Why does everything in our culture turn into an extreme version of itself? A case in point is the current obsession with sterilizing and disinfecting every surface we touch. Marketers use fear, one of our most powerful emotions, to sell products — do you have bad breath/underarm stains/dry hair/not enough energy? Does your house smell? Are your windows spotty? Are your dishes spotty? Do you spend too much time pulling weeds?
The list of things we’re told we should be worried about is practically endless — no wonder everyone’s neurotic. But it’s the fear of contamination that’s really got everyone overreacting. The ads are sometimes hilarious — when’s the last time you smeared a chicken breast across your kitchen counter — and often make me shake my head.
Here’s the thing: how is anyone going to build up an immunity to microbes if they live in a sterile environment? I watched an interesting and enlightening television show quite a few years ago that focused on the polio epidemics which swept across from 1920 to the mid 1950s. Polio is a terrifying disease, but the interesting thing is that it wasn’t the poor unwashed people who contracted it — it was the wealthy families who wouldn’t let their children play in the dirt and were obsessed with cleanliness. The virus that causes polio has been around for centuries, and when kids played in the dirt they developed a natural resistance by constant exposure to small amounts. As soon as the middle and upper classes began to keep their children and their homes ultraclean, the natural immunity was lost. Read this article on the PBS website for more information.
When I was a kid in the 60s, children were back to romping around in the great outdoors for most of the day. We weren’t supposed to be in the house until supper time. We made mud pies out of real mud, and sometime ate a bit just because everything needed to be tasted at least once.
Now mothers are exhorted to sterilize every surface in the home, offices keep pump bottles of antibacterial wash on every desk, and now — god help us — even school and office supplies are being treated with antimicrobial compounds. I read this article from Rodale the other day about school supplies being coated in triclosan, an antibacterial compound that doesn’t just kill microbes, it enters the skin on contact. Governments are still looking into the long-term effects of being exposed to products like triclosan, but personally I feel that the fewer chemicals I absorb into my body the better. (And by the way, if you’re still a smoker, you should take a long, hard look at all the garbage you’re taking in every time you light one up.)
After reading the Rodale article, I didn’t have time to run out to the nearest office and school supply place to check the shelves, but a routine search through a catalogue for a new stapler brought me up short: the entire Swingline line of staplers, for example, appears to be treated with an “antimicrobial” agent.
This is a frightening trend. If the last craze for sterilizing everything we came into contact with resulted in a horrifying polio epidemic for over three decades, what will happen this time?