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It's A Dirty World

by Stephen Lautens


May 11, 2001

I don't mind getting dirty.

Mind you, I'm not necessarily talking about the "down on all fours, catch a greased pig" kind of dirty, although there's no telling how far a person will go for a good time. What I'm talking about is the current obsession with killing germs.

Sure, there are bad germs - small pox, yellow fever, the boogie-woogie flu. No one wants to get them, and they are worthy of the attention of our brainiest medical people - people in white lab coats with clipboards, gauze masks and no social life.

But people are now trying to live completely germ-free lives. And they're being encouraged by companies all too happy to sell you a million different products that will kill microbes and viruses, no questions asked.

Soap is a good thing. There are a lot of people I stand beside on the bus who I wish were better acquainted with it. I've been tempted to hand out free samples. But then they came out with anti-bacterial soap, which is fine if you're a doctor and spend the day with your hands in someone else's insides. But for most of us without a clean hands fetish, good old soap and water works just fine.

Then there are the sprays and cleansers that kill everything on contact. My favourite commercial is a cat sliding across a kitchen counter and knocking over a bowl of raw chicken. If that's what goes on in your house, it doesn't matter what you use to clean with - sooner or later you're going to end up slipping on a drumstick (cat or chicken) and breaking your neck. But at least your hands will be nice and clean.

Just when they had most of us already living like Howard Hughes, someone came up with the idea of a new detergent just for washing your vegetables. It supposed to get the pesticides off regular food, and the bugs off organic stuff. I've never particularly minded pesticides. Hopefully they keep my innards mostly bug-free.

If I think of it, I'll give a lettuce leaf a rinse under the tap, or rub an apple on my shirt, but I have to admit it's mostly for show or to wash away the visible bugs. For some reason making people eat insects is considered gripping reality TV on shows like Survivor, but if the smallest gnat finds its way into your BLT it's a matter for the health department.

There's a new garage in my neighborhood that features - I kid you not - an anti-bacterial car wash. After all, you wouldn't want your Volvo to get cholera.

I suspect a lot of these products are sold to fretful moms and dads who want keep Sweetums from catching the Black Death from its food, forgetting that as soon as it gets outside the little darling likes nothing better than shoving fistfuls of topsoil into its mouth. 

At least that's the way it is with first children. When they drop a toy, parents carefully wipe it off with disinfectant before giving it back. With second and third-born kids, parents are happy to return it if there aren't any larger pieces of broken glass.

My wife's grandmother used to say, "you need your peck of dirt". I think she meant that life is dirty and a little won't kill you and might do you good. Scientists are now saying she probably was right. We've gone overboard with all these disinfectants and people are losing their natural resistance to ordinary germs.

So in the next big plague, don't be surprised if only the cars in my neighborhood survive.

© Stephen Lautens 2001

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