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Eating Dirt, Embracing Germs

Eating Dirt, Embracing Germs

When my kids were toddlers, one of my old-time Brooklyn neighbors said that we all need to eat a pound of dirt during our lives, which sounded somehow right to me. After all, I was an avid grubber in my childhood backyard and gave my older sisters no end of disgusted delight when I would eat dirt-crumbed slugs. (I can only think I was channeling my French ancestors.) I’m sure I got my full pound of dirt in before the age of 3.

In the circle of moms I know, there are two types. There are the ones with the quick-draw, holstered hand-sanitizer and a zero-second rule for fallen snacks; and then there are the ones who with the two-second rule, or sometimes the three- or four-second rule, or heck, if no one’s looking, who cares how long the snack was on the floor–go ahead and eat it. It somehow feels wrong to let a kid pick something up off the ground and eat it, but why is it that so many kids instinctively put things in their mouths? Not just dropped crackers, but dirty twigs, germy toys, and slugs too! What could be the evolutionary advantage behind this instinct?

Well, in an article in The New York Times this week, reporter Jane E. Brody writes about the “hygiene hypothesis,” in which researchers are concluding that “the millions of bacteria, viruses and especially worms that enter the body along with ‘dirt’ spur the development of a healthy immune system.”

Mary Ruebush, a microbiology and immunology instructor, and author of the book, “Why Dirt Is Good” (Kaplan), says that when kids put things in their mouths, “Not only does it allow for “practice” of immune responses, which will be necessary for protection, but it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored.” She deplores the current fetish for the hundreds of antibacterial products that convey a false sense of security and may actually foster the development of antibiotic-resistant, disease-causing bacteria. Plain soap and water are all that are needed to become clean. “I certainly recommend washing your hands after using the bathroom, before eating, after changing a diaper, before and after handling food, and whenever they’re visibly soiled,” she wrote. When no running water is available and cleaning hands is essential, she suggests an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

It seems to me there has been such a wide swing of the spectrum–from the disease-thriving filth and squalor of centuries past to the obsession with cleanliness and hardcore hygiene that we see in industrialized countries today. Given the plagues and epidemics of our past it makes sense that we strive for sterile environments, but it looks possible that we’re swinging too far.  Part of me wonders how much of that is due to marketing. In 2008, Americans spent over $5 billion on household cleaning products–imagine how much of that money went right back into advertising departments to dream and scheme new ways to subtly scare people into really needing those germ-slaughtering scrubbing bubbles and disinfecting sprays and wipes. Not to mention anti-bacterial soaps and other triclosan products.

As far as I can tell, the solution seems to be, as is so often the case, moderation and common sense. Wash your hands with plain soap and hot water, don’t let your kids eat things that seem blatantly dangerous (slugs: OK–but stay away from anything that has had contact with pesticides or chemicals), and start working on that pound of dirt.

For more on hazardous anti-bacterial compounds, see The Trouble with Triclosan in your Soap.

Read more: General Health, Health, , , , , , , , , ,

By Melissa Breyer, Senior Editor

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Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer is a writer and editor with a background in sustainable living, specializing in food, science and design. She is the co-author of True Food (National Geographic) and has edited and written for regional and international books and periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine. Melissa lives in Brooklyn, NY.


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10:39AM PDT on Nov 4, 2011

What a refreshingly sensible article. far more useful than the other one I saw today on this iste about the 7 dirtiest surfaces and how we should use sanitisers and whatever so as not to get sick. We don't anyway! There is no epidemic of sickness amongst people who use parking meters and/or mailboxes, 2 of the horror items mentioned. People are certainly being frightened into buying unnecessary stuff.

12:30PM PDT on Jul 31, 2011

I was born with asthma AND allergies both of which fed into each other to do rapid take downs of my immune system. I agree with the article that it is important to build up immunity via exposure, but there are people out there that that are so compromised by default that it's not realistic to allow that.

I eventually grew out of most of my allergies, an asthma attacks happen rarely, but my health still greatly depends on regulation of what allergies I still have, and protection from germs.

5:43AM PDT on Jun 10, 2011

After reading this information, even though konteyner we have already dealt with
getting rid of most the plastic in our lives. Yet, I just thought about
something else. The fact that we have children giving birth to children.
These kabin cemicials mess with a young girls hormone and they become
physically a adult with hormones racing out of control and what does it
do to prefabrik villa our young boys.

10:23AM PDT on Nov 5, 2010

I always thought that the over use of anti-biotics was absurd in most cases, and teased my brother and father for carrying around bottles of hand-sanitizer because I heard that it'd be bad for the immune system to over use it. But I didn't know I was so right about it.

6:16PM PDT on Nov 2, 2010


1:08PM PDT on Aug 15, 2010

I agree that Americans are antibacterial crazy, but they are also very dirty. I've seen so many mothers changing a baby's diaper, then they leave the restroom without washing their hands. They have no common sense. They may not eat something that falls to the floor but they'll pick up their purse that was on the floor and place it on the table they're eating off of. The mops that the restaurant uses to "clean" the bathroom floors is the same mop they use to push around the filth in the dining areas. My father taught us from an early age to take off our shoes in the mud room before entering his house. It wasn't to keep the carpet clean but to keep the germs, feces, and whatever else from getting into the house. It may be a good thing to have some germs around so that our bodies can build up a resistance, but other germs can make us very sick.

12:18PM PDT on Aug 11, 2010

Grazie per l'articolo,e posso dire che sono pienamente d'accordo.Oggi noto una grande esagerazione per quanto riguarda l'igiene già dalla prima infanzia,e noto anche il dilagare di malattie della pelle e allergie.Bei tempi passati quando giocavamo con la terra per la strada e al massimo durante l'infanzia potevamo contrarre le solite malattie esantematiche.Quando per l'igiene personale esistevano pochi prodotti! Oggi con il consumismo abbiamo rovinato la nostra vita!

1:14AM PDT on Apr 1, 2010

thanks for the post

8:31AM PDT on Mar 28, 2010

thank you

9:56AM PDT on Jul 29, 2009

Love the article and the responses! Have seen an article come in email that questions how we all have managed to live to the age we are - we didn't have to come in till the streetlights came on, ate mudpies, played in dirt, drank Kool-aid (lots of poisonous sugar there!) or ate popsicles made from same, and the greatest horror of all: we drank water out of the end of the hose! There was no health insurance back then - and we didn't get sick that often! Almost makes one want to look back and then look at the overload of information on how "dangerous" all things are anymore and go, "well, duh!!" LOL

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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