I have a confession to make: sometimes I defrost chicken on the counter. I also eat pizza or leftovers that have sat out overnight. I frequently give a perfunctory sniff to milk that is still in my fridge past the date on the carton, and if it doesn’t smell wrong I drink it. I don’t always wash fresh fruit and vegetables before eating them. If my cheese is moldy, I trim it off then eat the remaining cheese. I’ve ingested potato salad that has baked in the sun. I don’t use a thermometer to make sure my meat has reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees before I remove it from the grill or the oven, I drink water straight from the tap, and I never, ever, use antibacterial wipes to sanitize the handle of my grocery store shopping cart.
I believe we are doing ourselves a grave disservice with our obsession over cleanliness in this country. By now, most people have heard of the problems that have arisen from the misuse of antibiotics. We have bred superbugs by overprescribing antibiotics and overusing antibacterial products. This is natural selection, pure and simple: when you take antibiotics inappropriately, either by asking for them for illnesses that are not caused by bacteria (e.g. colds, flus, and other viruses) or by not taking the full course of medication for genuine bacterial infections, only the weak bugs get killed, and the strongest ones survive to pass on their DNA to the next generation. And, bacteria have very, very, very short generation times – as short as a few minutes in many cases (compare that to the human generation time of approximately 20 years). This scourge has been helped along by the proliferation of antibacterial household products – dish soap, laundry soap, cleaners, etc. – as well as a paranoid overabundance of hand sanitizers, antibacterial hand soap, and antibacterial wipes. I was stunned when handy popup dispensers of these wipes started appearing at the front of grocery cart stalls with friendly signs inviting shoppers to wipe down the cart handle. I was frustrated when I was unable to find non-antibacterial dish or hand soap at the store. And lately I have found myself furious at commercials that cluck disapprovingly at the fictional mom who uses *GASP* a dishrag to wipe her toddler’s high chair tray instead of a disposable, antibacterial towelette, or who fails to install a popup dispenser of disposable hand towels in her bathroom.
What the hell has happened to us? Well, other than breeding superbugs, we are also breeding a generation of weaker, sicklier children. New research is showing the vital importance of the bacterial colonies that live on and in our bodies, colonies that we change – sometimes irreversibly – through our misuse of antibacterial products. When we take antibiotics, we kill the healthy flora in our gut along with the illness-causing bacteria. When we constantly douse children with antibacterial gel, we don’t allow them the healthy exposure to bugs that they need to build a natural immunity. Ever wonder why seemingly mild illnesses can kill when they are brought into contact with populations that have never experienced them? It’s because they didn’t get that exposure as children. In fact, in parts of the Amazon it’s actually illegal for outsiders to try to contact indigenous tribes because they have no immunity to modern diseases. Vaccines operate on this basic, simple principle: limited exposure to a pathogen (viruses, in the case of vaccines) trains the body to recognize it the next time, and the body is already primed with the appropriate immune response. The same is true of early childhood exposure to bacteria and other pathogens and allergens. Increases in asthma and allergies in kids appears to be directly correlated with being too clean.
As far as I know, I have had food poisoning three times in my life. I’m sure there have been other instances but there’s only three that I can identify with absolute certainty. As far as I can tell, I have never gotten food poisoning from room-temperature defrosted or undercooked meat, unwashed produce, or countertop leftovers. I happily gnawed on the grocery-cart handle as a kid, and my mom never doused me with antibacterials. I haven’t always washed my hands before eating or even after using the bathroom. I have no allergies, no asthma, and a healthy, normally functioning immune system. I catch an occasional cold – maybe once a year – and haven’t had the flu since last century. Now, my experience is of course anecdotal, not scientific. But the research to show what our dependence on some mythical standard of cleanliness is doing to us is out there, and I think society as a whole would be wise to heed it. Yes, wash your hands, sneeze into your elbow, be aware of seasonal illnesses like the flu, and minimize your exposure to pathogens when possible, but be rational about it, and don’t be sucked in by the antibacterial panic.