Is Too Clean Carcinogenic?
The more we learn, the more we learn we’ve really learned nothing at all, at least when compared to all the secrets that still lie hidden.
For example, there’s this absolutely fascinating article in today’s L.A. Times, which reports that some scientists think humanity’s ongoing obsession with hyper-cleanliness and its ever increasing microbiophobia (fear of germs), as evidenced by exploding sales of anti-bacterial products, may be contributing to the increases in some kinds of cancer we’ve been seeing lately.
Simply put, several studies have found that people regularly exposed to large amounts of bacteria, like farm workers who work amidst lots of manure, have much lower rates of certain cancers than people who aren’t exposed to large amounts of bacteria, like farm workers who spend most of their time outside the barn.
It’s an intriguing idea and one that deserves a lot of scrutiny. If you’ve read the Non-Toxic Times or Naturally Clean, you know about the Hygiene Hypothesis, which essentially says that it’s most likely not such a great idea to live in a sterile environment because it could make your immune system fat and lazy. If there are no germs around to fight, our immune systems become sedentary, deactivated in a sense. When they finally do encounter something to fight they’ve become so soft and out-of-shape that they can’t respond effectively. Because they evolved in a dirty world, our immune systems need a certain amount of that world preserved in order to remain fit and trim.
It’s this idea that some researchers think is at least partially to blame for the alarming rise in asthma, allergies, and other immune problems in the western world. We’ve so sanitized our own homes and other personal environments that our immune systems no longer remember how to do their jobs. The result is illness.
And maybe cancer. After all scientists are already using bacteria to develop promising cancer treatment therapies. And it just makes sense that the work-out they give our immune systems could teach those systems how to beat at least some varieties of the disease.
The take-away from all this? Antibacterial products have no place in a healthy home. They do far more harm than good. In addition to the simple fact they’re made from unhealthy chemicals, they’re weakening our immune systems by creating overly sterile environments, polluting our soils and waters when we wash them away, and leading to the creation of so-called super-bugs, those antibiotic-resistant strains now currently scaring the bejesus out of the medical community.
Because when all is said and done, we all actually want a little bacteria around. Not streptococcus or E. coli, of course, but it’s important to remember that the vast majority of bacteria are harmless and that many are essential. In fact, if if weren’t for bacteria eating and digesting and producing useful wastes there would be no life whatsoever on our planet. They live on us and inside us. They are the tiny engines that make possible all the beauty that surrounds us. They are friends, and it’s time we stopped declaring such indiscriminate war on them, for we’re only declaring war on ourselves and the Earth when we do.
So if you’ve got any anti-bacterial anything at home, use it up and don’t buy any more. Check labels carefully when you shop. Antibacterial ingredients are everywhere these days—they’re even embedded in things like clothing and wallets.
Then read this wonderful essay from Orion magazine. It has much to teach about the intrinsic value of bacteria to our ecopsphere and about the precious perfect balance that is lost when they perish at our hands.