader community. The number of deaths attributed to the staph bacteria MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) rose sharply in 2007, and some wonder if the prevalent use of antibiotics and antiseptics is to blame.

In addition to being potentially harmful to people, sterile environments can also impair the neurological development of pets, Wisconsin Public Radio reported in 2007. Researchers have found that rats raised in sterile, unvarying environments lack important neurological connections between brain cells (called dendritic branching).

In Oct. 2008, researchers discovered new anti-bacterial compounds that could help in the fight against drug-resistant pathogens such as tuberculosis strains. Scientists hope that naturally occurring anti-bacterial compounds can help produce new antibiotics to combat drug-resistant strains of illnesses.

The researchers published their findings in the journal Cell on Thursday. The breakthrough is very important at a time when traditional antibiotics are becoming less effective against certain pathogens. Currently, “bacteria-borne diseases” are responsible for about one-quarter of all deaths in the world.

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