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too clean?
Some experts claim our obsession with cleanliness may be linked to an increase in allergic diseases. So how much germ protection do we need, asks Bonnie Vaughan


ith all the products on the market that promise to liberate us from the tyranny of germs, you would think our lives were under serious daily threat. Thanks to a staggering choice, we can arm ourselves with soaps, detergents, hand gels, toilet cleaners, air fresheners, surface sprays and wipes, bin liners, mouthwashes, toothpastes, cutting boards and toys that pledge to kill 99.9 per cent of harmful bacteria before it kills us. In the 21st century, it seems the simple act of combining soap, water and a little commonsense doesnt cut it anymore. But should it? As our obsession with ber-cleanliness has gained momentum over the last century, so has the number of autoimmune and allergic diseases. And many experts suspect this is no coincidence.

Why some bacteria is good for us

Back in 1989, British scientist David Strachan found a link between hayfever and family size, known as the hygiene hypothesis. He discovered that allergic disorders were less common in younger siblings of large families thanks to cross-infection in early childhood from brothers and sisters or from a mother infected by contact with her older children. This gave rise to the idea that childrens lack of exposure to germs and other infectious substances has led to underdeveloped immune systems. Fuelling this theory are additional studies showing that: children who grow up on farms with animals have lower rates of allergies and immune-related diseases than their urban counterparts; the use of antibiotics in the first year of life has been linked to asthma and other allergic diseases; and that the incidence of immunological disorders rises not only in children of immigrants who have moved West but also in those born into increasingly affluent third-world countries. Taken together, youve got some compelling reasons to consider that killing off every little microbe may be doing us more harm than good.



good versus bad germs

our bodies are alive with bacteria, playing host to billions of microorganisms, or normal flora, that function as a kind of microbial ecosystem. These microbes congregate on our skin and in our urinary tract, respiratory tract (mainly the nose) and, most predominantly, in our digestive tract (primarily the mouth and colon). Scientists are only beginning to understand the role they play. our immune system is intimately dependent on our normal flora, and the largest part of our immune system is in our gut, says paul A gatenby, professor of immunology at the Australian national university. Having normal gut flora, were now realising,

is absolutely pivotal to our overall health. There are no definitive conclusions yet on which bacteria are good, which are bad, or even where the safe-to-harmful threshold of exposure may lie. Researchers are still trying to figure that out including Barbara Fazekas de St groth, professor of immunology at Sydneys centenary institute. What we do know, she says, is that we and our gut bacteria have co-evolved to get the best possible outcome for all concerned. Theyre giving our immune system all kinds of info all the time, and we think that there is a normal flora that makes you healthy and which needs to be transmitted from person to person at birth and within the first couple of years of life.

How you can keep clean enough

Here, Professor Gatenby explains what you need to know
EmBRAcE SoAp AnD WATER you should always wash and dry your hands after going to the toilet, blowing your nose and before handling food especially when switching between raw and cooked. But using plain soap and hot water will suffice. youre killing your normal skin flora and encouraging dermatitis when you wash with antibacterial soap. Similarly, your kitchen and bathroom surfaces do not need to be disinfected. you should avoid chopping up vegetables on the same cutting board as raw meat, chicken or fish, for instance, but you dont need to go overboard. Simply wipe down the cutting board with hot soapy water and turn it over. REplAcE clEAning cloTHS FREquEnTly That goes for sponges and tea towels, too. When you wipe something down, you need to either rinse and dry out the cloth or get rid of it. Dont leave it scrunched up and wet its a nice environment for microbes to proliferate and its probably increasing your exposure. Skip THE ToilET clEAnER By all means scrub your toilet clean but forget about gels, blocks, bleach, foams or discs. you dont need to pour anything down your toilet other than what you use to clean it to remove all the particulate matter. As for all the bacteria in the bowl, there are two rules: close the lid before flushing to keep germs from becoming airborne, and dont drink the water in it. DiTcH THE mouTHWASH We need to be diligent about tooth decay and infectious gum disease, but using antimicrobial mouthwashes or toothpastes is not the way to go. good dental hygiene is as simple as removing food residue from your teeth. The physical action of brushing is often more important than the toothpaste. Abrasive fibrous foods such as carrots, celery and apples also help scour the teeth. And, of course, dont forget to floss. REDucE youR AnTiBioTic inTAkE over-prescribing of antibiotics has led to such widespread bacterial resistance that doctors are running out of effective antimicrobials to treat infections within hospitals. The vast majority of upper respiratory tract infections, such as

Why our use of antibacterial products is overkill

most experts agree that by clinging to the consumer wisdom that our hands, mouths, kitchens, bathrooms, furniture, floors, and even the air we breathe should be 99.9 per cent bacteria-free, we may well be wiping out all the good bugs along with the bad. gatenby insists that there is only one scenario for which the use of antiseptic or antibacterial products in the home is appropriate, and that is if youre having a small influenza epidemic within the family.


PhotograPhy gETTy imAgES

influenza and the common cold, are viral, and antibiotics do not kill viruses theyre effective only against bacteria. We shouldnt be using penicillin or derivatives to treat viral infections. All youre doing is altering your normal flora and breeding resistant bugs. Even if we avoid prescription antibiotics, we may still be ingesting them without even realising it. The Australian government exercises strict regulatory controls aimed at ensuring responsible antibiotic use in local animal-based food productionindustries.Thebiggerconcernisimportedseafood. Earlier this year, reports surfaced that the number of Asian fish

imports containing banned antibiotics is rising due to low levels of testing by the federal department. i would not eat any imported food meat, fish or vegetable. lET youR kiDS gET A liTTlE DiRTy i think its very important that children are exposed to a degree of microbial agents in the environment. Just make sure they wash their hands before eating. The most important thing is the removal of surface matter. if theyve been using the sandpit and you know the cat hasnt been using it as well, its probably not even necessary to do that.