A Germaphobe’s Journey


I was brought up in a house where the smell of bleach was quite common.  As a family, we always used separate utensils for serving food and never shared drinks or ate off each other’s plates.  If a grape fell on the floor, it was discarded.  My mom put bleach in the dishwasher.  Mom still bleaches her dishes and whips out a bottle of Purell faster than a quickdraw gun fight in a western movie.

Over the years, my wife has been quick to point out how irrational it is that I won’t drink out of her water glass (or let her drink out of mine), but I will kiss her.

I do all of the cooking in my house.  I love to cook and was brought up valuing family meals with high quality food.  But, I think one of the reasons why I’ve always cooked for myself (and now my family) is because others’ cleanliness standards were below mine.

Over the past few years, I’ve experienced a transformation.  I’ve now boomeranged over to the Dark (dirty) Side.  I eat off my kids’ plates.  I eat stuff that’s fallen on the ground.  I share drinks.  I eat snacks that have been tainted with grubby kids’ fingers.  I eat my meat and seafood even more rare than before.  My eggs are now over VERY easy.

I no longer view germs as the enemy, or at least I no longer view them as intruders that my body can’t easily defeat.  Sure, bacteria is sometimes deadly, but my gut-feel risk analysis tells me I’ll be OK.

My defection has been more of a journey than an event.  It started years ago with a book I read called Eat, Drink, and Be Merry by Dr. Dean Edell.  The premise is that people need to relax more about the threat of germs and disease- worrying is actually bad for our health.   He provides data and examples of Americans’ hysteria over bacteria- and how the media and the medical profession has fueled this frenzy.  [For some very interesting excerpts, see below in the comments section.]

I was pushed further towards the Dark Side when, on a recent car trip, we were showing our kids the Cosmos series on the car TV.  In an episode called “One Voice In The Cosmic Fugue” Carl Sagan explains: due to billions of years of natural selection, life has thrived.  The human race and all organisms today represent 4 billion years of perfect evolutionary adaptation.  In a nutshell, I now trust and have confidence in my body’s immune system.

Last week, I received a timely and very interesting email from a customer:

Hi Scott,

I am typically on my own in the store and thus rarely have need of a restroom, but I used the one there for the first time last week. While I did note that the soap there is apparently “Triclosan free,” I question why MOMs is reinforcing the use of “antibacterial” soap at all? As a researcher and health and safety advocate, I’ve been frustrated by antibacterial products on the market now for more than a decade. You probably know that antibacterial soap, whether Triclosan or other, cleans no better than regular soap. While your store may be choosing a better and safer antibacterial product than that available in the mainstream, using harsh and dangerous endocrine disrupting chemicals like Triclosan and similar, I’d really like to see informed locations like MOMs… going further to actively educate their customer base about the choice.

The customer included several links about the harmful effects of antibacterial agents. NIH investigators found that triclosan impairs heart muscle function; the American Medical Association suggested in 2000 that use of anti-microbials be discontinued; an effort to ban triclosan was introduced to the American Public Health Association.  The Minnesota government won’t even buy antibacterial products anymore!

CleanWellIn MOM’s store bathrooms, we use hand soap with natural antibacterial thyme oil.  This soap is effective, safe and shows that there are alternatives to the harsh chemicals contained in many hand soaps.  While I don’t think it’s particularly necessary for our soap to be antibacterial (even if all-natural and Triclosan-free), I think this is a good compromise.

Thanks to this customer, soon there will be signs posted in all MOM’s bathrooms that urge people to think twice before using conventional antibacterials in their hand soap.

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11 Responses to A Germaphobe’s Journey

  1. Scott says:

    “Maybe people were better off, psychologically, before we learned that we share this planet with countless trillions of earthlings we cannot see. It is reasonable to fear infectious diseases. They can harm us, as I will discuss shortly. But we are more freaked out than we need to be. While in medical school, a microbiology professor horrified me with the notion that if every bit of our flesh, every atom and molecule, were suddenly to disappear, a perfect image of our bodies would remain, comprised of all the microorganisms that live in and on us. Immediately upon birth, a baby’s body is colonized by a vast jungle of tiny critters: bacteria, parasites, fungi, yeast, and viruses. The first invaders come from Mom and the rest from others who touch and breath on the baby. After a few weeks of life, a pattern of microorganisms is established that remains with us all our lives. Their names would fill pages and pages of this book” (240).

  2. Scott says:

    “Without doubt, germs can and do cause diseases. But please keep that truth in perspective. In 1920 the eight most serious disease groups were influenza, pneumonia, kidney disease, stomach disease, syphilis, diphtheria, whooping cough, and measles. Most are infectious diseases, and thanks to the era of miracle drugs and vaccines, these are not our biggest problems today. Antibiotics and vaccines heralded an era of better health and a new sense of security.
    We have been spoiled by our triumph. Now the media, among others, announce every little outbreak of any new bug, no matter what its significance or insignificance. They tend to make everything sound scary.
    Yes, an airplane has spread tuberculosis, in one very unusual circumstance, with a sick patient on an extremely long flight who transmitted the disease only to those sitting nearby. Yes, the wife of a pizza maker contracted yeast vaginitis from baker’s yeast. Yes, a shower transmitted Legionnaires’ disease at a hospital in South Dakota. Yes, an infant contracted meningitis from the family dog after the pooch licked his face. Yes, 11 percent of the soil in the backyards of private homes in Baltimore tested positive for live eggs of a dog worm that can infect children. Yes, public parks and sandboxes were worse. Yes, cats can pass toxoplasmosis to pregnant women, possible affecting the fetus.
    All true. But if all those germs are out there just waiting to get you, why aren’t you and everybody you know sick all the time? All these odd infections are rare, and there’s nothing you can do about most of them. They are random, and you stumble on them randomly. Your body adjusts to the presence of many other germs it encounters. For instance, half of you have already had toxoplasmosis, a parasite you probably caught from undercooked meat but that can also be passed to pregnant women by cats. You never knew you got it, and you probably never will. Meanwhile, are you going to stop breathing on an airplane? Quit eating pizza? Run away from household pets? (245)”

  3. Scott says:

    Manufacturers, ever sensitive to new markets and potentially profitable paranoia, constantly answer the call of our nonneeds. Who can blame them? One recent poll found that 96 percent of adults worry about bacteria and germs, up from 77 percent in 1995. And 86 percent have used an antibacterial product. The find-a-need-and-fill-it geniuses have responded with new inventions on which these germ phobics can waste their money. Hasbro, encouraged by sales of an antibacterial 1-2-3 High Chair, introduced a line of fifteen antibacterial toys for tots. These products are made from plastic bonded with antiseptic pellets. This material is antimold, antimildew, antifungus, and antibacterial and has been used in some surgical equipment. Now it is headed for use in athletic shoes, cutting boards, and carpeting.
    Antiseptic sheets, pillow cases, sprays, soaps, and lotions of all sorts jam supermarket and drugstore shelves. Half of all consumers will buy the antibacterial version of a cleanser, detergent, and soap when they make their selection. Antibacterial hand gels, most containing ethyl alcohol, are best-sellers, racking up as much as fifty million dollars in sales a year. “A consumer that used to think, ‘My hands are dirty,’ now thinks, ‘My hands are dirty because they came in contact with something,’” said an executive with Dial Corporation.
    One doctor, Stuart Levy, a researcher at Tufts University, has warned that these manufacturers are marking based on parents’ fears. He worries about the harm down the road caused by introducing bacterial resistance to these substances. It’s the same mistake made by overprescribing antibiotic. “Products, including cutting boards and other kitchenware impregnated with antibacterial chemicals, could be killing of weaker germs, [thus] helping to breed bacterial that cannot be eradicated by standard antibiotics,” he cautions” (246).

  4. Ellen says:

    I am so glad that Moms’ is open and working on all levels of the earths care – it bring awareness and solid information to Us (Joe Public) and the more information we have the better humans we can be – “its not easy being green” – but we must

  5. ET says:

    Bacteria are so pervasive that if you took away everything but the bacteria and had them remain in place, everything would retain its shape.

  6. Yea!! MOM’s! I think you are the BEST!

  7. Jan says:

    Bravo for common sense! I routinely see women exiting the restroom at work by only touching the door with a paper towel and/or their elbows. Many elect to press the handicap access button (while holding a paper towel), wasting electricity. They apparently think germs stop at the restroom door, as they dare to open the next door they encounter with their bare hands. Stop the insanity! These are not the germs that harm!

  8. Ellen says:

    Yeah Moms – We need our germs. I have to laugh. Being one of 6 kids and many relatives… we had more like a 5 minute rule if something hit the ground. We shared everything, and drank off each others glasses etc. My Mom being one of 11 didn’t think much about it.

  9. PaulZ says:

    Hey Jan I get your point. However, I’ve found it to be a question of questionable personal hygene of folks (guys) after they use a public bathroom. Some guys unfortunately, are unbeliveable sometimes when it comes to using the toilet, not so much a urinal but the toilet if you know what I mean. Again, “some” come out then just exit and don’t wrinse with even water alone. And soap, haha, forgetaboutit. That’s a problem for me. I have seen it so I know happens everyday. That’s the reason after I use soap and water then a paper towel I keep the paper towel and use it to grab the door handle to open the door. I then hold the door with my elbow and do a quick jump shot in to the trash. Not kidding and if it’s a blow drier instead of PT’s, I use my pinky to open the door and hope for the best. I’m certain using soap and water is better then not using it. But what about folks that don’t subscribe to the idea of good hygene? That’s how I deal with them. E coli bacterium is very dangerous.

  10. Scott says:

    I heard a humorous story once: There was a French guy standing at a urinal next to another guy (in the US). The French guy didn’t wash his hands when he was done and the other guy said- “You should wash your hands.” The French guy’s response was- “In France, we don’t pee on our hands when we use the bathroom.”

  11. It is an interesting point of view. I remember working in the dietary department at our local hospital when I was 18. They drilled in our head about washing our hand constantly. Obviously it makes sense we were deal with patients whose immune system was suppressed. It has translated to me being probably overly paranoid about teaching my children. Funny how our experiences when we are younger morph into over zealous behavior.

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